Sunday, November 05, 2017

Objective Morality and the Narcissist

Awhile back, I was introducing a short series on reasons why I believe the concept of morality (a right way to treat each other) is intrinsic to our existence, and why I believe morality has an objective foundation in the value of life itself.

In the comments section, Kevin -- one of the neighboring bloggers who knows how to have a good conversation -- brought up a counter-argument that he'd seen. I'll post parts of it here for reference; if you'd like to see what else is in the longer version, that's in the comments to the post mentioned earlier.
There is only one question pertinent to the discussion of intrinsic morality: Do you believe everyone else's life is as valuable as your own? When we're born, the answer is simply no. ... We're all born narcissists. ... The one question, though, we must answer before we can talk about intrinsic morality is, "Is my pain more important to me than anyone else's?" If the answer is no, then all morality is intrinsic and we need no laws. If the answer is yes, no morality is intrinsic and every law is a tool to give the weak a fighting chance in this dog-eat-dog world. 
It's interesting how deeply we disagree from square 1. In this view, there is "only one question pertinent"; on my view, I'm not sure it's a relevant question. I don't think my life should be as important to you as yours is to you; I don't think my children's lives will ever be as important to you as your children's lives are to you, and I don't think they should be. To make sure my point is plain: I think it is right that you value yourself and your family more than you value acquaintances or strangers. It doesn't make you immoral, it means you have skin in the game. (We'll be back to a related point on that before we're done with this post.) For now, the opening point is that there is a self-care and self-responsibility that, far from being immoral, is actually our job. I don't expect my life to be as important to you as it is to me; but I do expect you to have it cross your mind that my life is as important to me as yours is to you.
... [Early childhood development] The world exists to help and hurt me. People exist to feed and train me. Everything is my toy or my obstacle ... Along the way those pains may open our eyes and we may begin to figure out that other peoples' hurts are as important as our own. If this happens, we may become caring people in place of our native narcissism.
You may know that I belong to a support group for people who were raised by addicts. I know some clinically diagnosed narcissists. I come from the opposite end of the spectrum, those of us raised with so much neglect that we have trouble developing a sense of self. On this end of the spectrum, far from thinking that everyone else exists to serve our wants, we have made ourselves nearly incapable of recognizing our own wants, and dissociate ourselves from the awareness of wanting or feeling in general. There's a lot of dysfunction in the world, but it's not one-size-fits-all. Recognizing both our own humanity and others' humanity are normal stages in healthy human development. I'll grant you that there are plenty of us who miss those normal stages of healthy human development, but I wouldn't want to argue from a narcissist to the lack of real morality, any more than I'd want to argue from a blind man to the lack of real sight.

The picture painted above, viewpoint of the narcissistic child, is very ... zombie-chic, with a post-apocalyptic feel. It ignores every redeeming human experience. In this omni-bleak world, nobody has ever curled up next to another for warmth, or shared a clean laugh, or traded stories over a cup of coffee. No one has ever basked in a moment with the kids, or enjoyed working with a friend on a project, or high-fived each other over a shared success. No one has ever shared a genuine human connection and enjoyed it for its own sake. Our narcissistic child never met up with love, or the desire for meaningful companionship. Even some deeply dysfunctional childhoods have more warmth than that, every now and then. (I've heard it said that narcissists don't have relationships, they take hostages. That's not a meaningful relationship. Think Beauty and the Beast as a tale of someone outgrowing his narcissism to become human. And "human" is defined in terms of being able to enter a meaningful relationship: when the beast understands that -- apart from whether the other person is useful to him -- the other person is valuable in a way that is worthy of celebrating, and that there is pleasure in valuing someone else's goodness.)
Is my pain more important to me than anyone else's?
Perspective. If I hold up a quarter just so, it can block out the sun. I've been in enough pain that it has blocked out the sun. We are finite, and the number of other people is (for practical purposes) infinite compared to us. So I believe that your pain should be important to you, as mine should be to me -- not in a way that is heartless towards others, but in a self-compassionate way that prevents "morality" from being an excuse for being heartless towards ourselves by losing us in a sea of other people that we haven't even met and don't even know.

Does it threaten morality that the speck in my eye -- or quarter, if you'd rather -- blocks out the sun? Well, it certainly carries a risk ... not only because some people are narcissists and sociopaths, but because we're all capable of being overwhelmed by our own pain (or desire or anger or ego etc), and because what's close to us will always look larger than what's at a distance.
... every law is a tool to give the weak a fighting chance in this dog-eat-dog world ... 
Let's go with that as a premise. That means, whenever a society adopts laws, it means we want to give the weak a fighting chance. We want a level playing field, and hope for the weak, and people signed up to advocate for them and give them that fighting chance. We have a streak of decency in us. The zombies haven't won.

Do not do to others what you would not have done to you. - Confucius
Do unto others what you would have them do to you. - Jesus
What if it's healthy when we are infants that we start with just our own perspective? What if that's just the limit of our mind at that point? What if healthy development, and healthy morality, leverages that perspective -- not in a way that makes us lose connection with ourselves, but in a way that makes us gain a connection others?


Martin LaBar said...

Interesting reading, as always.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you. Hope you are well.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Kevin Knox said...

Hey, WF!

It's been too long with no answer, so I wanted to let you know how much I appreciated yours. It's well written and well thought. Thank you.

Life has been mile-a-minute, and I've been thinking over the things you said from a number of angles. In the end, my thoughts are so in-flight, they're changing too often to post anything at all. Your thoughts on children were most helpful. You gave me a whole new perspective on the 12 year old Jesus as he seemed to ignore his parents in complete innocence. Very cool.

I think we missed each other in a couple other places, but that's part of life.

Thank you, again, for taking time to help push my thinking along!


Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Kevin

Good to see you again.

I think if I were to put it the short way, I'd say morality has an objective basis that is, in our early development, over our heads. Like trigonometry has an objective basis but it goes to show that "objective" and "intrinsic to reality" aren't the same as "intuitive" or "instinctive".

Which leads to the implication: I'm more interested in whether someone's personal code, or religion, or legal system recognizes each life as having the same value. Wherever and whenever that answer is "no", the system is leveraged against whoever is holding the short end of the stick. Not all moral systems are compatible.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Kevin Knox said...

> I'm more interested in whether someone's personal code, or religion, or legal system recognizes each life as having the same value.

That makes sense, and I never really meant to argue with it. My point, though, might be that all morality is local and cultural. Love is universal and consistent. All morality is partially derived from love, so all morality is akin to universal, but it's not exactly universal. Morality adds something to love, and usually a mixture of neutral and awful things. Think of the Victorians, the church in Geneva, and modern Fundamentalists. (I'm partial to the Puritans, so we'll not think of them).

I expressed my point in the negative, because I believe general narcissism, as opposed to the clinical variety, is the most perfect opposite of love. I do understand your recoil from that perspective, but the narcissism was never my point. Re-expressed in the positive, anyone who loves fulfills all good morality. Any morality that tries to fill that gap for those who don't love will fall short or go too far, but we all can and do love, so we all get the "spirit of the law". I have to agree it's better to have a good morality trying to fill that gap than not, but morality is going to leak loop holes and have weak walls to begin with.

Of course, you're really asking about morality toward enemies and "others". Christians know they should love "the least of these", and you're arguing people of other or no faith also feel a universal compulsion to treat all well. I'd say it all comes down to whether they let themselves dehumanize those others. If a people accepts a group as human, they'll accept the language of love toward them. If that people arrogates themselves, they'll come up with a morality allowing them to mistreat those others as they wish. You need go no further than the American South to find a deep morality that treated others horribly without remorse.

I'm not against the idea of a universal something we all feel, but I believe 1) many people successfully quiet that annoying feeling by seeing others as less human, and 2) the universal thing is love, not morality.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Kevin

Hope you and yours had a happy Thanksgiving.

I think the word "morality" has baggage (and with reason, as you mentioned). In the mini-series there I'm more advancing the case that the idea of right and wrong ("basis of morality") is intrinsic to our awareness of our own situation. The human condition calls for relationship and compassion.

The reason I'm putting it in that language is to build a bridge to the non-religious, including some atheists who deny the existence of "love". If "love" were as easy to define to an atheist -- and as present on the atheist mind -- as the fact that we all die, I'd have likely started there. When you say "the universal thing is love", I'd agree and say that basically that is morality. To the existential angst of an atheist, as they go full-on dramatic about how overwhelmed they feel in the face of evil and impending death, they are at times hostile to the idea of "love" but can hear it in language that we're all in the same boat and they're not alone.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Kevin Knox said...

We think very differently, but I'm glad you have a clear purpose. May your thoughts flow smoothly!

I have to throw this random thought out to you, because of all my friends, you're most likely to find some interest in it. With the huge splash of Alpha Go, and Alpha Go Zero, the AI world is pushing into plain view. It's hard to imagine any task the AI process can't improve upon, usually dramatically.

I have one.

Any AI computer can be taught to follow the Platinum Rule, but I don't believe one will ever be able to follow the Golden Rule. (

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Kevin

Fwiw -- context and all that -- I'm of the school that believes that the Golden Rule is self-correcting, that it already takes into account variations in other peoples' wishes because we would want others to consider ours. It was never correctly interpreted as a license for self-projection. So IMO the Golden Rule covers the Platinum Rule but gives us a starting point for people we don't already know, which the Platinum Rule lacks. Love, with depth of knowledge over time, becomes more caring, more sensitive, more fine-tuned to the other person. I see the Platinum Rule as just an applied case of the Golden Rule in which the other person's wishes are known.

But back to the Turing Children. As I sketch out coding routines in my head for how to implement the one v. the other, to me the first question is: Can a computer have enough sense of "self" to be able to extrapolate from it; the second is: if they could, would that sense of self be a useful guide when applied to another type of creature like humans or would it only be useful when applied to other computers/machine intelligences? ... If we wanted the computers' ethics to apply to humans, and if it would need to understand "self" to do that, I expect it is more likely that the computer would start by looking at peoples' sense of self, and extrapolate its own sense of self from that. That is: because computer "minds" aren't naturally occurring phenomena but are constructed to both model and extend what we can do, they might come to a sense of self the other way around, and gain a sense of self in a similar way to how they gained their intelligence, incrementally from applying things known and learned. I wonder could they extend it. Pure sci-fi here at the moment but imagine if their efforts were channeled down paths that lead that direction, if they might come to have surpassing insights into human desires, the quest for beauty and holiness and meaning.

My first paragraph -- the Platinum Rule as another name for how the Golden Rule naturally applies in cases where we know the other person's wants -- comes back into the mix here with respect to the AI entities. If they can gather information on other peoples' wishes and hopes and dreams, then they have the ability to "do unto others" there without a sense of self, and (possibly) extrapolate a sense of self based on that. So as a reality check, at this point it still remains to be seen if "motivation" and "sense of self" are going to be accessible to machine intelligence, and how much of that depends on having skin in the game.

How's that for a flight of fancy?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF