Friday, May 28, 2010

Ethical Behavior, the Internalization and Simulation of Perspectives, and the Idea of God

So, I am kinda curious about how it is that people are able to act ethically, how people have certain moral understandings, and how it is that people engage with those ideas to transform it into behavior. I am interested in pursuing this idea along the lines of simulating and internalizing certain perspectives. I can think of certain instances where behaving ethically involves internalizing a certain perspective, and being able to simulate thoughts about yourself from that other perspective. For example, God. An always present, judgmental observer that helps us imagine our own thoughts and actions in a different light.

Anyways, I think that internalization and simulation of a moral perspective may have something to do with a lot of ethical behavior.

I started this post quite a while ago, 4/11/10. But now maybe I'll just explore it and write a little bit.

So, when someone is alone in a room and they are thinking about doing something considered immoral (drugs, killing animals, anything at all), how do they gauge themselves? How do you understand the meaning of your own behavior even when you are alone?

Cause I guess that is one of the main things that seems strange to me. That people can be alone yet still feel critical of themselves. Still maintain some sense of moral perspective despite their aloneness.

I think simulation theory of mind can at least help account for this.

Simulation theory of mind basically argues that people understand other people and themselves by internally simulating the thoughts and feelings that other people have expressed through words, body language, etc.. Simulation has a lot to do with self-recognition. As a child we learn to understand our own facial expressions because of interactions with others. We smile as babies, mothers and others smile back and we thus learn what smiling is. Mirror neurons are also a way in which we learn to gauge our own behavior. Mirror neurons are pretty fascinating. But onward. How could simulation theory of mind account for ethical behavior?

Let me just run with the example of God, cause it is the easiest to think about. So, if I am alone in a room, or I am in a crowd, how do I think of myself as behaving ethically? How do I make myself behave ethically? Well, the idea of God provides a constant perspective that I can inhabit at anytime and think of myself in relation to. God supposedly has a strict moral code, he is always watching, and he is always judging. So, if I ever need to gauge my own behavior I can think, 'well God is watching, what would he do?' or 'what would Jesus do?'

Religion offers a moral perspective that we can always imagine in order to understand our own behavior better. It is about having a perspective simulate/imagine. God is a straightforward case, that is probably why it was so popular for so very long. It offers the quickest moral fix.

But prisons and other forms of social justice (similar to religion) also enable their own forms of internalization and simulation. Prisons for example, give us an understanding of what it would be like to go to jail, or to experience being arrested or punished. So, when we are about to commit a crime or do something illegal, we can imagine/simulate what it would be like to go to jail. Clearly it would be bad, so our ability to imagine/simulate possible consequences can deter us from acting immorally.

I'm really not doing a very good job explaining this.

In order to do this well I would need a full blown discussion of simulation theory of mind, and I would need to do research into religious and legal practices. But I don't want to do that right now. If you want to understand this (my invisible/non-existent audience) then go and read some of my other posts (there are many) on simulation theory of mind, and these fragments might make sense.

Summing up.

I think that ethical behavior has something to do with internalization and simulation. I bet that moral codes allow us to imagine and simulate certain perspectives, and create an outside perspective on ourselves that allows us to gauge our own behavior. God is supposedly an all present and moral observer, and therefore we can imagine a moral being who is watching us at all times. It lets us see ourselves in different ways when we can imagine/simulate a certain perspective. Prisons and other modern institutions of morality also give us a certain perspective on ourselves.

It is about simulating perspectives beyond the self. I think that is what moral codes allow us to do. They give us a way of imagining a view beyond our own. It lets us shape our own behavior by having an outside view. Anyways, bad post. Not very clear.

I think that this idea could be very worthwhile to explore in the future. I have an incomplete grasp of what is up with this idea. I will say two things, I know two authors who are skirting these issues, Alvin Goldman and Michel Foucault. Goldman, in Simulating Minds, concludes with a section on moral philosophy as it is relevant to simulation, so I know there is more to say. Foucault, in Discipline & Punish, is spending a fair amount of time talking about the people are how they witness public torture and execution. He mentions how it gives them a way to imagine the power exercised by the state, and how they may experience pain if they choose to subvert the state. It seems like it could involve the internalization of someone else's experience to attain a sense of their experience, which would allow you to behave in a different way. It sounds like internalization and intuitive simulation.

In conclusion, I think that these ideas are legitimate and are grounded in my reading, but I can't really explain them very well yet.

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