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Information Processing and Moral Problem Solving

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Herbert Simon and Allen Newell made important contributions to the study of human problem solving within an information processing system (IPS) framework. Contemporary debates and discussions on moral judgment and representation makes little or no reference to their work on problem-solving. This study argues that Simon and Newell’s IPS framework provides a useful integrative framework for the study of moral problem solving. Variations in the boundaries between the task environment and the IPS suggest its potential as a framework for a comparative study of intra and inter-species moral problem-solving.

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Fig. 1

Source: Newell and Simon (1972, p. 20)

Fig. 2

Source: Newell and Simon (1972, p. 289)

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  1. Simon did venture into altruism. See Simon (1990).

  2. See Shafer-Landau (2015).

  3. Kymlicka (1991) draws attention to two different approaches in the social contract tradition, namely, Hobbesian contractarianism and Kantian contractarianism.

  4. Campbell (2010) has argued that such evaluations have to take into account desert.

  5. There are other ways of organizing theories of justice. Konow (2003) proposed four theoretical categories of theories of justice based on the following categories, namely: (i) equity and need (ii) utilitarianism and welfare economics (iii) equity and desert and (iv) the dependence of justice evaluation on context.

  6. Philosophers make the distinction between naturalistic and non-naturalistic moralities.

  7. A variety of mathematical and computational approaches to the study of the evolution of ethics have emerged. These include evolutionary game theory and spatial interactions models. One should be careful in analysing these theories. Are the limitations due to the theory per se (e.g. assumption made) or due to something more intrinsic to the evolutionary process.

  8. Interestingly, Newell and Simon have argued that such a program is an observer’s device to describe the system—all that is needed are mechanisms that behave in a way described by the program (ibid, p. 33).

  9. See Newell and Simon (1972, p. 75). Note that for Newell and Simon, the solution could be \(u_{t}\) or \(Q_{t}\). The iterative process could be entirely internal to the problem solver.

  10. Evolution could shift the boundaries towards the environment—this may partly depend on the intermediaries such as the receptors and effectors. This is also consistent with Buddhism’s emphasis on the body’s sensors. Culture and cooperation could be another way of interpreting the shift in boundaries.

  11. Newell and Simon (1972, p. 100) provides an intriguing visualization of problem solving: “ .., the task of problem solving procedure is to grow a tree of operator sequences that will not branch too luxuriantly, and will include at least one solution path.”

  12. Such a choice may be an internal reflection or one that leads to an action on others (external).

  13. For primers of these field, see, for example, Dukas (1998) and Stevens (2013).


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Lee, C. Information Processing and Moral Problem Solving. Comput Econ 57, 911–922 (2021).

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