Re: A guest post on morality

Ernest N. Prabhakar (
Tue, 26 Aug 1997 09:36:05 -0700 (PDT)

Of course Dustin is more than capable (and welcome) to speak for himself,
but as his uninvited host (now there's an interesting turn of phrase)
I figured I should speak first.

The point Dustin and I have discussed before is not about staring at
contemporary society and observing what happens, but looking at human
history and seeing what people believe. And the conclusion we both draw
is that there is a large body of common belief sometimes called "natural law"
. It is rather like Standard English - no one person may subscribe
to it precisely and entirely, but everyone would recognize that this is
something familiar to them that they feel a kinship to.

unsustainable from a cultural development point of view. In fact, I would argue
that the only reason we as a culture can "get away" with such a philosophically
weak theory is that we've inherited a strongt moral code from our Judeo-
Christian roots. If we were really trying to build a society on those
premises, and live consistently with them, it would rapidly fall apart
(in fact such a thing is arguably happening).

Let me make two counterpoints perfectly clear, though:

1) Belief is not the same as practice
While I would argue that cultures share a belief, I do not mean to imply
that those beliefs are put into practice. As I think I said before,
there are two apparently universal assumptions, which are quite remarkable
when you think about it: all cultures have some kind of morality, and all of
them fail to live up to it

My point is that cultures tend to be strongest when:
- their nominal morality matches closely to "natural law"
- their practice matches to their nominal morality

If, as you posit (and I tend to agree) that having to formalize decisions
about values in order to incorporate them into our computers will throw
our internal inconsistencies into stark relief, I think we will find that
the most succesful trust models will reflect those two attributes.

2) Absolute truth != absolute belief

Most of the arguments against absolute truth, and its heinous effects,
are really about about absolute certainty. I believe in absolute truth;
however, I am not sure I completely know what it is. Therefore, I am
tolerant of deviant ideas from my own, althogh my tolerance goes down
the further their ideas diverge from mine. However, one part of my
absolute morality is that all people are worthy of respect simply by
being human, and therefore I treat even those who disagree with my
with dignity (though some of them I treat harshly, as I would someone
who lives out a belief that there is nothing wrong with killing people).

Even then, though, I am willing to concede that those who are apparently
maximally divergent from my in belief may yet have more correct information
than I in certain areas, and are therefore in principle worthy of hearing.
(Ron being a most excellent example).

This is actually an interesting point for our New Computation Order.
I would argue that there are some very strong implicit value judgements
that have to be made in order to create an integrated economic/
computational model of society. I believe Rohit has a list of them
as part of his Grand Scheme of the future. From what I remember,
I'd say they were much closer to "Traditional Morality" than "Modern
Relativism". And giving the acceleration and explicitness of computer
systems, I'd wager any computer system that tried to 'live out' what modern
moralists say they belive would crash and burn very quickly.

Rohit, you gonna chime in?

-- Ernie P.
Me: How much of computer science is applied philosophy
Rohit: Not enough