Monday, October 26, 2015

Reverse engineering conscience

I was thinking about the method of cases in ethics, and it made me think of what we do when we apply the method as a reverse engineering of conscience. Reverse engineering of software has been one of the most fun things in my life. When I reverse engineer software, in order to figure out what the software does (e.g., how it stores data in an undocumented file format), I typically employ anywhere between one and three of the following methods:

  1. Observe the outputs in the ordinary course of operation.
  2. Observe the outputs given carefully crafted inputs.
  3. Look under the hood: disassemble the software, trace through the execution, do experiments with modifying the software, etc.
In ethics, there are obvious analogues to (1) and (2): looking at what our conscience says about actual cases that come up in our lives and looking at what our conscience says when fed carefully crafted imaginary cases. Reverse engineering of conscience suffers from two difficulties. The first is that method (3) is largely unavailable. The second is that conscience malfunctions more often than production software typically does, and does so in systematic ways. We can control for the second by reverse engineering the conscience of virtuous people (assuming we have--as I think we do--some independent access to who is virtuous).

But now suppose that this all works, that we really do succeed in reverse engineering conscience, and find out by what principles a properly functioning conscience decides whether an action is right or wrong. Why think this gives us anything of ethical interest? If we have a divine command theory, we have a nice answer: The same being whose commands constitute rightness and wrongness made that conscience, and it is plausible to think that he made it in order to communicate his commands to us. Perhaps more generally theistic theories other than divine command can give us a good answer, in that the faculty of conscience is designed by a being who cares immensely about right behavior. Likewise, if we have a natural law theory, we also have a nice answer: The faculty of conscience is part of our nature, and our nature defines what is right and wrong for us.

But what if conscience is simply the product of unguided evolution? Then by reverse engineering conscience we would not expect to find out anything other than facts about what kinds of behavior-guiding algorithms help us to pass on our genes.

So if all we do in the method of cases is this kind of reverse engineering, then outside of a theistic or natural law context we really should eschew use of the method in ethics.


Angra Mainyu said...


I don't see why unguided evolution would be a difficulty here. Suppose we resulted from unguided evolution. That includes our moral sense. We can still learn how it works, and with enough tech (which we probably would need to reverse-engineer our moral sense in the first place) - say - make a computer that would make moral assessments more accurately than humans normally do, for example by not being affected by extra-moral factors in its computations.

Also, you say that "we would not expect to find out anything other than facts about what kinds of behavior-guiding algorithms help us to pass on our genes", but that seems to assume that our moral sense would not be generally reliable (not always, but generally). Yet, if you make that assumption (i.e., that our conscience, or moral sense or whatever one calls it) is not generally reliable, then it seems that nothing - not just reverse engineering - will help us figure out moral truth, if there is any moral truth in the first place (which I think under that assumption we should not believe, other than the truth of statements denying that something has moral properties, etc.)

But a question is: why should one believe that assumption?
If you're not making that assumption, please clarify, but I don't know how else you might be reaching that conclusion.

Quick parallel: instead of "conscience", one might run the same argument for, say, reverse engineering our intuitive sense of illness/health, or even our sense of color. In other words, if the "facts about what kinds of behavior-guiding algorithms help us to pass on our genes" argument works in the case of our moral sense, why not in the case other intuitions, such as illness/health, or color perception?

By the way, you seem to be implying that unguided evolution and natural law theory are incompatible. But as long as we define the latter in a way that is not committed to theism, there seems to be no incompatibility as far as I can tell. Do you have a definition in mind?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I go back and forth on whether there is anything to my argument beyond standard evolutionary debunking arguments (which I think are good arguments given unguided evolution).

Here's the line of thought that suggests that the argument doesn't go beyond them. If a faculty for determining S-type facts is reliable, then reverse-engineering that faculty is apt to tell us something about S-type facts. So the only question is whether conscience is reliable, and that's the question tackled by standard evolutionary debunking arguments.

But I think more can be said, and I'll say it in a separate post.

Angra Mainyu said...

I disagree about the evolutionary debunking arguments, but I'll comment in reply to your other post.

Side note: I think one can (and perhaps in this context should) make a distinction between epistemic unreliability of a system X (i.e., it would be epistemically irrational to assign high probability to the hypothesis that X is getting the facts right) and substantive unreliability (i.e., X often does not get the facts right; how often that is depends on context). Your argument requires to assume epistemic unreliability it seems to me, even if not substantial one.