Humans, at least I think, seem to inherently understand, without being taught culturally, that some things are right and some thing are wrong. I can't explain this, thinking of thought as a very calculated phenomena originating in a system of neurons, I don't see the neural pattern that would develop this understanding inherently - without lots of luck. I can sort of explain it as a cultural development, evolution, over time. Or it could be a result of very simple logical thinking. I'm not quite sure, hence this question.

Here's where my question's origin comes in:

I'm interested in developing artificial intelligence. Many are working on this, my own project is of no importance to the question, but the fact that someone will eventually succeed in full-fledged, infinitely expansible artificial intelligence makes this question very important:

Some scientists warn that artificial intelligence is very dangerous with possible aggression, and I have understood it to be far more powerful than nuclear weapons. But other scientists say that like our own minds, artificial minds will become more peaceful with greater intelligence, and less violent.

But artificial intelligence, unlike the human mind, will not have millions of years of evolution to define its structure. Its brain will start out with the structure that we give it. So the difference between the understanding of "right" and "wrong" being evolved and being an inherently present trait, is pretty important to the discussion. So I'm interested to understand:

Does a mind inherently gain understanding between "right" and "wrong" with the development of logical intelligence?

Note: The reason that I wonder whether the understanding between basic "right" and "wrong" could even possibly differ from most evolved mind traits is the fact that I categorize "right" and "wrong" almost as a result of basic logic rather than an advanced thought process.

2 Answers 2


I would argue that humans first have a "built in" sense of what's good and bad to themselves - in the form of passions and emotions. Pleasant and unpleasant feelings provide our basic set of motivations, especially in early childhood. Only later do we develop a capability for logical and abstract thinking, which is related to the ability to "reprogram" ourselves and edit our motivations.

I'm not sure what you mean by an understanding of right and wrong that does not depend on cultural background. If you mean that things like needlessly hurting others, killing and stealing are considered "bad" in pretty much every culture, I would argue that in those cases the human ability for empathy and compassion has the strongest and most obvious results. From what I know about child development (I'm no expert in that matter, though), children may have a born in sense of empathy, but it needs to be trained and developed by early education.

The problem with that "childish" concept of right and wrong, i.e. an ethics based on emotions, is that we emotionally tend to care only about people we know and about members of our social group; when strangers are hurt, we remain pretty cold.

I guess that is the reason why philosophical ethics was developed, to put moral judgements on a more abstract, logical foundation and avoid emotional bias. But I'd argue that logic and philosophy only provide a "bug-fixing" for the problems of purely emotional compassion; the motivation why one would need or want ethics is still mostly based on compassion and empathy.

One could maybe argue that pure reason tells us that cooperation yields better results for most people than non-cooperation, and that intelligent beings profit from sharing knowledge and ideas and can do that best in a social framework of trust. But even if we develop an ethical model like that on pure reasoning, without mentioning a need for emotional empathy, the intelligent beings would have no compelling motivation to stick to those ethical rules. Maybe we could assume the basic motivation of intelligent beings is just to use their intelligence, but we know about humans that they have other, stronger emotions.

As an aside, you mention the fear that an artificial intelligence might be dangerous. The classical example that comes to mind is the science fiction trope of rebelling robots. In my view, those stories are based on the questionable assumption that the most basic motivations of every intelligent being must be egoism, self-preservation, and lust for power. Of course, for humans that's a somewhat cynical but quite realistic assessment. But I see no reason why an AI would need to have a similar emotional foundation for its motivations.

(That's not to say an AI might not be dangerous. I guess it depends on how independently an AI would be capable (or allowed) to act. One could imagine that even if its capable to reprogram itself, its "motivations" to do that get edited with every task it is assigned. And those external set of motivations might be poorly designed or even contradictory. For example, if we order a robot to fight in a war, we might forget to give him sufficient instructions on how to deal with non-combatant civilians. And his "motivation" to fulfill his orders might override his built-in equivalent of Asimov's first law.)

  • I love your insight! I wrote my answer before reading yours and I think we took very different areas in how we responded but you did touch on what I delved into. Your answer has provided me with a good insight and you worded it really well; thanks!
    – Cacoon
    Aug 14, 2018 at 3:58

According to Thomas Hobbs, the inherit idea of both 'Good' and 'Bad' in terms of humanity are somewhat unrealistic of humans true nature as animalistic beings.

For instance, if we remove all social contracts that we inadvertently agree to from birth; or through how we are raised (Ideas of justice, punishment to those who commit 'crime', crime being what the governing body of the area has decided) and we go back to the most primal of animals that exist only to survive; no reliance on one another nor notion of law, justice or social construct and pure survival.

Does killing another because they threatened your own survival make you 'bad'? does sharing your berries because you have too many and they will go bad make you 'good'? In my opinion it is clear that as humans we have built up these ideas of good, bad, justice and punishment because it is for the best of the people as a whole; infact its best for societies growth to follow these virtues of law and justice. And from following this we are given this idea of right and wrong, of good and bad.

Do you judge the lion for killing the gazelle? No, because he is doing it for survival, not out of malice. Bring humans down to the level of pure survival and we act the same way, not because we are 'evil' but because we are animals.

Think about this; A large majority of the population likes to think people are 'good' by some sort of virtue or default but that doesnt stop you locking your door at night.

Right and wrong is extremely subjective and in context with your current government, religion and lifestyle. Not something i believe that is ingrained. We hold it so close because its apart of the fabric of our current society and what keeps everything and everyone moving.

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