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Published August 20, 2019

This paper claims that morality is fundamentally the result of an (biological and cultural) evolutionary process to solve a set of common cooperation problems faced by our species. Taking a game-theoretic perspective, it describes the principles we know as “morality” as encoded strategies for effectively solving non-zero-sum games, i.e. games in which there can be multiple winners, and cooperative behaviour can improve the outcomes for all players. The players in these games are not necessarily individuals, but genes which encode behaviour. Successful genes will propagate themselves, reinforcing the behaviour. Unsuccessful genes will die out. In this way, cooperative behaviours can spread throughout a community, if they advantage the species as a whole, even if individuals may act against their self-interest. The authors argue for this evolved cooperation as the foundation of morality, identifying seven distinct moral behaviours that can be explained this way:

  1. Family values: Caring for and sharing resources with your kin. Related to virtues of care and social obligations to you kin.
  2. Group loyalty: Forming stable conventions to coordinate within groups. Related to virtues of loyalty, solidarity and conformity.
  3. Reciprocity: Tit-for-tat responses is repeated encounters, rewarding cooperation and punishing defection. Related to virtues of reciprocity, trustworthiness and forgiveness.
  4. Heroism: Displays of social dominance as ways of coordinating resource allocation. Related to virtues of bravery, fortitude and generosity.
  5. Deference:  Displays of sociall submission as ways of coordinating resource allocation. Related to vitures of humility, deference, obedience, and respect.
  6. Fairness: Equal division conventions as ways of coordinating resource allocation. Related to virtues of fairness, impartiality, equality.
  7. Property rights: Prior possession as a way of coordinating resource allocation. Related to virtues of respect for property.

The “Morality as cooperation” (MAC) model justifies these as foundational moral concepts, based on distinct solutions to coordination problems. They authors illustrate how these same themes recur in other models, including the Moral Foundations Theory of Haidt and the Values Theory of Schwartz. However they claim that this set has a better claim to be foundational than either of those theories, as it is grounded in a strong evolutionary argument. To demonstrate this, they present a measure based on the format of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ) but structured around the MAC foundations rather than the MFT.

Analysis of data gathered from 1392 subjects shows that a 14-factor model, best fit the data. This model represented the seven foundations above, but distinguished between “Relevance” and “Judgement” questions, indicating a difference between what people conceived as right or wrong and what they judged as appropriate moral actions. While relevance and judgement responses were correlated within each foundation, they differed enough to warrant treating them as separate subscales.

The paper presents extensive analysis confirming the validity of the MAC questionnaire and comparing it to the MFQ. These demonstrate that the measure is valid and reliable, and the MAC model fits the available data better than the MFT, as well as having stronger explanatory power. It seems worth considering as a better model to drive future research.

From a games perspective, while this paper does not directly reference videogames, the idea that morality is strongly rooted in a collection of non-zero-sum games suggests a number of avenues for future research in games and ethics. It would be a simple matter to design games based around these dynamics and determine whether in-game behaviour correlates with scores on the corresponding MAC foundations. For example, a multiplayer game could be designed using the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma as a core mechanic. This would create a dynamic of pitting individual self-interest against the group, and raise problems of defection, punishment and forgiveness. A study could examine the correlation between behaviour in this game and the MAC Reciprocity score, to see whether players in-game behaviour reflects their out-of-game morality.



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