Chess, Morality, and Well-Being

Original post:

In a discussion on The Limits Of Science with Lawrence Krass, Dan Dennett, and Massimo Pigliucci, Dan Dennett makes an analogy with chess (and its rules) to morality. The analogy goes something like this. He says the game of chess has been improved over time. Things like the addition of the castling rule, things like the en passant rule, and so on have improved the game. These are done because people like to have a fast-moving game, or one that doesn’t take forever. He then said something like, if you had two groups of people that disagreed about the different rules of the game, each thinking a different set of rules was superior and if one side couldn’t convince the other of their perspective, then there really wasn’t a “right answer”. He implied that there would be a right answer if one group could convince the other one of the superiority of their side, and he thought that this was like morality.

However I think, if you take Sam Harris’ perspective on morality as I typically do, you notice that even for Dennett there is a reason why different versions of chess would be better, and it doesn’t come up for a vote. People prefer certain types of games and this leads to an increase in the well-being of those people that play them. Certain rule changes would be better because some changes would lead to longer games, or more difficult games, and thus decrease overall well-being. It becomes an objective fact about human consciousness and games. Both in the area of morality, and in this analogy, there would be right and wrong answers to those questions based on the well-being of people. Dennett’s analogy might be closer than he thinks, but not in the way he intends.


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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2 Responses to Chess, Morality, and Well-Being

  1. Steven Winsor says:

    If I am reading your second paragraph correctly, Brian, it would seem to me that ‘morality’ would be simply interpreted by each individual (as regards the ‘well-being’ concept), and therefore we would then reach a point of optimal ‘libertarianism’, where each individual’s sense of well-being with respect to choices would obviate the need for a group morality. Do what makes you feel well. Chaos would IMO ensue if followed to its logical conclusion…as humans find chaos often (and inexplicably) more preferable than order.

    Of course, we have a significant number of individuals in each human population that like to exert control over others (and religion is one way to assert ‘control’), so while the chess analogy is a nice intellectual exercise, it has little bearing on current (or future) reality.

    And it’s quite possible I have no idea what I’m talking about. Be careful how you respond…keep in mind my feelings of ‘well’. 🙂

  2. brianblais says:

    The arithmetic of well-being is a tough one, because you really do have to average/sum/something over the group to maximize well-being. A simple rule of thumb is the greatest good for the greatest number, but like all rules of thumb, there are plenty of exceptions. it is never implied that it is simply each individual well-being, irrespective of the others, that matters.

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