Friday, December 5, 2008

Rationality and Diminishing Returns

Long ago, when Bill Clinton was president and reality television hadn't yet destroyed the American psyche, I spent a summer term in an intro to world politics class at a school that had not yet officially admitted me, with my stoner roommate and the non-talkative girl I had a crush on at the time and a professor who I believe has now become a sorcerer of some sort. I took four classes with this prof, slowly making my way up to an A--I think the A- I got for a 92.25% was sending me a message--but the first thing I remember from my short time as a poli-sci major was realism, and its Dark Knight Returns cousin neorealism. After the collapse of political idealism in the epic clusterfuck of World War I--the bloodiest, most hideous folly of human cruelty and stupidity until the next one a couple decades later--political realism sure seemed like a pretty sound theory, and held sway nicely through the cold war. Look it up; I don't really plan to explain it here, but if you pay attention to international politics, it's a concept with which you're familiar. And if you're a cynical dude, it's obvious and intutive. But I am not a cynical dude, all evidence to the contrary--I prefer hyperskeptic idealist, myself--and the view of human nature that political realism always seems to be coupled with, even if it's not strictly part of the theory, always rubbed me the wrong way. It's a view that's constitutive of the doctrine of total depravity, and therefore has its tendrils in much modern Protestant thought, as well as every consdescending lecture about "the real world" you ever received from a parent, teacher, or court-appointed psychiatrist. Put simply, I find it rather unfathomable that people spend so much time and effort thinking about right and wrong if they honestly believe that we're all a bunch of bastards who couldn't choose right if we wanted to, which we don't. In practice, total depravity is commonly deployed as a descriptor of everyone else's behavior, but is rarely (in my experience) argued coherently.

So, walking home one day, I stopped at one of those lovely sidewalk book sales that periodically dot the Cambridge landscape, and picked up a copy of Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society. It's a hell of a title, aside from the fact that it seems to have been so named in an effort to market to me, personally; it's a marketing practice reminiscent of Become Who You Were Born to Be, which I believe was designed to appeal to the tastes of Aragorn, son of Arathorn. Anyway, Niebuhr neatly dovetails political realism and original sin in a way that makes eminently more sense (to me, at least) than either of them do separately. To wit: though morality is neither wholly rational nor wholly social, the keeping of the Christian moral law--which is short, and you should know it by now--does require a rational mind, the ability to see ourselves and our neighbors as equivalent when our sensory perceptions and emotional reactions plainly think it's stupid. And yes, Virginia, small groups can behavor morally, with effort and forethought. However, the world does not consist of small groups, but a series of nested groups of varying size, and groups are not rational. Niebuhr suggests a kind of law of diminishing return for rationality among groups, and at a sufficiently large level, groups are incapable of acting in any interest other than their own. (There's a lot of "ifs" in here, of course, in that one could argue that all manner of moral behavior operates from self-interest, if one happens to be a psychological egoist, but I digress.)

Whatever the virtues of Niebuhr's theories--it's fascinating and thought-provoking, right or wrong--videogame design does seem to reflect a similar perspective. When we talk about moral choice in games, we almost exclusively do so in terms of individuals. Fable, The Sims, GTA, etc. What would even make sense as a "moral decision" in, say, SimCity?

I'm not sure if this is something new design ideas could surmount; the serious games movement has pointed in that direction with its public policy angle (public policy can be interpreted as a means to moral action by groups, but Niebuhr has some thoughts on that as well), but it does seem that we have an awfully hard time conceiving of morality outside of small groups, or imagining anything outside of self-interest for larger ones. The philosophers, of course, have gleefully attempted to reduce all morality to one or the other, to varying degrees of success. And perhaps it is the job of systems-thinking to help us learn to think both morally and collectively.

This, he mused, he must think hard upon.

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