[ExI] re Odyssey, hero

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Fri Oct 2 09:24:56 UTC 2015

While one certainly *can* judge anything in any way, there are some 
judgements that make more sense than others. Critiquing the Illiad for 
not taking climate change seriously is kind of pointless. Arguing 
whether Odysseus should be regarded as a hero is far more apt; I can 
imagine ancient Greeks discussing it too at a symposium.

Analysing past views via current views is OK. It is possible to say that 
ancient Greek treatment of women was unequal and indeed unjust according 
to universal timeless principles we have discovered. But we have to 
(more or less explicitely) say "given these ethical positions, Odysseus 
was..." and we can analyse how these views have shifted.

But *starting* with the view that current ethics is the one correct 
ethics and then making judgements about a work that clearly is a great 
example of how some values have shifted enormously seems to be a 
problematic approach. Because it undermines itself: the whole approach 
is predicated on us being right *now*, and using the very same approach 
in the past (using values we now regard as wrong) it would have produced 
bad judgements - so using it has to assume we know we are perfecly right 
now, despite millennia of people being wrong yet convinced about the 
very same thing.

The problem is when the naive projection of our values gets in the way 
of learning anything from the text, or enjoying it. By current standards 
Melville's Moby Dick is a paean to environmental destruction, 
colonialism and racism. Yet it would be stupid to throw it away as a 
deeply immoral book. We can gleefully point out assumptions Melville did 
not notice that date the work, but it is unreasonable to hold him 
morally responsible outside his world. That is just as silly as 
criticising the Illiad's climate change policy.

There are interesting cases like HP. Lovecraft where one can argue that 
racism was actually integral to his stories. I am not convinced this 
renders them unreadable or immoral, but I can see for example why the SF 
community is starting to reconsider giving out awards in his name. As 
transhumanists it behooves us to look at some of the similar skeletons 
in our intellectual cupboards and think about whether to dress them up 
and hide them, drag them into the light, or throw away everything 
tainted with them.

Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Oxford University

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