[ExI] Ethics and Emotions are not axioms

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Sun Jun 3 22:18:05 UTC 2007

At 02:53 PM 6/3/2007 -0700, Lee wrote:

>But what does my "should" really mean?  Sadly, it means
>nothing more than "I approve" or "we approve". Again, the
>physicist's eye can discern *approval* and *disapproval*,
>but not Right or Wrong or Moral.

As one of my and Rory Barnes' characters in VALENCIES (a novel much 
reviled on fictionwise.com) thought as she tossed restlessly beside a 
gene sculptor she'd allowed to pick her up in a pub):

Beached and abandoned on the margins of sleep, Anla found once again 
that though many of her friends swore by this state of consciousness 
it had taken on for her the aspect of an anti-tsunami. Sleep's 
enormous combers withdrew to the horizon without a glance over their 
shoulders. In the quarter gravity of the unlit sleeping chamber, 
excellent as it was for gymnastic screwing, or as presumably it would 
be given a competent partner, she was queasy and bored.
             Issues of metaphysical sturdiness came to her attention, 
as they'd been known to do, provisionally penned in the kennels to 
which she'd assigned them, whimpering for the final disposition she 
was fairly unlikely to make on their behalf.
             Morality was one. She was certainly no stranger to the 
problems of axiology.
             Lovely word, that. Axiology: theory of value. It seemed 
to contain its own solutions: axe your way through the Gordian knot, 
acts of piety, access to truth.
             Ralf was proving to be a snorer; she kicked him 
peevishly, and he rolled lightly on the webbing without waking.
             Why should Ralf's profession seem to her so 
self-evidently odious, while he happily accepted it as the epitome of 
a right-thinking life? Calling him a dull shit, and adducing his 
ineptitude at fornication as ad hominem evidence, was hardly 
exhaustive, not to a midnight philosopher. Ah no, she'd been this way 
before. It kept coming back to that silly question: "Why should we be moral?"
             A surprisingly large number of people thought that you 
should be, and even considered it to be a moral obligation. Ha ha, 
boom boom. But suppose you used the word "should" as an evaluative 
and motivational expression, instead of a normative one? If you wish 
to climb to the top of the mountain, you should walk up rather than down.
             Of course last time she'd come along this track she'd 
detected a snag with "evaluative", too, but that was on the next 
level up and you had to start somewhere.
             All right, take Ralfo as your representative simple 
unreflecting man. Persuade him of the vileness of imperialism. Crisis 
for Ralf. Echoing voids of doubt, disillusion and guilt. Never again, 
as the poet said, will he be certain that what he imagines are the 
clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the ingrained and 
customary beliefs of his time and place. Anla allowed herself a 
fanfare of trumpets, bowing graciously.
             Okay, so then he might ask himself what he could do in 
the future to avoid prejudices and provincial mores, or, more to the 
point, almost universally accepted mores--and thus to discover what 
he really ought to do.
             That was merely another normative enquiry, though; the 
tough one was "show me that there is some form of behavior which I am 
obliged to endorse. "
             Moral constraint seemed to mean either that you should 
pursue good ends and eschew bad ones, or that you should be faithful 
to one or more correct rules of conduct. Greeks and Taoists versus 
Hebrews and Confucians, yeah, yeah.
             Chariots, it was incredible to think that they'd been 
chewing on this for upward of four thousand years without coming to a 
definitive, intuitively overwhelming conclusion. But then the 
imperial ideologists thought they had, didn't they, with their jolly 
old stochastic memetic-extrapolatory hedonic calculus or whatever the 
fuck they were calling it these days. The least retardation of 
optimal development for the greatest number, world without end, or at 
least until the trend functions blur out. So they managed to get both 
streams of thought into one ethical scholium without solving 
anything. After all, why obey a rule like that? And who gets to 
define as "good" those magical parameters making up the package 
called "optimal development"?
             The besieged libertarians on Chomsky, she thought 
darkly, might differ from Ralf on the question of the good life.
             Anyway, even if we all agreed that certain parameters 
were good, why should that oblige us to promote their furtherance? It 
might be prudent good sense to do so, and aesthetically pleasing, and 
satisfy some itch we all have, and save us from being raped in the 
common, but then the sublime constraining force you sort of imagine 
the idea of moral obligation having just evaporates into self-serving 
             Admittedly there was that tricky number of Kant's about 
us possessing a rational nature, and being noumena instead of brute 
phenomena, and thus not being able to act immorally without 
self-contradiction, but any fool could see that that went too far on 
the one hand and not far enough on the other, and anyway what was 
wrong with a bit of self-contradiction if you stopped when you needed 
eye implants?
             Anla giggled to herself, and wondered where Ben and the 
others had got to. He was probably off by himself gloomily hastening 
the day of the ophthalmologist. Well, was leaving Ben to his own 
devices a matter for moral self-rebuke?
             Shit, you'd think this bastard could do something to the 
genes in his nasal cavity.
             This man can see into the future. Fucking incredible, 
really, you just rip out a few million eigenvectors from your 
mathematical sketch of an octillion human beings, what's that in 
hydrogen molecules, say three and a bit by ten to the twenty-three to 
the gram, into ten to the twenty-seven, shit, brothers and sisters, 
we're statistically equal to three kilograms of hydrogen gas, yes, 
you plump for the major characteristics you think you'd like to play 
with and code them up into genes and build yourself a little memetic 
beastie that stands in for what you figure pushes and pulls thee and 
me and all our star-spangled relatives, and you breed the little 
buggers in a tasty itemized soup and watch the way the mutants go.
             Wonderful, Ralf. Bug-culture precapitulates 
bugged-culture. No way we can jump you won't know about in advance, 
because the little bugs snitched on us.
             Have you ever wondered, Ralf, if we're all just a big 
stochastic biotic projection for the Charioteers? See how we run.
             But you don't let us mutate, do you, Ralf? That's where 
you fumbled the ball, Dr Asimov, in your ancient poems. The Empire 
will never fall. We will live forever, and the boring Empire with us.
             Anla lashed out viciously with her foot.
             "Will you fucking stop snoring!"


Damien Broderick

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list