Cultivating Machinic Agency

Causal Agency and Moral Agency have a congested interrelationship throughout philosophy, one that now plays out heavily in postmodernism-inspired film. The Matrix and its sequels explore the inability to distinguish between the simulation and the real, Blade Runner and its sequels explore the inability to draw a clear line between replicant humanity and legacy humanity, Inception explores the inability to base judgement of value upon the possibility of a higher or lower plane of consciousness, Westworld (tv) explores the line between artificial and human self-reflective conscious, and the reborn Planet of the Apes franchise explores the line between animal and human intelligence and rights.

When we study the vegetation in our desert of the real, when at last we admit how arbitrarily humanity draws up the lines of moral agency and political rights, an entire history and an immense contemporary system of inequality and injustice crash upon us. This is our hyperreality. At one time, as Nietzsche pleaded, we might have drawn up new lines of virtue and meaning, but this can only succeed when local, physically present, development of meaning is more prevalent than virtual, simulated meaning.

Melancholia, nihilism, hypocrisy, denial; these are all sources of complacency. Supposing we want to build a better understanding of the machines of our systems, we must begin from an assumption of power. The partisan nature of meaning emerges entangled with the only trait that remains, for now, distinctly human: the long memory of symbols of death, and the denial that death of Other implies death of Observer.

First, we should look with some honesty at the inequalities we believe we left behind. We will find that the line drawn in philosophy between human freedom versus the automated machines of physics and nature justified, repeatedly, enslavement, domination, inequality, torture, rape, and domestication. A brief review of the ideological between the lines of Western philosophical statements on intelligence, freedom, equality, and political economy will reveal the evolution of moral exceptions granted to the systemically privileged. At each phase, the exception moves but takes the same form, privilege provides itself exceptional claims to power based on the relegation to animal nature and machine determinism for the unprivileged.

To reclaim our capacity to anchor moral responsibility, we must embrace the loss of distinction between animal, machine, and human. This holds sweeping ramifications in judgment of past and present. Even if, out of privileged weakness, someone remains dedicated to the current regime, they should at least give honest admission of the arbitrary lines that this will draw.

The question, if we are to look it in the eyes, unflinchingly and courageously, desires to understand what morality we ought to pursue when we are not special in the universe, when we are inseparable from our physicality and ecology. It is an immense re-valuation of all values that even openly fascist modernity could not begin to mobilize. To remove the center is to open us to relativity: divinity has not blessed us with superiority, we did not evolve for carnism like proper carnivores, we are different from animals only because we develop and internalize language, we are distinct from hypothetical superintelligence only because we fear and deny our own death. We must establish a new set values based on the unlimited interconnection of will-to-power. To limit this artificially, as Western traditional oppression has, to one form-of-life, judged territorially according to intelligence, social class, ethnic appearances, gender, religion, or geography; this is the height of all ignorance.

Machinic Agency is post-nihilistic. We can only understand morally effective action, in which an entity is the steward of the efficient cause, by answering what it would take for an automaton, either super-intelligent biological or technical machine, to gain the status of moral agency. Just as Quantum Liberty removes the distinction between free will and determinism, our understanding of moral virtualization must reset our valuation-signification without distinguishing between animal, machine, and human. Nietzsche asserts that nihilism takes place when we find, “That the highest values are devaluing themselves” (WTP Aph. 2). This is the case today, when the religious privilege of stewardship results in massive environmental destruction, when political freedom results in mass incarceration, and capitalist modes of ensuring security of food and medicine leaves ghettos and nations dying from meats that slowly poison the “disposable” class.

Machinic Agency then requires a Turing test for morality. We are simply asking, “At what point does an assemblage of parts, biological or mechanical, become identified as making decisions based on value-judgements?” This test defines the artificial limits we establish for morally significant actions.

While we will later show the progression of privilege based on machination, its first major entrant also provides our starting point for the Machinic Agency test. By doubting everything except rational certainty, Descartes begins from his own existence then sets up two criteria for recognizing the consciousness of others. First, an assemblage will need the ability to respond with original expressions of normal language, not only through direct interaction (like the Turing test), but in spontaneous group dialogue that understands the context and signification of conversation among humans. If an assemblage cannot overhear a conversation, relate its implications to its historical and political context, judge it based on a value system, and defend the rationalization spontaneously, then it must not be equally human. Second, while Descartes supposed someone might build machines that could perform extraordinary tasks, and we may teach animals to perform tricks, the ability to attain virtuosity of action, including skillful improvisation rather than mere rule-based execution, was a human capacity.

We immediately the problem of privilege in this test, because it is relative to the intelligence and values of the observer. Descartes generates a test that assures anyone who cannot directly participate through displays of intelligence, language, education, and skill are lesser beings, unworthy of the privileges of the bourgeois intellectual European male. This method easily becomes a justification for sexism, colonialism, despotism, sexual repression, forced poverty, carnism, and slavery. He believes, that if we cannot recognize someone’s intelligence and virtuosity, we have no moral obligation to treat them as an equal.

Again, by means of these two tests we may likewise know the difference between men and brutes. For it is highly deserving of remark, that there are no men so dull and stupid, not even idiots, as to be incapable of joining together different words, and thereby constructing a declaration by which to make their thoughts understood; and that on the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect or happily circumstanced, which can do the like.

– Descartes

We can juxtapose this with Hume’s empiricism, which through methodological naturalism recognizes the exceptions we ought to build into our theory of justice based on the development of moral understanding, providing the example that, if a young bachelor makes politically inflammatory statements the government should excuse for a time his youthful rebelliousness, while a father who engages in plans to take up arms to depose the king bears a greater guilt of treason; the guilt of the crime for Hume must match the burden of responsibility the agent bears through experience and understanding.

The arguments explored through our time in the desert revealed that the debate of metaphysics was always the foundation for the moral systems of inequalities established afterward. Nihilism removes this justification of privilege. We have already seen that changing the prevalent ideological system changes the outcomes that early modern philosophers allowed to taint their objectivity. The “masses” have may have subtle natural differences in cognitive ability, but even these remain suspect. Education, health, economic, and social factors produce the differentiated performance abilities. Early modern philosophers and European political systems in general treated these differences static and hereditary, based on gender or ethnic group, and we continue to recover from the consequences.

We may further confound this problem by recognizing how fluid our conception of which actions in our children are part of a “phase” and at what point the “know better” – though it seems more likely this is because they learn inconsistency of beliefs, contradictory assertions, and genuine hypocrisy from parents more than anything else. Thus, the twofold test from Descartes will certainly not help us. As Heidegger shows, Nietzsche did not establish nihilism, he revealed as an “always already” existent socio-historical process.

Philosophy often works better in science fictional scenarios. If we imagine developing a breed of intelligent chimpanzees, as what point would we believe their actions have moral significance? We would need them to have the capacity to articulate signification of non-present concepts using language. They would need to recognize patterns of intelligence in one another that make dialogue worthwhile for survival and coordination. We would need them to possess memories of past events and express them to their offspring. They would need to understand from the death of another intelligent chimpanzee that they will also die. They would need to recognize that every member of their species bears equal risk of death. They would need to value development of a social system over the hedonistic egoism in the face of this existential crisis.

Now we have evolutionary utility for morality. Realization of death, memory of what is absent, abstraction of concepts, internalization of parental vocalization, externalization through typography, these are all developments we see in our own children. Machinic Morality is the tension of short-run and long-run consequences, both in external ramifications, and in self-conscious understanding, compared against our system of values. We are capable of Machinic Agency when we have sufficient narrative and identity that our choices may either destroy, refine, or strengthen. We do this in the context of predicted outcomes for personal, interpersonal, social, and environmental preservation-enhancement.

Machinic Morality admits that distinguishing between sensory virtualization and the biological machine that produces this virtualization is a false dichotomy. Privilege of one form-of-life over another is no longer justifiable. Our special place in our socioeconomic, technological, and biological ecologies is that of paternalism: cultivation, protection, and stewardship. Any distinction between human rights and animal rights under supersensory is false. Adult humans should not possess any privilege against animals that they would not enjoy against another human. When we better understand dolphins, dogs, or trees as children of our environment, we may again act as stewards, attain to wisdom, guaranteeing the ecologies for which we have a duty of care.

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