Thursday, April 23, 2009

Prediction and Moral Principles

Political afiliations are very similar to religious ones, in the sense that there is substantial doublethink, which leads to double standards. Action X is bad if your side does it, but okay if my side does. Or if my side does it, at least it was for a good reason; or if my side does it, it's called a different thing; or, this discussion makes me uncomfortable and I refuse to talk about it, and how dare you be so confrontational as to insist on a single standard for everyone (most common approach). Most of us outside hunter-gatherer villages understand that moral principles are independent of your connection to the person undertaking a specific action. An act is right or wrong, regardless of whether it's your friend or enemy who does it.

Moral principles are like theories in that their usefulness relies on their acommodation of new information, not just how exactly they account for the past. In 2008 I won my office pool for the NCAA basketball tournament, basing my win-loss predictions on data from the season. Turns out I was just lucky, and my little statistical model this year left me with a 60% track record compared to my 94% last year. Of course, I could always keep massaging the data to come up with ugly, clunky statistical models that could spit out the exact outcome of every game played up until that point, but was that meaningful? No! They never successfully predicted the next round. It's the same as writing a chess program that can avoid the losing moves in matches that were already played. It's the next game that counts.

I don't know what the statistics term is for this insistence on reproducing the exact irregularities of all past data, but the equivalent in morality is called hypocrisy. Moral principles fall apart the same way as theories when they're used for identity-based ex-post-facto justification. It's very frustrating to watch people insisting (probably without being aware of it) that X is okay, because their in-group did it, and criticize someone else's group (athletic, political, religious, etc.) for doing the same thing. This works only because they subconsciously adjust their apparently very wishy-washy moral principles based on who did it, not what they did.

But what about hypothetical future acts? For "team-player" morality, hypothetical questions can't be answered because you don't know who did it. But what about something that really did happen, and you don't know who did it? This is where the blinded moral taste-test comes in handy. It works for politics: make a list of laws and policy decisions made by a few different politicians, some which the test-taker likes, some which s/he doesn't. Don't include names of executives or legislators next to them - and ask people to check "good" or "bad" for each. Hey, if you believe in such a thing as right and wrong, what's the problem?

The most fun moral taste test is of course, with sacred texts - assuming scriptures are a source of morality in the first place. Pick up a Bible and a Qu'ran, pick out verses at random for a Christian or Muslim friends, and remove any identifying names and ask if the verse is good or bad. Yes, this will make your friends squirm, and many people will flatly refuse to do it at all because they realize the implications of their being unable to pick which verses are the "good" ones. It means that the text is not the source of their morality, and/or that they don't behave according to moral principle. They just play for the team; whatever the team does is right. If they were in your office pool, these people would demand to see the winners of the games that they were betting on.

All of us humans have this tendency. I try to get it out of my system by going to sports games and amusing myself by yelling at the refs for any call that goes against my team, no matter how blatant the violation was. Then again, my team is Penn State, which really is morally perfect. But in all seriousness, we're talking about something more important than sports - we're talking about the principles according to which we live our lives. We owe it to ourselves as human beings to be consistent.

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