Instinct’s Design

Trust your instincts. There is no other choice.

What is irrational for the individual can be rational for the group, and vice versa.

And whether an entity constitutes a group or an individual is just as much a matter of perspective.

Emotions help us navigate that bizarrely continuous boundary.

They guide us through the narrow gates.

They are the fragments of each other that we all carry within us.

They are the golden codes chiseled into our hearts by the sharpened edge of chance and necessity.

When they resolve to speak, emotions whisper in our ear with hidden truths from long forgotten worlds.


“Instinctive virtue is the most beautiful and sublime.” — Mauritz Schlick

From Algorithms to Live By, by Christian and Griffiths:

Emotion, for the bitter, retaliatory consumer and for the convenience-store hero alike, is our own species taking over the controls for a minute. “Morality is herd instinct in the individual,” wrote Nietzsche. Paraphrasing slightly, we might hazard that emotion is mechanism design in the species. Precisely because feelings are involuntary, they enable contracts that need no outside enforcement. Revenge almost never works out in favor of the one who seeks it, and yet someone who will respond with “irrational” vehemence to being taken advantage of is for that very reason more likely to get a fair deal. As Cornell economist Robert Frank puts it, “If people expect us to respond irrationally to the theft of our property, we will seldom need to, because it will not be in their interests to steal it. Being predisposed to respond irrationally serves much better here than being guided only by material self-interest.”

Whether you build your system from a basis of reason or from one of emotion, you will eventually conclude that the other is equally necessary.

Reason is an inevitable extension of emotion in that it’s a necessary toolkit for binding survival strategies in adversarial, game-theoretic contexts.

Emotion is an inevitable extension of reason in that it’s necessary toolkit for binding cooperation agreements in adversarial, game-theoretic contexts.

Cooperation is built on survival. Survival is built on cooperation.

Oliver R. Goodenough, Institutions, Emotions and Law: A Goldilocks Problem for Mechanism Design. Vermont Law Review, Volume 33, 2009.

What is special about humans in this context is the recruitment of that set of strong reactions we call emotion into a more complex and generalized tool-kit of commitment strategies. This complexity can, in turn, support a variety of deeply-held values and moral sentiments, ranging from trustworthiness and promise-keeping to a taste and a respect for both fairness and punishment (Goodenough 2008).

This approach can shed light on other concerns of moral theory, most notably the separation of emotion and reason as normative frameworks (Frank 2008). It is exactly because a commitment may be costly that it is effective in inducing the other party or parties to come into the game; and it is exactly when the commitment is going to be costly that we are most tempted by “rationality” to chuck the whole thing over the side and head for the exists, hopefully absconding with as much of the potential mutual benefit us as we can carry.

In the anticipation of such temptation, how is the reliability of an emotion-based commitment to be maintained? To be credible, subjective values and internal morality need to be armored against the blandishments of rationality (…). In this light, the often noted opacity of moral sentiments to the processes of reason (Hume 1739/40, Kelsen 1992) can be seen as a kind of mental fire-wall helping to preserve the effectiveness of the passions as guarantors of behavior. This fire-wall manifests itself in explicit discussions of normative philosophy through assertions of the “naturalistic fallacy.” The “is/ought” distinction is not so much a fact of the external world as it is an extremely useful separation in our modes of thought, a separation that opens up a set of strategic options that would be unavailable to a purely “rational” creature.

As this brief discussion suggests, approaching moral cognition from the starting point of mechanism and institutional design provides a useful new framework for investigating old questions and for developing a program to investigate the instantiation of such mechanisms in the physical basis of thought.

But how effective are these mechanisms? How complete? The human intuitive tool-kit is remarkable compared with most other species, but it is not effective enough or comprehensive enough to do the whole job of mechanism building. Our emotionally-rooted moral systems, in their application both to ourselves and to other parties, are susceptible to gaps and failures. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, humans often run too hot. In the realm of punishment, for instance, a recent experiment by Dreber, Rand et al. (2008) suggests that in a two player context, the use of direct punishment against defection is less likely to prompt a return to cooperation than it is to provoke a retaliatory punishment. Such a spiral of escalating punishment is all too familiar, whether in experiments in the lab, in literary contexts such as the Capulets and Montagues of Romeo and Juliet, or in real-life conflicts in hot spots around the world.

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