Why it works

This section, “Why it works”, is my explanation of my claim of overriding cultural utility for Altruistic Cooperation morality. By “overriding cultural utility”, I mean why I think it is the most useful available defining principle for culturally enforced moral standards. Here utility is judged by how well these enforced moral standards meet people’s common needs and preferences.

First, let’s size up the available secular competition. (Religious moralities are a separate category I address here.) Consistent with the present general confusion and lack of consensus in the world on moral matters, the available contenders appear weak.

Compact moral principles that have suggested for this role of defining enforced cultural norms include “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, versions of Utilitarianism (such as act to most increase the happiness of the most people), Kant’s categorical imperatives (such as act only as consistent with rules you would advocate to be universal), “maximize universal agency” (maximize the freedom and ability of all people to act and accomplish goals as they think best), and egoism (such as act only in ways that you expect will increase your personal well-being).

But these compact definitions of morality are not the only alternatives. Alphabet soup collections of moral claims such as “Whatever one’s culture defines as moral” are obviously culturally useful and “The sum of mainstream moral philosophy throughout the ages” might be advocated as the most culturally useful foundation for choosing what moral standards will be enforced. (Note that my definition of cultural utility is utility in choosing which norms will be enforced in a culture.)

Many readers are likely to be as familiar as I am with the shortcomings of the above candidates.

But briefly, some, like the Golden Rule, are inadequate as ultimate arbiters. For example, is it really a moral requirement to always act according to the Golden Rule when dealing with criminals and in time of war? Some lack generally accepted rational justification for accepting their burdens (Utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperatives). Some, such as egoism, emphasize a point of view that is unlikely to meet the needs and preferences of mentally normal people, because, as social animals, these needs and preferences have evolved in large part to motivate altruistic cooperation in groups. And some, such as the semi-random collections of moral claims from different cultures or as have been generated by mainstream moral philosophy through the ages, are incapable of providing a rational basis for resolving disputes about what is moral and justifications for accepting morality’s burdens.

In contrast, “Altruistic acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral” captures, as empirical fact (link), the universal core of social morality. It is not a fallible heuristic for morality such as the Golden Rule, “preserve life”, “act charitably toward all”, or the product of some philosopher’s ponderings about “What is good?” or “What are our obligations?” which, in all likelihood, have no objective answers.

So the competition is not impressive. But Altruistic Cooperation morality is not just marginally better than these alternatives.  None of them are even remotely competitive as instrumental choices for cultural moralities.

The principle attractive aspects of Altruistic Cooperation’s definition of morality include the following:

1) Acting morally is a means of increasing benefits, in particular psychological benefits, not just a source of burdensome obligations.
2) Accepting its burdens is uniquely able to elicit positive moral emotions and our experience of durable well-being (durable happiness) because the biology that produces these emotions was selected for in our ancestors as the chief means of motivating cooperation in groups,
3) Matching existing moral intuitions (except when those intuitions favor the Dark Side of morality – exploitation of other groups) better than any alternative, and
4) It is objectively true in the maximum possible sense, meaning it is not just independent of culture, but independent of species, and even independent of biology (choosing culturally enforced norms according to it would likely be a reasonable choice even for hypothetical societies of intelligent computers).
5) It leaves undefined, for the most part, what benefits of cooperation people should seek, thus avoiding the troublesome problem of trying to define what is good. The only limit on what benefits can be morally sought is that, to be logically consistent, “It is immoral to seek benefits that decrease the future benefits of cooperation”.

How attractive Altruistic Cooperation is, is key to its cultural utility. Its cultural utility can be rationally justified only as an instrumental ought. For example, perhaps “If you desire to increase your durable well-being, then based on facts about human psychology and from game theory, you ought (instrumental) to accept, almost always, the burdens of Altruistic Cooperation morality”.

Of course, some moral philosopher may someday conclusively show, contrary to my expectations, that imperative oughts actually exist that are somehow binding on people regardless of our needs and preferences. Or perhaps someone may suggest an alternative definition of morality that is a more attractive instrumental choice, perhaps to satisfy some more overriding desire than “durable well-being over a lifetime”. In either of these cases, Altruistic Cooperation morality could become irrelevant.

However, until either of these event occur (and they seem unlikely to me) Altruistic Cooperation morality appears to be the most culturally useful definition of social morality available.

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