[extropy-chat] Books: Harris; Religion and Reason

Russell Wallace russell.wallace at gmail.com
Thu Jan 12 03:11:52 UTC 2006

On 1/12/06, Jef Allbright <jef at jefallbright.net> wrote:
> When Robert has proposed destroying some portion of that which he very
> publicly and very obviously values, he was trying to promote
> intelligent debate about a certain class of decision-making that is
> very difficult for many people to even consider, let alone decide.
> Sometimes a military leader is faced with the difficult choice of
> sacrificing some of his troops in order to save the rest.  Sometimes
> an individual will sacrifice himself to allow others to survive in an
> overloaded lifeboat.  Sometimes a surgeon will advise a patient to
> undergo radical amputation in order to have a chance at life.
> Sometimes a politician will risk loss of popularity in order to
> contribute to a greater good.
> And too often people recoil in moral repugnance for lack of seeing the
> bigger picture.

Thinking a bit more about it, I suppose in a sense I didn't really answer
this. I'll try for a more complete answer.

Eliezer makes a useful distinction between, as he uses the terms, "morals"
(utilitarian analysis of what is good, what ends we aim for) and "ethics"
(restrictions on what means we should employ for some end even when we think
the overall result will be good); I think this is a useful distinction, and
I will use this terminology here.

For example, I think child welfare is infinitely more morally important than
animal welfare; so if I have a choice between donating money to an animal
welfare charity and a child welfare charity, I'll choose the latter, no
problem. But suppose I have the opportunity to steal money from the former
to give it to the latter? This would be _moral_ (achieving a good end) but
my _ethics_ prohibit me from doing it. One need not regard this as an
ultimate condition; one could hold the view that a god would have no need
for ethics; the fact that we humans are fallible suffices to make it
appropriate to be cautious when considering whether the end justifies the

Now, along with (as far as I recall) everyone else, I rejected Robert's
proposal on _ethical_ grounds. But his proposal was a utilitarian one - it
was claimed to be _morally_ right - something that would lead to the
smallest amount of harm in the long run; and you have a valid point when you
say that we should also be willing to discuss unpleasant ideas in moral
terms. (If we decide something is morally right, whether it's ethically
permissible would be a separate discussion.) So I'm going to answer it in
moral terms.

Today we have a hard won world order - not by world government, thank God,
but by consensus, at least among all civilized countries and most of the not
so civilized ones - that the slaughter of populations is not permissible. It
wasn't always that way. Last century, the Germans set up death camps and
killed millions of Russian civilians; the Russians retaliated in kind. The
Japanese army went on genocidal killing sprees wherever they set foot; the
Americans carpet-bombed Japanese cities. I'm not blaming the Allies for
their actions under the circumstances, but I think it's a good thing we
managed to get to a point where that sort of thing is no longer considered
business as usual; we paid a bloody high price to climb out of that pit, and
we should think long and hard before stepping back into it.

My Visualization of the Cosmic All isn't clear enough to predict exactly
what would happen if Robert's proposal were followed, but here's what I
think would happen:

While I can't speak for Muslim governments, I suspect that as far as most of
them are concerned, we in the West aren't their favorite people; I imagine
they think we're decadent and godless, and it's not like there isn't truth
in that. But most of them recognize that as a matter of ethics and practical
reality, it's best to deal in a civilized fashion even with people you're
not wildly fond of on an emotional level. They recognize that there is a
line, and mad dogs like al-Qaida have crossed it. So Colonel Gaddafi buries
the hatchet with the West, and the Pakistanis help hunt down terrorists in
the mountains.

If we start pre-emptively dropping hydrogen bombs on a bunch of Muslim
cities, that hard-won order will be gone. We'll be back to a world where the
meanest killers come out on top. The first wave of nuclear explosions won't
be the end of the bloodshed, it'll be the start of it. Yes, the West could
win a global conflict as far as military strength goes, but at what cost?
Not just external, but internal. Remember the original proposal was the
elimination of all "faith-based thinkers". Should the Americans nuke Alabama
to get rid of their faith-based fifth column? Should the Alabamans march
west to slay the godless Californians in a pre-emptive strike? Actions have
echoes; I'm reminded of the time some Latin American governments started
talking about the First World banks "forgiving" their national debts (i.e.
defaulting); it stopped when their own citizens started writing to the
taxman, "Well our government is talking about forgiveness of all those
billions so I've a little debt here you can forgive". None of this is proof,
of course, but I think it at the very least casts grave doubt on the claim
that the original proposal would be beneficial in the long run. (And after
all, doubt is a reason for having ethics rather than just utilitarian

Normally I wouldn't bother replying at all to proposals that nobody agrees
with - there's no need. But I think the challenge to think rationally about
unpleasant ideas is a fair one, and perhaps answering it in this case has
been a useful exercise; there might be a need to do it in the future in some
less clear-cut case.

- Russell
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