The puzzle continues

A puzzle from ages ago:

What do these things have in common? Nerves, emotions, morality, prices.

They all send signals from distant parts of a coordinating system to a part which makes decisions. The signals are not just information, but costs and benefits to the decision maker so that the decision maker’s interests align with those of the whole. This allows cooperation of larger systems in space and time.

Nerves mean that damage to your toes translates to pain in your mind. This makes your mind act in the interest of your toes (which is of course in the interest of your mind eventually). If your foot is numb your mind is not taking into account the costs and benefits your foot faces, so eventually your foot often becomes injured. Nerves allow larger bodies to coordinate.

Emotions sometimes mean that failure or success of my future self translates to positive or negative feelings now. This makes my current self act in the interests of my future self. If something bad might happen I am scared. If my long term prospects look good I am happy. If your emotions are numb you can make decisions that are bad for your long term wellbeing. Some emotions allow temporally longer humans to coordinate.

Morality means that costs or benefits I cause to others lead to harm or good for me, either in the currency of moral feelings or terms in my calculated decisions (I make no claims here about how people do morality). This is the source of altruism, and of the complaints that it isn’t really altruism. If I donate money to charity I feel good (or calculatedly note that I have increased utility). If I hurt you I feel guilty. If your morality is numb you can hurt other people. Morality allows larger groups of people to coordinate.

Prices are the celebrated example; they mean that the costs and benefits to others across the economy feed into mine when I make choices that affect others. This makes me act efficiently if all goes well. I leave my house if someone else wants it more than I and eat foods that are easier for someone across the world to make. If the farming industry is numb nobody knows when they are doing harm or good regarding it, nor care so much, and we cause dead weight losses. Prices allow even larger groups of people to coordinate.

Can you think of more?

5 responses to “The puzzle continues

  1. Hayek would say slowly changing social norms, laws and institutions channel accumulated information about what is beneficial for society as a whole, rather like your intuitions carry such information about what is wise behaviour for your genes. Sounds right to me.

  2. All of these systems create artificial incentives for individual entities to act in ways which are not directly beneficial to them.

    In other words they are all inherently manipulative and exploitative.

    The argument against this part of their nature is that these systems will create a larger net benefit then what would ordinarily happen, and that the individual entity that is being exploited will also gain from these benefits.

    The crux of this, from the perspective of the individual, is that while it may be true that net benefit will increase and that they will share in this, there is no guarantee to them that their specific gains will offset the losses they must endure.

  3. “All of these systems create artificial incentives for individual entities to act in ways which are not directly beneficial to them.

    In other words they are all inherently manipulative and exploitative.”


    Nerve signals are directly beneficial to both the toe and the mind (sometimes pain is maladaptive, but the basic principle is sound for both “parties.”)

    Emotions are perhaps “manipulative” of your “instantaneous self” versus your “temporally extended self”; but your instantaneous self isn’t an entity that’s really worth worrying about. Furthermore, without emotions, your “self” has no interests or will capable of being exploited – a hypothetical purely rational being is incapable of having any incentives, artificial or otherwise. Again emotions can be maladaptive but that’s not the issue.

    How are prices inherently exploitative? Is it the buyers or sellers getting screwed? Free markets are parento efficient. Sometimes markets can fail. Sometimes people are trapped in poverty. Is this because of the existence of prices?

    Morality causes people to behave in a way that benefits their genes (because otherwise, it wouldn’t have evolved), and in a way that makes them feel good as people – it contributes to their utility, by making them feel warm and fuzzy.

    If the mind likes to follow morality and the genes like to follow morality, what “part” of the person is getting “artificially exploited?” Exactly who is the inidividual who’s interests are being trodden over by those pesky altruistic instincts? Is it a poorly modelled, imaginary homo economicus version of the real person, who’s utility function has no moral component?


    As for further examples… chemical trails to food are a signal to ant hives, or in the case of bees the food location dances they do.

    Tracer bullets for a military squadron. Flares in a navigational or rescue expedition.

    Depending on how broadly you define terms…. well a supermassive black hole “signals” to distant stars in a galaxy system, using gravitons, what direction they “should choose to go in.”

    Note if you’re a naturalistic determinist its non-trivial to establish on what grounds, if any, the last example differs from all the previous ones.

    • Of course there are many cases where the net and individual benefits outweigh the individual costs. I never said there weren’t. But there are also cases where this is not true, which leads to breakdowns in the systems.

      When pain leads to drug use, there is a breakdown.
      When emotions/morality lead to suicide, there is a breakdown.
      When prices lead to prostitution, there is a breakdown.

      All of those are signs of the manipulative element of these systems coming to light; they are strategies that signal an individual coping with an exploitative system, not an individual that is flourishing.

  4. Wow. What a beautiful set of connections.


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