RE: computer pain

From: Jef Allbright <>
Date: Sun, 24 Dec 2006 09:14:30 -0800

Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> Oops, it was Jef Allbright, not Mark Peaty responsible for
> the first quote below.

>> Brent Meeker writes:
>> [Mark Peaty]Correction: [Jef Allbright]
>>>>> From the foregoing it can be seen that while there can be
>>>>> no objective morality, nor any absolute morality, it is
>>>>> reasonable to expect increasing agreement on the relative
>>>>> morality of actions within an expanding context. Further,
>>>>> similar to the entropic arrow of time, we can conceive of
>>>>> an arrow of morality corresponding to the ratcheting
>>>>> forward of an increasingly broad context of shared values
>>>>> (survivors of coevolutionary competition) promoted via
>>>>> awareness of increasingly effective principles of
>>>>> interaction (scientific knowledge of what works, extracted
>>>>> from regularities in the environment.)
>> [Stathis Papaioannou]
>>>> What if the ratcheting forward of shared values is at odds
>>>> with evolutionary expediency, i.e. there is some unethical
>>>> policy that improves the fitness of the species? To avoid
>>>> such a dilemna you would have define as ethical everything
>>>> improves the fitness of the species, and I'm not sure you
>>>> want to do that.
>>> If your species doesn't define as unethical that which is
>>> contrary to continuation of the species, your species won't
>>> be around to long. Our problem is that cultural evolution
>>> has been so rapid compared to biological evolution that some
>>> of our hardwired values are not so good for continuation of
>>> our (and many other) species. I don't think ethics is a
>>> matter of definitions; that's like trying to fly by settling
>>> on a definition of "airplane". But looking at the long run
>>> survival of the species might produce some good ethical
>>> rules; particularly if we could predict the future
>>> consequences clearly.
>> If slavery could be scientifically shown to promote the
>> well-being of the species as a whole does that mean we
>> should have slavery? Does it mean that slavery is good?

Teaching that slavery is "bad" is similar to teaching that lying is
"bad". In each case it's a narrow over-simplification of a more general
principle of what works. Children are taught simplified modes of moral
reasoning to match their smaller context of understanding. At one end of
a moral scale are the moral instincts (experienced as pride, disgust,
etc.) that are an even more condensed form of "knowledge" of what worked
in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. Further up the scale are
cultural--including religious--laws and even the patterns of our
language that further codify and reinforce patterns of interaction that
worked well enough and broadly enough to be taken as principles of
"right" action.

Relatively few of us take the leap beyond the morality that was
inherited or given to us, to grasp the broader and more extensible
understanding of morality as patterns of behavior assessed as promoting
increasingly shared values over increasing scope. Society discourages
individual thinking about what is and what is not moral; indeed, it is a
defining characteristic that moral principles subsume both narrow self
interest and narrow situational awareness. For this reason, one can not
assess the absolute morality of an action in isolation, but we can
legitimately speak of the relative morality of a class of behavior
within context.

Just as lying can clearly be the right action within a specific context
(imagine having one's home invaded and being unable, on moral grounds,
to lie to the invaders about where the children are hiding!), the moral
issue of slavery can be effectively understood only within a larger

The practice of slavery (within a specific context) can be beneficial to
society; numerous examples exist of slavery contributing to the economic
good of a locale, and on a grander scale, the development of western
philosophy (including democracy!) as a result of freeing some from the
drudgery of manual labor and creating an environment conducive to deeper
thought. And as we seek to elucidate a general principle regarding
slavery, we come face-to-face with other instances of this class of
problem, including rights of women to vote, the moral standing of
sentient beings of various degrees of awareness (farm animals, the great
apes, artificial intelligences), and even the idea that all "men", of
disparate mental or emotional capability, are "created equal"? Could
there be a principle constituting a coherent positive-sum stance toward
issues of moral interaction between agents of inherently different
awareness and capabilities?

Are we as a society yet ready to adopt a higher level of social
decision-making, "moral" to the extent that it effectively promotes
increasingly shared values over increasing scope, one that provides an
increasingly clear vision of effective interaction between agents of
diverse and varying capabilities, or are going to hold tightly to the
previous best model, one that comfortingly but childishly insists on the
fiction of some form of strict equality between agents? Are we mature
enough to see that just at the point in human progress where
technological development (biotech, nanotech, AI) threatens to
drastically disrupt that which we value, we are gaining the necessary
tools to organize at a higher level--effectively a higher level of

- Jef

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Received on Sun Dec 24 2006 - 12:14:31 PST

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