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The Morality Equation

This post is also available in: German

In my post on morality I offered a few thoughts on the shifting sands of moral certitude:

If you had the power in your hands, would you kill in such a manner as to ensure maximum pain and suffering

a. 10,000 Indonesians if it would save your lover’s life?

b. your lover if it would save 10,000 Indonesians’ lives?

I concluded with the following wholly scientific effort at a layman’s definition of morality:

Morality = genetic affinity + expedience + quid pro quo + self-serving status posturing

Commenter “godparticles” picked up where I left off and admirably quantified my definition:

I would probably give more weight to S (status posturing) like this:

M=(g+E+q) x S

…where M is defined as the strength of a moral decision. I guess you could create a scale of relatedness for g, a scale of convenience for E, a scale of likely material return for q, and a scale for the explicit ingroup approbation of the moral position, decision, or action for S.

Let this serve as an innocuous example: A middle-aged, poor black man recently asked me for a dollar outside a grocery store. I was sitting in my car waiting for a friend, and he approached with the opening, “I’m not trying to start any trouble or anything, but can I get a dollar for the bus…” I don’t usually carry cash, and that’s what I told him and he left… even though I knew I had a few bucks in my wallet. I’ve been begged for more cash before after having pulled out my wallet so that wasn’t going to happen again.

So the g was 0. The E was actually high. The q was 0. And the S was 0 (no one was watching to approve). HOWEVER, if my (very liberal) friend had been in the car, the S would have increased and multiplied by the E would have led me to give him the buck.

I liked godparticles’ strengthening of my morality equation so I refined the variables and scoring and added an example of my own in the comments:

given: M = (g + E + q) x S

where M = degree of moral umbrage and the likelihood of taking action to rectify the perceived injustice.

g = genetic affinity
E = expediency (I define this as fluid morality, which is similar to moral convenience. You’re more likely to adopt a moral position when it works to your benefit or is relatively painless to act upon.)
q = tit for tat
S = status whoring

The scale for each variable is 1-10, where 1 = no impact on your decision and 10 = influence of the utmost importance.

Let’s say you’re at a party with friends and your brother (who is in attendance) blurts out a racist joke (he has an awkward sense of humor). A hush descends over the crowd. Your response hinges on a series of subconscious calculations:

g = 10 (he’s your brother!)
E = 2 (it’s tough to call out a racist joke at a party and risk dragging out the discomfort. it’s even tougher when it’s your brother’s public humiliation on the line.)
q = 1 (you’re contemplating a moral action that will prevent your loss, rather than win you gains.)
S = 6 (you risk losing the approval of your friends if you seem as if you are acceding to your brother’s faux pas. acting will not raise your status, but it will prevent you losing status.)

calculating M we get:

M = (10+2+1) x 6 = 78

If M resides on a scale from 3 to 300, where a score of 300 equals a moral action that is easy to take, quite personally beneficial, and encourages the sort of self-righteous preening that feels almost as good as sex, then in the scenario I outlined above a score of 78 means you would probably hesitate briefly before deciding to evade your moral discomfort by changing the subject and yelling out “WHO’S UP FOR SHOTS!!!”

An M of 1 means “Kill em all and let bog sort them out”.

Now I’m curious how other common moral dilemmas would rank using the morality equation. Here’s an example from the battlefront:

You and your buddy are in a bar. He notices two girls, a hottie and her friend who was born to cockblock. He tells you it’s all his and he’ll signal you to join when he needs a wingman to occupy the obstacle. He approaches and soon the girls are laughing. You get the signal and move in, doing your best to draw the CB’s attention away from her friend and to you. But your natural charm infects both girls and the cute girl starts touching your arm and tossing you the flirty eye. Your friend is losing the set but you have a good chance of acquiring his target’s digits. You think about number closing her. The morality variables look like this:

g = 2 (no genetic relation to your friend but racially he looks like you.)
E = 7 (any decision you take would be easy to act upon, but getting her # could potentially cost you your friend’s respect since he’s standing right there. because it is only one friend and not a whole group of friends you feel you can smooth out the situation later with a little one on one.)
q = 8 (if you get her # you have a shot at adding a notch. if you don’t get her number you retain the wingman services of your friend for the future.)
S = 6 (you will gain a lot of status points with your friend if you don’t number close his target for yourself. but it is just one friend.)

M = (2 + 7 + 8 ) x 6 = 102

On the morality scale of 3 to 300, there is a one in three chance that you will put your friend’s feelings before the pussy.

Ask yourself, does this result match up with your personal experience dealing with the same situation? Would a good friend opportunistically number close your target 2 out of 3 times?


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