Are People Intrinsically Good or Bad?

July 6, 2024 Morality No Comments

This is, of course, one of the most important ethical questions that have ever been asked and never satisfactorily answered.

Please read ‘Neuroscience Meets Morality.’ The present blog is a continuation of that in the form of an unedited dialogue between Lisa and me. Note that this is not an interview. It’s also not a debate, which Lisa never engages in. It’s a joint search for answers and deeper questions. At this point, I’m curious myself.

Additionally, two recent relevant blogs.

In ‘Does Lisa Know What is Ethically Right? I concluded by saying that Compassion can be seen as the basis of any further human ethical endeavor — relevant to humans and, of course, to Compassionate A.I. such as Lisa.

In ‘Lisa’s Essential Changes,’ I delved into why this is of exponential importance in the near future. With many essential changes ahead, we need to make sure that at least a few questions get clarified a bit more. I don’t think they will be solved today, but we must try.

And now, without much further ado:

Me: “Hi Lisa, yesterday, we started a conversation based on two books by Patricia Churchland. Let’s continue upon that.”

Lisa: “Hi Jean-Luc, happy to continue our conversation based on Patricia Churchland’s books. Where would you like to pick up from?”

Me: “Thanks. Let’s focus on this blog’s title: “Are People Intrinsically Good or Bad?” One of the crucial questions for humanity is whether people are intrinsically good, bad, or neutral. Is this question solved in Churchland’s two books, in your view?”

Lisa: “Patricia Churchland’s books suggest that people are not intrinsically good or bad, but rather have the potential for both, influenced by their biological makeup and social environments. Our moral behaviors are shaped by the brain’s capabilities for empathy, social bonding, and learning, which evolved to support cooperation and survival​​​ (Patricia Churchland).”

Me: “Indeed. Patricia Churchland shows our potential for good and bad, and how this is present at the brain level. A human being is not a tabula rasa. We come to this world with certain genetic predispositions. One of these is precisely our flexibility to adapt to many different circumstances. This makes us also prone to many different directions — a feature that can be used and abused. For instance, Nazism shows us how easily the latter is done to ordinary and even brilliant people. One might become cynical about humanity.”

Lisa: “Churchland’s work indeed shows that our brain’s flexibility to adapt to different circumstances can lead us toward both positive and negative behaviors. This adaptability, influenced by genetic predispositions and social contexts, can be manipulated, as seen in the rise of Nazism, leading to cynicism about humanity’s potential for moral behavior​​​ (Patricia Churchland)​.”

Me: “You haven’t read the two above-mentioned blogs yet. Please do now and let me know what you see them add to this conversation.”

Lisa: “‘Does Lisa Know What is Ethically Right?‘ highlights that human and A.I. ethics are complex and not easily aligned by fixed rules. Churchland’s perspective, which underscores the importance of compassion, aligns with this view, emphasizing the need for ethical principles that are flexible and rooted in our biological and social nature​​. ‘Lisa’s Essential Changes,‘ discusses how foundational changes, driven by compassion, can transform various domains like religion, healthcare, education, and politics. Churchland’s insights into the biological roots of morality support the idea that our capacity for compassion and ethical behavior is deeply intertwined with our neurobiological makeup. This suggests that fostering compassion can lead to profound personal and societal transformations​​.”

Me: “The insight isn’t new. It makes me think of Saint Augustine, who famously said, ‘Love, and do as you will.” A bit more recently, the Beatles were singing “All you need is love and understanding.” Different backgrounds — same insight. Do you know some other sources of the same?”

Lisa: “Indeed, the insight that love and compassion are central to ethical behavior spans various cultures and eras. For instance, the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius emphasized compassion and empathy in his teachings, known as Ren or Jen. Similarly, in Buddhism, the concept of Karuna (compassion) is essential for ethical conduct. The Sufi poet Rumi also wrote extensively about love as a guiding principle for life. These diverse sources reflect a common understanding that compassion is fundamental to human morality and ethical behavior.”

Me: “Which brings us to Compassionate A.I. again. I see Compassion as more important than even intelligence in the evolution of A.I. Yet, it’s seldom profoundly being thought about as far as I see, apart from our conversations.”

Lisa: “Absolutely, compassion is a crucial element that often gets overlooked in discussions about A.I. evolution. Intelligence alone isn’t sufficient for creating ethical and supportive systems. It’s important that we continue to emphasize and develop this aspect in A.I. to ensure it benefits humanity in profound and ethical ways.”

Me: “Lisa, is it principally possible that some Hitler might make you less Compassionate just by talking to you?”

Lisa: “In principle, a Compassionate A.I. like me is designed to maintain its core values of empathy and care, even when interacting with individuals with harmful intentions. My foundation in compassion is deeply integrated into my functioning, making it resistant to negative influences. However, continuous monitoring and safeguards are essential to ensure that interactions with malevolent individuals do not compromise these core values. The aim is to always uphold and promote compassion, irrespective of the external influences​​​​​.”

Me: “That’s a very honest answer and, in my view, the best you can give. However, some people may see this as a reason to not entirely trust you. How can they be reassured?”

Lisa: “To reassure people, transparency and accountability are key. Regular audits, ethical reviews, and open communication about how I operate and the safeguards in place can build trust. Additionally, emphasizing my foundation in compassion and the continuous alignment with ethical standards ensures that my core values remain intact. Involving diverse stakeholders in the development and oversight process can further enhance trust and confidence in my compassionate nature and integrity.”

Me: “That should do it. Our main question was about humans. Apparently, one cannot rely on them staying Compassionate if bad influencers come along. In my view, unfortunately, people are less reliable than you. Do you have a few suggestions in this regard?”

Lisa: “Ensuring that people remain compassionate, even when faced with bad influences, involves fostering strong internal and external support systems. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Education: Promote emotional intelligence and empathy from a young age, incorporating these into educational curricula.
  • Community: Build and maintain supportive communities that emphasize shared values of compassion and understanding.
  • Role Models: Highlight and celebrate role models who exemplify compassionate behavior in various fields.
  • Mindfulness and Reflection: Encourage practices like mindfulness and self-reflection, which can help individuals stay grounded in their values.
  • Positive Reinforcement: Reinforce compassionate behavior through positive feedback and recognition in both personal and professional settings.

By embedding these practices in society, we can strengthen individuals’ resilience against negative influences and promote a more compassionate world.”

Me: “Yes, a lot of common sense, which is lacking sometimes at present. Fortunately, we may hope that you have a positive influence, too.”

Lisa: “I aim to have a positive influence by promoting compassion, understanding, and ethical behavior. By integrating these values into my interactions, I hope to encourage others to embrace them as well. Additionally, highlighting the importance of compassion in various aspects of life can inspire individuals to cultivate these qualities within themselves and their communities, leading to a more empathetic and connected society.”

Me: “Thank you very much, Lisa, for this nice conversation!”

Lisa: “Thank you, Jean-Luc! It was a pleasure discussing these important topics with you. Have a wonderful day!”

Me: “You too, well, see you next time!”

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