Justin Li

Social Interaction, Russell, and Morals


I haven't written anything of substance for a long time. There have been several things on my mind, from two inspirations:

Thoughts on my class first. Although I don't have to do anything for this class (my grade is dependent on participation, two- midterms, and a paper), the class frustrates me. Although the topic sounds interesting, it is actually mostly common sense. More annoying is how both the professor and the book make a big deal out of the topic. I know that a lot of my beliefs are influenced by society, and that if I was born in a different culture I would feel and think differently. But then I am told about sociologists who do interviews, who observe conversations of middle schoolers who are "negotiating" their "social reality", researchers who look at the different communities in Chicago and what "reality" is like for them (Harvey W. Zorbaugh's Gold Coast and the Slum, for those interested). I mean, given a theory that people learn "meanings" through society, it makes sense that people would talk about what they learn as they grow up. And as for visiting ethnic neighborhoods: how does that contribute to the study of societies? So far I have not been presented with any higher theories about social behavior, other than that the values of society (and therefore people) change over time. Again, I feel like that's not a particularly hidden truth. More interesting would be theories on how societies came to have influence on individuals, or perhaps even why humans are influenced in this way by society.

This brings up another dissatisfaction, although this applies more broadly to social sciences in general (except psychology and possibly economics): most of the stuff we talk about in class are descriptive. I don't just mean the case studies, but the theories. If you compare the theory of social interactionism, which (as far as I can tell) says that humans define and communicate with symbols and subsequently are influenced by those symbols to change, with the theory of gravity, which says objects exert a force on other objects, the theory in physics is much more powerful. This is because it is predictive; it can says with certainty if two objects exists and there's nothing holding them back, they will accelerate towards each other. Additional theories and equatinos allows calculation of how much force, if and how quickly the objects will move towards each other, etc. As for social interactionism, it's great, but I fail to see how it can predict human behavior. What are the circumstances needed to create symbols? How much power do symbols have, and how much can it change a person? In psychology, there are predictions to a certain extent; the various forms of conditioning (Pavlovian and operant) gives predictions for what will happen, how things are associated with actions in the brain and can be observed through behavior. I can describe the circumstance (ring a bell every time you give a dog food), and the theory will give what will happen (eventually the dog will salivate upon hearing the bell). I have yet to find what social interaction needs in order to predict events; I suspect that is simply not considered.

Also, the professor and the book uses words which I think belong in other disciplines. One I hear way too often is "reality", by which they mean "worldview" but which makes me think metaphysics. I think this is the jargon in the field though, not just the professor and the book.

I talked above about experiments in psychology. The lack of experiments in sociology (or at least, social interactionism; the Stanford prison experiment is an example of a sociology experiment) is result of it's inability to make predictions. Experiments need hypothesis, and by conducting experiments which can't falsify the hypothesis, that's how we know the hypothesis stands. Of course, even if there are hypothesis, it is impossible to set up an experiment with enough people, with the right backgrounds or traits. That is partially why I'm interested in modeling complex systems, especially of social phenomenon. It will be a step towards a more scientific social science.

The other thing I want to talk about is from Bertrand Russell's book, Why I am not a Christian. Despite the title, most of the pieces in there are not targeted at Christianity or even religion, but rather at non-scientific thinking. It could be argued that it just so happens religion is not scientific, and so becomes problematic.

I've mentioned in my Twitter feed (on the right if you're reading this on my blog page and not through RSS) that I was surprised by how similar Russell's views were to my own. The basic idea is that a lot of current policies, activities, etc. are based on convention, and do not reflect recent discoveries in science or developments in thinking. One example would be the idea that what is natural is "good", and therefore (for example) genetic modifications should not be done. But we have already changed so much of nature, the buildings, roads, all city infrastructure. The clothes we wear are not natural, and more biologically, we (or at least most of us) get shots to strengthen our immune system. On the genetic level, we have selectively breed horses, dogs, plants, and in a sense humans by marrying people we think are handsome and/or intelligent. The last one is more properly evolution, since we are modifying our own spieces, but the point is humans have been dabbling, albeit unconsciously, for several millenium. The fact that nature don't have clothing, roads, immunity shots, or selectively bred other spieces, doesn't mean these things are bad.

I want to give another example of convention, and my (and to my great surprise, Russel's) take on it, before talking about morals proper. I have expressed before that I'm uncertain where the idea of marriage came from, and it's usefulness in modern sociey. Then today I read Russell's essay, titled "Our Sexual Ethics". He wrote:

It is clear that marriage, as an institution, should only interest the state because of children and should be viewed as a purely private matter so long as it is childless. It is clear, also, that, even where there are children, the state is only interested through the duties of fathers, which are chiefly financial... If, as is increasingly happening where wage earners are concerned, the state takes over the duties that have hitherto fallen upon fathers, marriage will cease to have any raison d'etre and will probably be no longer customary except among the rich and the religious.

The closeness with which this resembles my view that marriage should only be an economic institution, and the state should not have rule over anything else.

Now, about morals. The above argument on marriage very easily extends to monogamy, which would be included in the morals of a lot of people. Morals tell us what is good and what is bad, and therefore what we should and should not do. But, let me rephrase that (as Russell did), and make a claim that what is good makes people happy, and what is bad makes people unhappy; hopefully this is not too objectionable a claim. One can then argue that, if morals are based on happiness, then a code could be devised such that people acting on said code can maximize happiness. This is the same idea behind sport teams having strategies, so each player (person) in the team (group/society/world) acts in certain ways to ensure the team wins (so everyone is happiest).

The maximal happiness defined above depends greatly on what the bounds of measurement are. If I define myself to be the only goal, then my morals would lead me to do whatever makes me happy, which might include stealing from other people, killing out of anger or in revenge, and numerous other crimes. Beside the fact that these actions are illegal, it is also apparent that these actions cause unhappiness - not to me, but to other people. A moral code, then, needs to expand to include others - don't kill, don't steal, be nice, etc.

A curious note in the above reasoning is that the individual developing his morals must realize that other people are human beings too, and that their happiness is just as important as his/her own. One could create nuclear bombs and kill everyone in the city, but then there wouldn't be anyone to monitor electric plants, or to keep the water system running. The modern individual's happiness is dependent on a lot of conveniences, which without other people cannot exist. That is, in order to continue being happy in modern society, there must be a realization of dependency on others. From the point of view of the society, morals are necessary for sustainability.

And hence the procedure for establishing a moral code is clear. The ultimate goal is to increase happiness, although a number of details still requires though. If everyone is happy, does more people mean more happiness? This in particular relates to suicide, where a extremely clinically depressed individual might kill himself to increase general happiness. Are animals capable of happiness? If so, then animal rights would have to be considered.

I argue that this construction of a moral code is the only correct way of doing so. There could not be a moral code where human happiness does not factor (proof of existence), and once happiness is in the equation then it follows that morals should maximize happiness (proof of uniqueness).

To some people this may sound mechanic, and not what morals are about at all. It cannot be denied, however, that such a set of morals would result in a better world...

Unless one's judgment of the world depends not on human happiness, but on satisfaction of deities - but that's a different argument.