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Trust, narrative and the moral society.

Trust, narrative and the moral society.

This short text is concerned with what we mean by the term "morality", and tries to extract some of the structural features which underpin what can otherwise become a dangerously self-referential discussion. In common with socio-biology, we show that the innate needs of societies lead to rules of conduct and interpretation, and that these narratives are used to construct ever-more elaborate value systems and rules. Complex and functional systems that are aligned around collaboration rather than imposed power have defined characteristics, and successful ones have an internal coherence which makes them extremely useful to their holders. However, we warn that it is dangerous to assume that what is needed in a complex society is appropriate elsewhere, or that simpler societies either share or will evolve to a common standard set by the wealthy powers.


"Trust" is a word for a provisional end state which is achieved when a transaction ensures that a large number of parallel conditions fulfilled.

The trusting individual needs to have a model about the person or institution, job role or other category with which they are dealing.

In brief, we ask if we understand, if we are sure of our understanding, if the implicit game is to our advantage but to be played in ways which require us to expose us to default and, finally, if there are sanctions which can be called down on defaulters, then we fall into a state we call trust.

Experimental work shows that collaboration falls away - that is, trust is evidently not present - if the system involved has a number of characteristics.

First, it may not be open to interpretation: it may be extremely 'noisy' - the classical definition of risk - so as to swamp calculations which would otherwise be clear. Second, it may be tranquil yet inscrutable, for we may lack a model by which to interpret it.

Second, the system may be understood and be of a form that meets all of the characteristics that lead to trust, but lack the information that is needed to calibrate where an individual sits in state space. The examples from the "ultimate game" experiments show that players can be completely rational and have a perfect rationale, yet withdraw from play if the specific characteristics of the other players are not at least partially exposed. And for good reason, for these players free ride, as the dynamics of the game would suggest.


Most of out lives are lived under conditions in which these prerequisites for trust are not in place. There is neither time nor enough information to make these calculations. In the place of rational decision taking, therefore, we have heuristics. "People can generally be trusted". Further, the enormous power of the complex society is that it does enforce rules - if not this time, then the defaulter will be caught within a few dozen defaults. We are apparently primed to take on considerable cost and risk in order to identify and punish defaulters, and we become more motional when confronted with cheaters than hedonics and other measures of intangible pricing would support. (That is, being cheated of $5 is much more painful that finding $5 on the pavement is pleasurable.)

Narratives are stories that we tell ourselves in order to identify and give properties to important groups and entities in our environment - predators, friends, alien clans, economic castes. The narratives often tell us about common interactions - the peasant and the cheating shopkeeper, the stupid farmer and the sly suitor of his wife - and help us with "worked examples". What else is a business school but a purveyor of such narratives, after all?


Narratives compound with trust when we need to interact socially. Societies cannot operate on calibrated calculations. Narratives which seem 'moral' to us are those which point to long-run, sustainable models of how various kinds of interaction should be thought about, undertaken and rewarded. A morality is a network of such narratives in which there is a harmony amongst the parts, where each element of the narrative is either neutral or re-enforcing towards the rest.

The individual quality of 'competence' that many psychologists use when assessing an individual can also be applied to societies and social groups, such as companies. A competent entity, in this sense, is one which has an integrated set of responses to all of the common challenges which it meets, and the way of constructing and testing new responses to novelty. Competent people have developed or been taught models of the likely conduct of other people and social groups in which experience has created confidence and comfort. They can use these models to construct a network of 'rational' responses: rational in the sense of being all of a piece, rational in the sense of being themselves predictable, rational in the deeper sense of having an over-arching rationale from which new models can be developed. Societies which share these models are competent, both in being able to understand and respond to challenges, but also able to undertake the discussion and testing that is needed in order to develop new, functional responses and interpretations to add to the overall repertoire.

There is, of course, a strong resonance between 'competence' and a collective morality. Both are founded on narrative, for it is through narrative that they are chiefly transmitted, modified and improved. Both permit trust, for all of the reasons discussed above, and so reduce the overheads in a society. All make the social system more tractable to understanding and navigation. Where morality differs from the other components is in connection with the issues of optimisation.

No person, organisation or society has a single goal. A person needs shelter and food, security and affiliation, security and a host of other less tangible needs. Societies are no less complex. If any individual or group optimises or even ranks the possibilities that are before it, therefore, it has to place markers along these axes. This will very often involve pay-offs: between the present and the future, the interests of this group and that, between conflicting drives in an individual. Societies which have a clear model of how things work - which are in that sense competent - also need a narrative about how "I" or "we" balance pay offs. The typical balance is struck in terms of minimal acceptable levels (of security, for example) and more vague upper bounds, which are typically set by pragmatism, bargaining and market forces. Where issues are poorly patrolled - where trust will not work, for one reason or another - then the state intervenes to define and enforce the relevant law; and political forces achieve this in ways which are more or less representative of the society as a numerical whole, but always predicated in one of the dominant narratives which are in play.

Let us take an example of this. A society can be horrified by slave-owning or may be happy with it. Much-applauded law givers - such as the Byzantine Emperor Justian in the Corpus Juris Civilis - formalised slave ownership in a Christian state. In general, if the natural order of things revolves around a single dimension such as power, then organised force in the form of slave owning will find no challenges in the various narratives about home and industry, war and politics. If the society predicates itself on abstract principles that are laid down by a religion, then unless these are directly or by implication set against slavery, then keeping slaves will seem a harmonious part of how a society works.

The "quality parameters" against which the morality is assessed by its adherents are, firstly, whether it works - makes internal sense, offers useful guidance as to how to behave - and, second, whether it answers to the balances that need to be struck. Justinian's laws offered extremely functional guidance on the intricacies of slave ownership, they worked and the society prospered thereby.

Later societies, confronted with more complexity to handle, found that they needed to take account of additional criteria if they were to flourish. Collaboration is invariably more complex to manage than is conquest and brute power, but its rewards are greater and it is anyway the only approach that can be taken in an environment of many approximate equals, in which the division of labour is important, where the future is traded against the present - in saving, in education, in all manner of forbearance - and where societies strive to reduce the level of inherent risk. As a consequence, societies evolve the multi-axis system of assigning value to options for conduct, all embedded in the narratives that make sense of everyday conduct.

This brings us to the nature of morality, ungilded by the high-flown interpretations which are often added once a consensus has been reached. There are two key components that have to be shared amongst a body of people if they are to show trust in each other, minimise friction, maximise adaptability and in other ways show competence.

First, they must share a set of narratives which, collectively, amount to interwoven models of interpretation and guidance about individual and group behaviour.

Second, they must also share a set of goals or pay-offs that apply to common dilemmas or options. There needs to be a consensus on the acceptable boundary conditions on these dimensions: not more than this, not less than that. These limits are tacit - set by precedent and habit- or they are explicit, set by law makers, by markets or by actual or threatened force.

It seems to turn out that complex societies rely upon collaboration rather than force, and that the dominant morality is concerned with negotiating balances that are satisfactory to all groups, or at least to the most articulate and forceful of the groups. Many people belong to several groups at the same time: business person, mother, environmentalist. Modelling of others - intensionality, empathy - has a powerful role to play in politics, journalism, marketing, human resources and a host of other disciplines; in finding a partner and mate, in climbing hierarchies and in virtually every branch of social activity. It is, therefore, unsurprising that a set of values which reflect this have joined - and to some extent come to dominate - the moral framework.

Commentators from at least one religion tend to interpret this as a sign that care for others is somehow innately fundamental to human affairs. This is a dangerous delusion. The reasons which are laid out above are a quite sufficient reason why such values have advanced in the rich, complex societies, where the harder choices are for the most part isolated from us. However, to assume that this is a state to which the rest of the world subscribes or to which it presently aspires is mistaken, and a failure to model correctly. It can lead to the opposite of competence: to policy incompetence.

Note added

A fascinating paper in Nature 446 pp908-911 April 2007 by Koenigs et al looks at the quality of moral judgments made by people who have suffered damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex of their brains. This volume, located at the level of your eyebrows, and a few centimetres back from them, is heavily associated with emotion. Damage to it is associated with lowered emotional responses whilst leaving other cognitive capabilities unaffected.

The Koenigs team show that patients with bilateral lesions in this area make judgments on moral issues which are very similar to those of a control group when the issue is an abstract one. That is, questions which ask in general terms whether one should allow one person to die in order to save the lives of six others generates much the same response, one of utilitarian calculation. However, if the question is personalised - should you push that person standing next to you onto the road to stop the run-way truck that will kill six people, then results diverge. When the issue is of deep emotional impact - rescue you son, or allow him to die whilst rescuing six other people - the responses are dissimilar. The patients with the damaged ventromedial prefrontal cortex do not differentiate between the "emotional" and abstract cases, whilst the control group do so. The latter tend to prefer intimates over strangers, and to abandon abstract moral calculus.

The paragraph which precedes this note suggests that care for others is innate. There is now ample neurological evidence that this is the case, that emotionality and empathy are hard-wired into our cognition. Evolution was, however, faced with a difficult balancing act, for we need to love our fellows but not too much, to police norms but also to innovate, to welcome strangers but protect the group against aggression, theft and invasiion. The solutions which it has developed are, perhaps, better suited to savannah-dwelling hunter-gatherers than to urban masses. Our energy balances are optimised for a life of exercise, feast and famine; so we tend to become obese when offered only leisure and feast. Cardiovascular complications follow. There is a real possibility, therefore, that when we fully understand our genetic makeup, we may see that our preferred way of living is not what it is best configured to support. We are unwilling to return to a the savage world with which it originally had to cope, so it may be that we shall wish to temper the genes - or their expression - the better to match our preferred way of life.

If this is true of our physical well-being, how much more true is it of our ethical predispositions? Yet there seems to be a step change between altering how we eat and digest, on the one hand, and changing how we feel, relate to each other and exist as individuals. Is this a valid distinction, or is it atavism driven by some twist of gray fibres deep in the brain? Plainly, it is fromt he brain, but is it atavism?

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