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Living With Moral Nihilism

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Rebuilding a value system on top of self interest

If you accept moral nihilism, you no longer have a clear guide to how you should behave. Of course the goal for an egoist is something along the lines of: "fulfill your desires as much as possible" (unless you are a hedonist – also on what timeframe, does your future self count? damn, even egoism isn't simple).

Luckily I think that many of the heuristics and intuitions you used to use before becoming an egoist can still be used now. How convinient! It is almost as if most people are already egoistical and altruistic behaviour is mostly signalling.

People we love

One of my desires is for my loved ones to live a happy life. This aligns nicely with 'common sense morality'. In both cases I may sacrifice my own desires to fulfill those of a loved one, because this best fulfills my second order desire: making them happy. I might even sacrifice all future potential desire-fulfillment (sacrifice my life) if this allows me to save that of a loved on. This all makes perfect sense within egoism.

This is why we might sacrifice for

  • Our family
  • People like us
  • Our future self (interesting one)
  • A circle of people around us (the diameter may depend on the person)

This last one is on the edge, and could easily fall over into doing something because we feel we should, because it is right, for a higher purpose.

We are built to be happier living a virtuous life

The stoic 'good life'

The stoics believe that a good life is a virtuous one. What is virtue? You'll know it when you see it. Their conclusions are valid even if we do not try to link them to morality: Being virtuous (you know what I mean) will best allow you to live a good (happy, eudamonic) life. See Responsability gives meaning.

One example might be deciding to purposefully deprive yourself of a pleasure, by fasting, cutting out certain foods, making yourself purposefully uncomfortable, etc. Short term, this clearly does not best fulfill your desires, however long term it might help make you a more resillient person.

Biology rewards us for being nice (feels good)

Empaphy and pity prevent us being cruel (but not in all cases)

It pays to be nice

Playing in an iterated game

Many aspects of life can be modeled as an iterated prisoner's dilemna. Every time you are faced with a choice between going out of your way to help another and just doing what is best for yourself, you are choosing between defecting and cooperating in that round of the game.

For a repeated game, where the players will tend to meet multiple times, and there is no fixed number of rounds (and some other caveats), 'nice' strategies do well. That is, cooperate by default. If you try and get the better over others in small ways, they will be less likely to cooperate, and everyone looses out.

This is true even if you do meet many people who defect on the first round. As long as you are able to find and repeatedly interact with cooperators, then you will still come out far ahead by defaulting to nice behaviour. The main reason this does not apply is if there is low probability of future games. This is why people in cities are more likely to be rude, there are many people and you are unlikely to see the same person multiple times. In small communities you are playing a long term game, and therefore incentivised to be nice (cooperate by default).

This may cause us worry about many things, including the internet.

See The evolution of cooperation

Reputation and lying

Your reputation is one aspect of the game. You don't only need to play as a 'nice' player, you also need for others to know of you as such, so that they are more likely to cooperate by default with you.

This goes for retribution and forgiveness as well. Your reputation should be for someone who is nice by default, but who will take retribution if attacked. Despite this, you would probably do well to forgive if shown cooperation once retribution is complete – but without letting people find out, so you keep your reputation.

Where does this leave us? How should we live?

The conventional wisdom seems to be correct again. For the most part, living according to 'common sense morality' is about right.

  • Cooperation by default
  • Unless you gain more (long term) in defection (ie. will not be found out, last round of the game, unlikely to be a new round with the same person in future, huge payoff, to avoid a huge downside)
  • Except, you need to be careful of your reputation
  • And, you are probably better off living virtuously (being nice even when it is not directly beneficial to yourself)

Essentially, live a life that would make people describe your character as "He's fair, patient and rational. He is nice and always pays back favours and loans. He always expects the best from people, but will protect himself and not give a second chance if they do not repay his charity."

This does not get you to utilitarianism

There is the temptation to push this argument all the way to justifying utilitarianism (or the moral system of your choice). I do not think this works. There are many cases where the best way to pursue your own self-interest also helps fulfill other people's desires, however there are also many cases where the two conflict, and when this happens an egoist will chose their desires over anyone else's.

There could be an agent who's very strongest desire was to raise the total utility of the universe (I could believe that some of the EA folks are wired in this way), but they are the exception not the norm.

Instead it suggests that common-sense morality is just a set of heuristics (evolved and passed down via culture) that help us thrive in groups.

This does not allow us to say that common-sense morality is objectively good, that would require standing outside of our evolved values somehow. To say that love, friendship, reciprocity and other evolved values are 'good' is tautological. We only believe that they are good because those are values we already hold.

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Last modified 2019-08-16 Fri 16:27. Contact max@maxjmartin.com