The Precession of Morals

Invoking the phrase, “burden of moral responsibility,” adds immediate sentimental gravity to any claim. We must question why this pulls at us and ask, “What is moral responsibility?” We find no shortage of explanations and recommendations. However, the more a system presents itself complete, closed, and immutable, the more susceptible to deconstruction it becomes. Trusting that humanity possesses some innate knowledge tends to become a shortcut. This hands-off approach is equally dissatisfying, because those who have succeeded in the greatest injustices have often believed they were in the right, and the consciences of many followers were likewise morally.

Finally, moral responsibility becomes lost in the question of how many effects, in a long chain of consequences, we should bear. Both the ability to cause a moral act and the line at which we draw the responsibility for effects becomes perplexing. We play with this repeatedly in films wherein a single good act eventually causes terrible misfortune. Thus, from the earliest examples of written human consciousness, we find that recommendations about sex, parenting, leadership, living well, and preparing for death; distinguishing between the actions of someone wild, feral, without conscience, as opposed to one who is moral, and civilized. This calls upon such a wellspring of philosophical debates that one becomes easily lost.

For now, rather than losing ourselves in the validity or invalidity of moral claimants, we should at least hypothesize what we mean by “morals” in society. We will not feel surprise when this becomes a moving target, because society is an adaptive process control system. In the absence of final answers, we must dedicate our efforts to continuous improvement of our questions. Moreover, as methodological naturalists, we are frame this question in terms of machines and systems. Morality deals with consequences of Agency. Once we establish what Machinic Morality might be, we may then more easily explore what political or ethical systems might survive in a theory of Machinic Agency.

Moral debates tend to become linguistic in its constructions, so that even if we share an innate sentiment of moral responsibility, we are very poor at articulating and defending it with any consistency. Some would argue this is the point, morality must be personal or it is mere mimesis; yet this claim also has problems, since humanity invests so heavily in moral instruction and indictment. Predicate logicians like Bertrand Russell took this linguistic element to its limit, proving Schopenhauer’s prediction that doing this effort only proves what was already known at the outset: the words are problem. While predicate logic may expose many fallacies of argumentative expression, even these proceed a priori from a closed system of grammar and terminology.

Recognizing that no amount of consistency in the rules of language may overcome our inability to properly represent what we mean, postmodernists then looked to how words signify meaning to us in the first place. A semiotic system uses rules to signify interconnected representative values. This system may seem, upon local observation, to possess a perfectly central axis. This central axis, however, lies at the Observer! Every word in the lexicon gains meaning relative to other words, creating a tangled web of significance that somehow explains little about the objects in the real world they describe. Thus, experience is necessary to “back” the significance of the semiotic system. The Observer is its only constant, and like the axis of the Earth, it is relative to another coordinating system in space. The “wobble” of the Earth’s axis over prolonged periods of time is its precession. In the same way, cultural relativism merely reveals the precession of moral system.

Moral responsibility attains meaning relative to its semiotic system. That is, the coordinating system that produces valuation-signification represents changes in physical space-time. An observer feels consequences in accordance with rational and emotional over-coding. If we hope to attain a systems theory of morals, we do well to adopt an object-oriented approach to the realm of morality. Like any father watching his son grow in character, we should consider the repercussions of our moral claims. Post-human species and artificial superintelligence will judge us as severely as we have judged. Machinic Agency then implies “the moral responsibility of actions” that we can apply as much to mitochondria, humans, trees, and theoretical robot overlords.

To rephrase our question, then: What moral responsibility can a machine, aggregated out of a complex system of locally predictable rules, attain? This question applies to capitalism, the justice system, the cosmos, artificial superintelligence, and to the extent we maintain methodological naturalism, humans. Morality then implies consequences of actions that appear acceptable in accordance with the greatest number of operating rules built into the normal application of the systems affected.

This is far from satisfactory, because we are still relying on appearance, representation, and sentiment. We easily mistake chaos for patterns, patterns for laws, and systems of laws as design. We must look elsewhere, admitting the depraved stupidity of most moral precessions, if we are not ascribing our gold standard to God, Nature, Soul, Genetics etc. Note the misuse of Darwinian theory of “race” to ascribe moral supremacy to ethnic groups.

A working definition might rely axiomatically on the equal right to self-preservation of a system. Then the moral bearing of our role in events, either managed or mismanaged, points to the amount of power one system takes from another. Power is the relative capacity to autonomous preservation. Humanity has long defined its own privilege, and protected it, as a species. We may feel discomfort in the claim, but the overwhelming evidence would show that morality is a system of rules developed to maintain the power of a privileged system. Without proceeding with the historical analyses of speciesism, vitalism, supremacy, and righteousness (thoroughly examined by others), we should pause to reflect if a system of rules can continuously maintain the power of privilege without some other moral system later repudiating it. In other words, we might ask if justice has always developed only to protect injustice, displacing the moral responsibility to the next generation.

At one time a European might have assumed that “the brute” was less in access of intelligence and morality, giving justification to colonization and appropriation of resources. Then, Darwinian misinterpretation moved this justification to racial supremacy, replacing imperialism with nationalism. The American Dream moved this justification to capitalist speciesism, attempting to play cowboy in one fallen Eden after another. The postmodern tradition unsurprisingly ends in pessimism and criticism without much hope of a better path.

Let us take “power of relative privilege” from the more conservative angle, like a grandfather witnessing the softness of grandsons, viewing this new generation with contempt. He might attempt universal justification: “Life isn’t fair! You think nature cares about us? It is eat or be eaten! Kill or be killed! You’re either on top of the food chain or at the bottom!” Indeed, a total sentiment against objectification would find itself uncomfortable with its conclusions. See how this spectrum plays out with food:

  • “Do not eat other people, they are aware of injustice.” That is an easy pill to take.
  • “Do not eat semi-intelligent human-loving pets and treat domesticated animals humanely when you kill them.” Already the argument becomes awkward in some rooms.
  • “Do not kill endangered animals, as you may eradicate them as a species.” This seems inconsistent with reality, since humans create more extinction via total ignorance than completed through hunting.
  • “Do not kill any animal, for though they may not be capable of self-reflection, they all experience the fear and anxiety of empirical reality, and flee pain and resist death like we do.” Now we would contend with uncomfortable history and our macroeconomic world order.

We can pause here to enjoy the full hypocrisy of the doctrinal statement, “All life is precious.” This always aims in politics at the prevention of suicide, assisted suicide, induced abortion (often ignorant of the harsh reality of the prevalence of natural abortion, of course). The hypocrisy lies in the one saying it, as they demand something of others they gladly do not apply to themselves. “Life is precious,” but only if you fight on the side of Christian faith; stated typically by war-mongering carnivores, living in happy ignorance of the cruelties of child slavery and factory farming that produces their commodities and dirty meat. They happily justify the death of any human if it preserves their concept of the “natural” order. The life of weeds in their garden or bacteria on their hands certainly do not earn the “precious” blessings of the exclusively human sanctification. If this seems extreme, again look to the cruelties already completed when one form-of-life gains preference dogmatically over another.

To resume the spectrum of sentiments…

  • “Do not kill any animal or plant, but only eat the fruits and nuts that nature provides” Now at least there is some feeling of consistency in this morality, though this seem unrealistic without the demise of civilization.
  • “Do not eat any organic material to steal away its power.” This believer will surely die.
  • “Do not destroy anything.” Now we have reached the full circle of precession of morals!

If one makes the moral judgement that man is a stain we must wash from the Earth, so that abstinence and starvation are necessary penance for the power we instinctually steal with rampant depravity, how does this same person have a right to destroy the mitochondria, DNA, and proteins of one’s own body? Surely such morality of non-power leaves one guilty of self-murder! Again, simplistic consistency of logic leads us to self-contradiction or pragmatic impossibility. “Bad Faith” indeed.

This is not mere pedantry or hyperbole. This entire spectrum has recorded examples in thought, expression, belief, and to varying degrees pursuit. More often, each become claimed as a truth but failed in practice by real believers. Surely it is not mere “relativism” when the precession of moral semiotics can move its axis anywhere, yet never close its system without displacement to the next generation.

If we are unsatisfied now, one may further ruin our self-righteousness by considering at what level of complexity an artificial superintelligence would require treatment as capable of moral decisions. We currently house axiomatics as algorithms in computers and we claim they are amoral in their execution. This is little better than claiming that our rules to enjoy meat justify the many millennia of rape, murder, and torture required (we call it breeding, slaughter, and domestication in polite company), how much worse that for all this, we leave many to starvation and disease!

We may have some nostalgia left for the prairie farm where children learned to care for animals but at a distance, as everything must either work or die. Except, this land had inhabitants, and resources stolen from natives here far exceed the colonialism of the preceding era. Glorification of the “Noble Savage” in literature points us at yet another view of morality, which brings us to the Stoics of antiquity – oneness with nature, do not take more than you need, do not leave much of mark through the power you take.

Now we have elucidated many extremes in the spectrum of what power may seem moral to take from another. Self, Family, Tribe, Local, Nation, World, Species, Life, or a negative opposition toward each of these; or, some form of nihilism. The ugliness of the question, as shown, lies in generalization itself! Equality of all Men; no. Equality of all Families; no. Equality of all Tribes, and so on. Generalization requires equality, which semiotic systems provide conceptually, but morality itself is a question of managing or mismanaging attempts at making an existing inequality greater. The dual recommendations of Stoicism and Paternalism are the best idea we have attained thus far. Population density and its implicit tolerance and relativism arrive at these two conclusions repeatedly. Stoicism: “You only control what pain you cause in pursuit of more power, do not pursue too much.” Paternalism: “Leave each other alone, children!”

Rather than attempting a firm answer on any of these concerns here, because this is realm of either ideal justice or non-ideal injustice theories let it suffice that we have a clear understanding of what we mean by moral responsibility – the burden of proof that we bear if when we increase our own power or diminish power of another.

We now have three working definitions. Morality is the system of inequalities, in terms of individual changes in power, one succeeds in believing acceptable. This one shapes through forecasted consequences and pressure from the systems of norms held by Others. Ethics is a system of morals demonstrated in practice by a group. Politics is the coordinating system by which the system of ethics perpetuates itself, through continuous experimentation, in pursuit of minimum viable resilience.

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