Status Instability Leads to 2nd-Order Discussion

When people consider morality in their actions, they do it from the point of view of their experience of living that moment. They feel a certain way in a situation, and they imagine some space that others feel in a situation. They consider whether they have principles, desires, promises that apply. They do not usually consider, but are effected by, their instincts, framings, inherent perspectives.

In every discussion of morality I have ever been privy to, the essence of this context-heavyness has been impossible to capture. As a matter of a communication, this context is hard to express, but that is not the main reason for its absence. I have stoodby and watched one coworker explain for 15 minutes how different skiiing is from surfing, despite the fact that I think it is almost impossible to get this across without actually experiencing it. But in that case, there was status to be gained, from being perceived as someone who can appreciate a respected matter of leisure culture.

There is, of course, such status to be gained in conversations around morality, but the moat surrounding that status are the details that make a life complicated. People are tied to examples that yield themselves to easy explanations, when being misunderstood risks being considered immoral or amoral: after all, why would one put their hand so close to the fire?

It is not hard to see that under such simplification pressure the details that we must wrangle with in real situations do not naturally come-up in conversations regarding morality. But can we force them to the foreground? No.

If someone, were to try to bring up the really nitty-gritty of life, others in the conversation automatically begin the process of reassimilating the conversation back to the known template for what moral conversations look like. This looks like:

  1. Saying “See it makes a lot sense that you did that because X needed to happen.” where X becomes the dominating factor, the conversation goes back into why X is good.
  2. Saying “Well, I can understand why you did that, but I probably would have done Y because I believe in X.” where X again becomes the dominating factor and one can weasel Y into the story as a vague possibility, or if truly rebutted simply shrug.
  3. Saying “What you have there is a choice between X and Y, and that’s tough.” and then the conversation becomes a question of what dominates between X and Y.

It is not literally impossible to utter the words of a rational discussion around morality, but it is inherently unstable. Even great friends depend on their mutual impression of each other as a credit system. This is one reason why people tend to trust their families with such dilemmas, even when relations are strained: because the tie is not voluntary, even if it can be severed by force.

But people want to talk about good and bad, it brings them joy to pass judgement on others, and of course people are genuinely curious of their peers. So these conversations happen, but they are never literal, instead they purport to be about one thing but test the boundaries of another implicitly. And here is the striking thing, even the most stark literalists have mostly realized this by the time they are in the professional world (and otherwise are deeply punished for it), and they know to avoid the subject entirely if they can. But they still have the 2nd-order discussion despite their literalism.

A 2nd-order discussion is one that probes at objects it mentions indirectly. The mechanism that creates them unintentionally is simple: having filtered out all the normal reactions that might lead down genuine moral discussion, literalist (and in fact all humans) are not able to filter out all discussions about “good” and “bad” which permeate every human discourse. The line is fuzzy, and a literalist must draw the boundary somewhere, or never speak. So in the conversations that are left inside the meandering perimeter of “conversations it’s okay to have”, many of them end up discussing morality but the literalist is not attached to the morality of that object and ends-up using it to understand something else entirely. This process is often unconscious: despite being somewhat eccentric, a literalist is human and will learn to adjust to new information unconsciously as well as consciously. They may realize that a conversation subject is ostensibly morality related or not, but they do not feel the need to push it as if it were their duty or to be honest about it as a literalist would in the matter of the heart. The result is information obtained that hints at the underlying stances of the other participants, without the literalist having to be down-right literal about it. Sounds a lot like normal, non-literalist conversation, huh?

What’s important here is that the literalist ends-up playing a 2nd-order game, where information is being extracted through a proxy subject. This is not her intention, but a result of the evolution of her “acceptability boundaries”, which are incentivized to be as wide as possible so the literalist is not starved of information. They may be willing to talk about video games they’ve played, and describe things quite literally while the other person gives an extended moral argument for why they hate the character, allowing a literalist to capture information they would normally be too timid to elicit. This timidity is rational; in a normal conversation about the subject, the literalist would emit their stance at 100x the allowed (ideological) volume, with straight-forward examples that would horrify their peers:

  • “Of course, I would let those children die, there are thousands of people who need a cure!”

Nor does this need to be “rational” in the narrow convention of thinking in naïve mathematics:

  • “Of course I would invade X country, I don’t recognize their government as proper and moral.”

It is an accepted truth that we do not completely choose our minds, but it is somehow not accepted in people’s hearts. People feel they know their strategies for gathering information and can describe it thoroughly. I doubt it. I doubt very much that we are capable of describing a causal system or even a loose verbal narrative for how it is we come to have the habits we have that allow us to subsist with the enormous number of interlocking details. This is one reason we have trouble getting along with people who are different from what we’re used to: they breakdown our heuristics.

If we are to understand this, we must formalize it further, not simply philosophize it. But instead of describing it from the god’s eye view that we will never have access to, we must formalize it pragmatically, from the point of view of an agent we can expect to integrate this information. Pure causative models, formally pursued are out of the question for most scientific studies due to the enormous number of variables, and inability to access certain decision states. Instead we must start from the beginning of science, indeed the beginning of cognition: we must simply invent word for patterns and bet on their density under certain observable variables. This much we can begin to systematize and measure.

Published by Crispy Chicken

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