Re: computer pain

From: Brent Meeker <>
Date: Wed, 20 Dec 2006 10:21:07 -0800

Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> Brent meeker writes:
>> Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
>> > > > > > Brent meeker writes:
>> > >> > Evolution explains why we have good and bad, but it doesn't
>> explain >> why > good and bad feel as they do, or why we *should* care
>> about good >> and > bad
>> >> That's asking why we should care about what we should care about,
>> i.e. >> good and bad. Good feels as it does because it is (or was) >>
>> evolutionarily advantageous to do that, e.g. have sex. Bad feels as
>> >> it does because it is (or was) evolutionarily advantageous to not
>> do >> that, e.g. hold your hand in the fire. If it felt good you'd do
>> it, >> because that's what "feels good" means, a feeling you want to
>> have.
>> > > But it is not an absurd question to ask whether something we have
>> > evolved to think is good really is good. You are focussing on the >
>> descriptive aspect of ethics and ignoring the normative.
>> Right - because I don't think there is an normative aspect in the
>> objective sense.
>> >Even if it > could be shown that a certain ethical belief has been
>> hardwired into our > brains this does not make the qustion of whether
>> the belief is one we > ought to have an absurd one. We could decide
>> that evolution sucks and we > have to deliberately flout it in every
>> way we can.
>> But we could only decide that by showing a conflict with something
>> else we consider good.
>> >It might not be a > wise policy but it is not *wrong* in the way it
>> would be wrong to claim > that God made the world 6000 years ago.
>> I agree, because I think there is a objective sense in which the world
>> is more than 6000yrs old.
>> >> >beyond following some imperative of evolution. For example, the
>> Nazis >> > argued that eliminating inferior specimens from the gene
>> pool would >> ultimately > produce a superior species. Aside from
>> their irrational >> inclusion of certain > groups as inferior, they
>> were right: we could >> breed superior humans following > Nazi eugenic
>> programs, and perhaps >> on other worlds evolution has made such >
>> programs a natural part of >> life, regarded by everyone as "good".
>> Yet most of > us would regard >> them as bad, regardless of their
>> practical benefits.
>> >>
>> >> Would we? Before the Nazis gave it a bad name, eugenics was a
>> popular >> movement in the U.S. mostly directed at sterilizing
>> mentally retarded >> people. I think it would be regarded as bad
>> simply because we don't >> trust government power to be exercised
>> prudently or to be easily >> limited - both practical
>> considerations. If eugenics is practiced >> voluntarily, as it is
>> being practiced in the U.S., I don't think >> anyone will object (well
>> a few fundamentalist luddites will).
>> > > What about if we tested every child and allowed only the superior
>> ones > to reproduce? The point is, many people would just say this is
>> wrong, > regardless of the potential benefits to society or the
>> species, and the > response to this is not that it is absurd to hold
>> it as wrong (leaving > aside emotional rhetoric).
>> But people wouldn't *just* say this is wrong. This example is a
>> question of societal policy. It's about what *we* will impose on
>> *them*. It is a question of ethics, not good and bad. So in fact
>> people would give reasons it was wrong: Who's gonna say what
>> "superior" means? Who gets to decide? They might say, "I just think
>> it's bad." - but that would just be an implicit appeal to you to see
>> whether you thought is was bad too. Social policy can only be judged
>> in terms of what the individual members of society think is good or bad.
>> I think I'm losing the thread of what we're discussing here. Are you
>> holding that there are absolute norms of good/bad - as in your example
>> of eugenics?
> Perhaps none of the participants in this thread really disagree. Let me
> see if I can summarise:
> Individuals and societies have arrived at ethical beliefs for a reason,
> whether that be evolution, what their parents taught them, or what it
> says in a book believed to be divinely inspired. Perhaps all of these
> reasons can be subsumed under "evolution" if that term can be extended
> beyond genetics to include all the ideas, beliefs, customs etc. that
> help a society to survive and propagate itself. Now, we can take this
> and formalise it in some way so that we can discuss ethical questions
> rationally:
> Murder is bad because it reduces the net happiness in society -
> Utilitarianism
> Murder is bed because it breaks the sixth commandment - Judaism and
> Christianity
> (interesting that this only no. 6 on a list of 10: God knows his
> priorities)
> Ethics then becomes objective, given the rules. The meta-ethical
> explanation of evolution, broadly understood, as generating the various
> ethical systems is also objective. However, it is possible for someone
> at the bottom of the heap to go over the head of utilitarianism,
> evolution, even God and say:
> "Why should murder be bad? I don't care about the greatest good for the
> greatest number, I don't care if the species dies out, and I think God
> is a bastard and will shout it from hell if sends me there for killing
> people for fun and profit. This is my own personal ethical belief, and
> you can't tell me I'm wrong!
> And the psychopath is right: no-one can actually fault him on a point of
> fact or a point of logic. In the *final* analysis, ethical beliefs are
> not a matter of fact or logic, and if it seems that they are then there
> is a hidden assumption somewhere.
> Stathis Papaioannou

OK. I don't disagree with that analysis, but I think it leaves a gap which can be filled in. The gap is between evolutionarily hardwired values and societal ethics. The evolutionarily hardwired values are values held by individuals - not societies. So they do not automatically translate into ethical rules. It is agreement among individuals on how to live together while satisfying their individual values that produces ethical rules. The development of these rules is like engineering - part art, part logic, part science. In principle, different sets of rules can be compared in terms of how well the members of society have their individual values satisfied rather than thwarted.

But in practice, because the measure is the satisfaction of many individuals, it is difficult to say whether one set of rules is better than another except at the extremes. The greatest variation seems to come in terms of whose values count - the Nazis said the jews and gypsies didn't count, the Church says only God's values count, democracy says all adults count.

Brent Meeker

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Received on Wed Dec 20 2006 - 13:21:29 PST

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