TIA Tuesday: Morality for game designersSeptember 2, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
There are many ways in which a career in video game programming fails to prepare you for the larger issues of real life, and Vox Day has a good example of one of them:
Theists have a perfectly logical and objective basis for the application of their god-based moralities that even the most die-hard rational atheist cannot reject, given the theistic postulate that God actually exists and created the universe. In short, God’s game, God’s rules. If you’re in the game, then the rules apply to you regardless of what you think of the game designer, your opinion about certain aspects of the rulebook, or the state of your relationship with the zebras.
Vox’s goal is to show that his idea of morality has a solid foundation, and Daniel Dennett’s doesn’t. But not only is Dennett’s system far stronger than Vox seems to realize, the “God’s Game, God’s Rules” morality he espouses has so many flaws that it’s hard to know where to start.
But start we shall. To begin with, “God’s Game, God’s Rules” (or GGGR, from now on) is a system that makes morality entirely arbitrary. What is morally good? Whatever the rules say is morally good. If the rules say, “Mutilate your baby’s genitals,” then genital mutilation is a good thing. If the rules say you lose points for wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, then wearing green is a bad thing. If you get chilled on a Saturday, and light a fire to warm up a little, and the rules say you deserve to die for breaking the Sabbath, then you deserve to die. Nothing—not genocide, not torture, not rape, not terrorism—is wrong in and of itself. It’s only wrong if the rules say it’s wrong. Which they don’t have to do, because morality is arbitrary–God’s game, God’s rules. If the rules tell you to rape puppies, then that’s what you gotta do. Our own intuitive sense of morality has nothing to do with it.
Second, GGGR is virtually useless in a world where God does not show up in real life to tell us what the rules are. If it’s God’s game and God’s rules, then none of us have any basis for saying that it would be wrong for God to publish one set of rules for the general public, while privately applying a different set of rules on a case-by-case basis. If a pregnant girl knows in her heart that God is ok with her having an abortion, who are we to forbid it? You can quote bible verses to her if you like, but if God has given His blessing to the abortion, who are you to tell Him He can’t do that? If God wants to publicly forbid homosexuality, but privately assure homosexuals that they’re an exception because He made them that way, who are you to say it’s wrong for God to make exceptions to His own rules, and to convey them privately to the homosexuals?
Third, GGGR tells us nothing about what those rules are. Since they’re arbitrary to begin with, we cannot deduce them, and even if someone stands up and claims that God told him what they were, we have no way to evaluate what he says, to see if he got the rules right or not. Even if he did get them right, nothing says God can’t make exceptions, or make changes, or have different sets of rules for different people and/or circumstances. And even if God gives us a list of rules, it’s not always clear how the rules are to be applied in various situations (hence Jesus’ frequent accusation that the Pharisees were obeying the Law of Moses in a way that was spiritually wrong despite being technically correct).
GGGR is not a valid moral system or even a valid foundation for a moral system. GGGR is simply a ploy for claiming that one’s own moral system is “God’s Rules,” and therefore must be applied to non-believers whether they want to accept it or not. It’s a justification for Christian supremacy, as well as being an excuse for why so many of God’s “moral” rules turn out to be actually immoral (like mutilating genitals, or selling daughters into slavery, or wiping out entire ethnic groups like the Amalekites). It might sound good to Vox, but real life is not a video game, and real-world morality is more than just a pre-programmed set of rules.
In the real world, morality is an imperfect system based on our fallible (but usually reliable) ability to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Even in a theology-soaked morality like GGGR, the ultimate standard of right and wrong is based on our expectation of consequences: if you play the game by God’s rules, you win, and if you break the rules, or oppose them, you lose. So the moral is, if you want the good consequences (i.e. winning), you will play by the rules. The morality of your actions is defined relative to the consequences your actions will return to you.
Vox does not seem to grasp this point, insisting instead that there is no secular basis for moral authority.
Atheists, on the other hand, enjoy no similar logical basis, no objective foundation or universal warrant, which leaves every individual playing his own game and making up his own rules as he goes along. So Dennett finds himself caught in the seemingly senseless act of lauding atheists for behaving in a moral manner according to a morality that he considers groundless and in need of democratic modification.
Dennett’s morality, however, is not groundless—it has the same foundation as every other moral system. It’s perfectly legitimate to praise atheists for behavior that has positive consequences for themselves and those around them; no omnipotent deity is needed to decree that the desirable consequences are more desirable than the undesirable ones. Whether or not you write everything out in terms of a formal list of Shalt’s and Shall Not’s, the connection between morality and consequence is always there, and provides the foundation for all moral judgments.
Vox has a tendency to fall into the All or Nothing Fallacy: you don’t have any answers unless and until you have all the answers.
And yet, not only do we know these reason-based moralities don’t exist, we are informed by an unimpeachable source that it is ‘‘quite obvious’’ that they do not exist and have never existed:
“I do not intend this to be a shocking indictment, just a reminder of something quite obvious: no remotely compelling system of ethics has ever been made computationally tractable, even indirectly, for real world moral problems. So, even though there has been no dearth of utilitarian (and Kantian, and contrarian, etc.) arguments in favor of particular policies, institutions, practices, and acts, these have all been heavily hedged with ceteris paribus clauses and plausibility claims about their idealizing assumptions.”
The latter quote is from Dennett himself, and Vox uses it to try and say that Dennett is denying the possibility that anyone could derive a moral system based on reason. That’s not at all what Dennett is saying, however. Dennett is saying that you can’t reduce morality to a programmable set of rules that can be mechanistically applied to arbitrary real-world situations (which is why GGGR can’t work, by the way). There are exceptions to every rule, including moral rules–circumstances in which the the consequences of rigidly and legalistically applying the “moral” rule would actually be more detrimental than the consequences of breaking the rule. Hence, no system—not even “divinely ordained” systems—have proven to be foolproof guides to morality, in practice.
Just because it’s not possible to draw up a list of rules that covers all situations, however, doesn’t mean we don’t have secular moral principles to guide us in many situations. Dennett is far from “fall[ing] into the very trap he previously had described so eloquently.” On the contrary, Dennett’s observation, which Vox found no problems with, is an observation that blows away the “God’s game, God’s rules” idea, because what Dennett is showing is that no system of rules (i.e. of Shalt’s and Shalt Not’s) is going to be workable in real life ethical problems. You can’t reduce real-world morality to a list of IF/THEN/ELSE statements, which means the rule set that God would supposedly have defined is a non-existent set.
The closest we can come to a workable system is to realize that all of our moral principles are based on how we feel about the consequences that are likely to result. This works well in cases where one alternative leads to consequences that are noticeably better or worse than another, but it becomes problematic when the expected consequences are all bad, or are unknown. And yet, any system that is not based on the consequences is bound to be an arbitrary system, like GGGR. You can arbitrarily pick one undesireable outcome over another, and say that one is “good” and the other is “bad,” but really they’re both bad, and you’re just making choices for which there is no solid basis for moral certainty.
And that’s the end of Vox’s discussion of Dennett. Dennett seems to have done remarkably well, especially at the end, where Vox’s moral argument falls flat due to his failure to understand Dennett’s point in anything more than a video game sense. No moral system can be perfect, because morality is a choice between outcomes, and there’s no guarantee that every choice is necessarily going to offer us an option that is unambiguously “correct.” We do the best we can with what we’ve got. But ultimately, Reality itself dictates what’s right and what’s wrong, by the consequences our decisions entail. The sooner we abandon our superstitious and arbitrary lists of “God’s rules,” and deal directly with the true source of morality, the better off we’ll be.