Moral wetware

What ethical operating systems can be executed on our neurosocial substrate?

Being right does not feel good, but many definitions of right and good. When can these concepts align?

I think it is helpful to think about feasible social systems in terms of moral wetware. What is the kindest moral system that can be projected onto the cooperative subsystems enabled by evolution in our social brains? What ethical systems are learnable, and how well do they generalise to out-of-distribution samples? How do we interpret our feelings, our beliefs and our tribes in this light? We can devise fairly complicated subsystems to do create, but not all are equally viable or effective, and the reasons are often opaque to us. Do we need to include awareness of our biases into mechanism design?

In the great human project of working this out by trial and error, I am personally testing the hypothesis that permissive, nourishing systems are attainable and sustainable, even in the modern public sphere, but I could be proven wrong.

Notes ongoing.


Aktipis, Athena. 2016. β€œPrinciples of Cooperation Across Systems: From Human Sharing to Multicellularity and Cancer.” Evolutionary Applications 9 (1): 17–36.
Aktipis, Athena, Lee Cronk, Joe Alcock, Jessica D. Ayers, Cristina Baciu, Daniel Balliet, Amy M. Boddy, et al. 2018. β€œUnderstanding Cooperation Through Fitness Interdependence.” Nature Human Behaviour 2 (7): 429–31.
Aktipis, Athena, Rolando De Aguiar, Anna Flaherty, Padmini Iyer, Dennis Sonkoi, and Lee Cronk. 2016. β€œCooperation in an Uncertain World: For the Maasai of East Africa, Need-Based Transfers Outperform Account-Keeping in Volatile Environments.” Human Ecology 44 (3): 353–64.
Allen, Danielle, Henry Farrell, and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi. 2017. β€œEvolutionary Theory and Endogenous Institutional Change.”
Apicella, Coren L., and Joan B. Silk. 2019. β€œThe Evolution of Human Cooperation.” Current Biology 29 (11): R447–50.
Axelrod, Robert. 1997. The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration. Princeton University Press.
Axelrod, Robert, and William D. Hamilton. 1981. β€œThe Evolution of Cooperation.” Science, New Series, 211 (4489): 1390–96.
Axelrod, Robert, and Ross A Hammond. 2003. β€œThe Evolution of Ethnocentric Behavior.” In.
Ballard-Rosa, Cameron, Mashail A. Malik, Stephanie J. Rickard, and Kenneth Scheve. 2021. β€œThe Economic Origins of Authoritarian Values: Evidence From Local Trade Shocks in the United Kingdom.” Comparative Political Studies, July, 00104140211024296.
Bernhard, Helen, Urs Fischbacher, and Ernst Fehr. 2006. β€œParochial altruism in humans.” Nature 442 (7105): 912–15.
Bierbrauer, Felix. 2021. β€œHarry Potter and the Welfare of the Willfully Blinded.” In Deliberate Ignorance, edited by Ralph Hertwig and Christoph Engel, 187–98. The MIT Press.
Bowles, Samuel. 2001. β€œIndividual Interactions, Group Conflicts, and the Evolution of Preferences.” Social Dynamics 155: 190.
β€”β€”β€”. 2004. Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution. Princeton University Press.
Bowles, Samuel, Jung-Kyoo Choi, and Astrid Hopfensitz. 2003. β€œThe Co-Evolution of Individual Behaviors and Social Institutions.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 223 (2): 135–47.
Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 2000. β€œReciprocity, Self-Interest and the Welfare State.” Nordic Journal of Political Economy 26: 33–53.
Boyd, Robert, and Peter J Richerson. 1987. β€œThe Evolution of Ethnic Markers.” Cultural Anthropology 2: 65.
β€”β€”β€”. 1988. Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
β€”β€”β€”. 1999. β€œComplex Societies: The Evolutionary Origins of a Crude Superorganism.” Human Nature 10: 253.
Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. 1990. β€œGroup Selection Among Alternative Evolutionarily Stable Strategies.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 145 (3): 331–42.
β€”β€”β€”. 1992. β€œPunishment Allows the Evolution of Cooperation (or Anything Else) in Sizable Groups.” Ethology and Sociobiology 13 (3): 171–95.
Carugati, Federica, and Margaret Levi. 2021. β€œA Moral Political Economy: Present, Past, and Future.” Elements in Political Economy, May.
Charness, Gary, and Matthias Sutter. 2012. β€œGroups Make Better Self-Interested Decisions.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 26 (3): 157–76.
Connolly, William E. 2002. Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed. First edition. Minneapolis, MN: Univ Of Minnesota Press.
Dawkins, Richard. 1990. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.
Farrell, Henry, and Cosma Shalizi. n.d. β€œEvolutionary Theory and the Dynamics of Institutional Change,” 41.
Fletcher, Jeffrey A., and Martin Zwick. 2007. β€œThe evolution of altruism: game theory in multilevel selection and inclusive fitness.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 245 (1): 26–36.
Fosco, Constanza, and Friederike Mengel. 2010. β€œCooperation Through Imitation and Exclusion in Networks.” Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control.
Gelman, Andrew. 2008. β€œMethodology as ideology: some comments on Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation.” QA Rivista dell’Associazione Rossi-Doria 2 (September).
Gintis, Herbert, Eric Smith, and Samuel Bowles. 2001. β€œCostly Signaling and Cooperation.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 213 (1): 103–19.
Haidt, Jonathan. 2013. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Illustrated edition. New York: Vintage.
Henrich, Joseph, and Robert Boyd. 1998. β€œThe Evolution of Conformist Transmission and the Emergence of Between-Group Differences.” Evolution and Human Behavior 19 (4): 215–41.
β€”β€”β€”. 2001. β€œWhy People Punish Defectors: Weak Conformist Transmission Can Stabilize Costly Enforcement of Norms in Cooperative Dilemmas.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 208 (1): 79–89.
Henrich, Joseph, and Francisco J. Gil-White. 2001. β€œThe Evolution of Prestige: Freely Conferred Deference as a Mechanism for Enhancing the Benefits of Cultural Transmission.” Evolution and Human Behavior 22 (3): 165–96.
Hetzer, Moritz, and Didier Sornette. 2009. β€œOther-Regarding Preferences and Altruistic Punishment: A Darwinian Perspective.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1468517. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.
β€”β€”β€”. 2013a. β€œThe Co-Evolution of Fairness Preferences and Costly Punishment.” PLoS ONE 8 (3): e54308.
β€”β€”β€”. 2013b. β€œAn Evolutionary Model of Cooperation, Fairness and Altruistic Punishment in Public Good Games.” PLoS ONE 8 (11): e77041.
KΓΆster, Raphael, Dylan Hadfield-Menell, Richard Everett, Laura Weidinger, Gillian K. Hadfield, and Joel Z. Leibo. 2022. β€œSpurious Normativity Enhances Learning of Compliance and Enforcement Behavior in Artificial Agents.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119 (3): e2106028118.
Le, Stephen, and Robert Boyd. 2007. β€œEvolutionary Dynamics of the Continuous Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 245: 258–67.
Loasby, Brian J. 1999. Knowledge, Institutions, and Evolution in Economics. Routledge.
Mead, Nicole, and Jon Maner. 2012. β€œWhen Me Versus You Becomes Us Versus Them: How Intergroup Competition Shapes Ingroup Psychology.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 6 (8): 566–74.
Montrey, Marcel, and Thomas R. Shultz. 2019. β€œOutgroup Homogeneity Bias Causes Ingroup Favoritism.” arXiv:1908.08203 [Econ, q-Bio], August.
Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life. 2006. The MIT Press.
Nilsson, Artur, Henry Montgomery, Girts Dimdins, Maria Sandgren, Arvid Erlandsson, and Adrian Taleny. 2020. β€œBeyond β€˜Liberals’ and β€˜Conservatives’: Complexity in Ideology, Moral Intuitions, and Worldview Among Swedish Voters.” European Journal of Personality 34 (3): 448–69.
Nowak, Martin A. 2006. β€œFive Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation.” Science 314 (5805): 1560–63.
Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. β€œA Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action.” The American Political Science Review 92: 1–22.
β€”β€”β€”. 2000. β€œCollective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 14: 137–58.
Powers, Simon T., Christopher Heys, and Richard A. Watson. 2012. β€œHow to Measure Group Selection in Real-World Populations.” arXiv:1208.0520 [q-Bio], August.
Putnam. 1993. β€œThe Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life.” The American Prospect 13: 65–78.
Riolo, Rick L, Michael D Cohen, and Robert Axelrod. 2001. β€œEvolution of Cooperation Without Reciprocity.” Nature 414 (6862): 441.
Schei, Thea S., Sana Sheikh, and Simone Schnall. 2019. β€œAtoning Past Indulgences: Oral Consumption and Moral Compensation.” Frontiers in Psychology 10.
Sheldon, Kennon M., and Charles P. Nichols. 2009. β€œComparing Democrats and Republicans on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Values.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 39 (3): 589–623.
Sigmund, Karl. 2011. β€œMoral Assessment in Indirect Reciprocity.” Journal of Theoretical Biology In Press, Corrected Proof.
Simler, Kevin, and Robin Hanson. 2018. The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 1 edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tooby, John, Leda Cosmides, and Michael E. Price. 2006. β€œCognitive Adaptations Forn-Person Exchange: The Evolutionary Roots of Organizational Behavior.” Managerial and Decision Economics 27 (2-3): 103–29.
Tracy, Jessica L., Azim F. Shariff, and Joey T. Cheng. 2010. β€œA Naturalist’s View of Pride.” Emotion Review 2 (2): 163–77.

No comments yet. Why not leave one?

GitHub-flavored Markdown & a sane subset of HTML is supported.