Re: A guest post on morality

Ron Resnick (
Tue, 26 Aug 1997 18:38:13 +0200

Ernest N. Prabhakar wrote:
> >From Thu Aug 21 14:01 PDT 1997
> From: Dustin <>
> To: "Ernest N. Prabhakar" <>
> Subject: Re: Evolutionary thoughts (fwd)
> MIME-Version: 1.0
> Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII
> Content-Length: 3793
> > Yup, that mailing list.
> >

>Took me a while, but I did find some messages from the moral relativism
>thread--I think that is what you mentioned to me. Looks like an
>interesting discussion. One thing caught my eye, so I'll comment even
>though it wasn't at all you who said them:

Oh oh. After Wayne's palate cleansing monkeys (quite funny, btw),
I wasn't going to mess up these waters again. But since Ernie's
bringing in outside troops, I suppose I can do the same :-).

My brother has a bit of an interest in these things.
Here's his 2 bits on this thread. (He was being cc'd by Wayne
& me at the time, you'll recall). I spoke to him on the phone

about this a bit afterwards - this Binmore fellow apparently

makes the most progress in the directions I've been troubled with.

I suppose I should throw him on my reading list too....

Uri is finishing an MA at Hebrew U dealing with applying game theory

to political models. Something about modelling folks like Arafat

& Netanyahu as 'players' in a game, tuning the model, and trying

to use it predictively for future outcomes in various scenarios.

I've never entirely understood it.

So while he's in a poli sci faculty, he spends most of his time

researching game theory & mathematical & economics papers for his model.

As you see, he's no help at all to a relativist like me - he's
got his ethics firmly planted on the capital G Good and capital E
Evil pillars.


Uri -

Can I forward this to the FoRK mailing list? (That means it gets

publicly archived

on the web, and gets read by >50 people).


Uri Resnick wrote:


> Ron.

> So, you've joined philosophy class. (I didn't quite make out

> exactly who said what but it sure sounded interesting anyway - I
> assume the bit about family gatherings and rituals was you)

Yes :-).

> See what you've been missing;

> you could have done an artsy degree like me and done nothing but

> ramble about such nonsense for credit. (Of course, then you would have

> ended up an artsy bum like your kid brother.)

> A couple of simple things seem to have been missing, though, from the

> learned discussion. Noone in there seems to have heard about Kant, or

> Rawls, or Binmore. Not that these guys make too much of a difference

> to the basic gist, but at least they tried.

Perhaps you could summarize some of the basic contributions of these?

> The bottom line, though, I think, is that it's all kind of missing

> the point, which is: it's kind of futile to have a learned discussion

> about something which you either believe in or don't. If you don't, no

> amount of tonsil stretching pontification will change that. Same thing

> if you do.

True, but I think there is value in trying to figure out what you do

believe. The point isn't convincing others, I think, but rather
trying to come to grips

with what your internal values are. I don't dwell on these things,

but it is important to spend some time on them

when you want to put the rest of your life in context.

> Uri.


> By the way, the word 'hypocrites' made its way in their a few times.

> Who are the hypocrites? The guys who preach goodness and act rotten,

> or the guys who preach emptiness and pretty much toe the line in \
> everything but rhetoric?

I think in my usage of the term, I primarily meant the former. But

ultimately everybody is hypocricital (or, more gently, has
inconsistent internal value

propositions). It can't be helped. BTW, this is not just a minor issue -

I think it's about to explode in real world importance and urgency.

Information networks, of the type that I and some friends discuss

regularly, are combining informational resources about ourselves
and others together

with massive processing power. The result is that we are delegating our

value judgements to software agents that act on our behalf to gather,


filter, collate etc. information. Now, we as people have inconsistent

and variable policies on how we relate to information. What we will make

public, what we will authorize to whom. But our agents insist

on rigour and consistency. Programming & customizing our agents to be


is going to mean staring right into the mirror and confronting our


It's going to be a rude awakening for most.

See? Artsy philosophy suddenly gets very relevant in the gritty techno


That's why I think you might be quite interested in the issues I've been

thinking about - everything from economics & governments & taxation to


organization and responsibility. And more. But all mapped to the


technologies that are changing all these things. There's tons of techies

who understand what 'Java' is, but haven't got a clue what its relevance

is to an emerging world. Then, there's lots of people thinking about the

changing, globalizing world but don't really have a feel for the


That space in the middle - trying to pull it all together, seems to be a

very rarified atmosphere.


And responding to just one point of Dustin's:

> As long as I'm a rational being, intellectual honesty will force me to
> acknowledge that the evidence of history and humanity demonstrates the
> existence of the natural law.

See, I just don't get that part. 'Rational being', 'natural law'.
What are those? The system is tautological. If you have a sense
of 'absolute', then sure, you have a sense of 'natural law' and
'rationality'. But you can't prove 'absolute' by assuming it.
What "evidence" am I supposed to appeal to
to 'demonstrate' its existence? As Uri notes, ultimately these
things are matters of belief, not proof. How did he put it to me?
You can't prove an 'ought' statement from an 'is' statement.

You look at the world around you and look inside yourself, and
try to understand what you think and believe, and that's about it.
You can't ask me to appeal to a different 'intellectual honesty'
than the one I apparently have. I look around and see a world of
bad guys who get away with it, far more than bad guys who get caught.
Crime does pay, apparently. Where's the 'evidence' of natural law here?
Again, not trying to get anyone to see it my way - just pointing
out that the Dustin's words above are hardly as intuitive (to me)
as they seem to be to him.

> Dustin