Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror

8 October 2011

Saturday


Yesterday in Cosmic Hubris or Cosmic Humility? I wrote the following:

“…finding an alien planet with a biosphere, and intending to settle such a planet with human beings, would present humanity with the choice between two engineering challenges: terraform or adapt. Both are engineering challenges. Both, we will assume, would be difficult but possible. Each engineering challenge presents opportunities and dangers, and each poses moral conundrums that cannot be glossed over… we are confronted with a choice between moral horrors: the horror of human speciation or the horror of terraforming… Some will be horrified at the prospect of transforming the biosphere of an entire planet, while others will be more horrified by the prospect of altering human beings until they are perhaps no longer recognizable as human beings.”

Life is filled with choices between moral horrors when we seem to have only the opportunity to choose the least awful option. This is profoundly dissatisfying, and it can be an especially difficult experience for idealistic individuals who would rather not be confronted with the fact that the world routinely presents us with such dilemmas. It is much more comforting to hear, as in Kantian ethics, that perfect duties can never be in conflict.

A sophisticated deontological theory probably incorporates enough conditions and qualifications that apparent conflicts between moral duties can be explained away as merely apparent and therefore not genuine conflicts between moral duties. Therefore the apparent conflict between the moral duty to maintain the integrity of the pristine biosphere of an alien world with the moral duty to maintain the integrity of the human species must not be a real conflict of duties, but only an apparent conflict of duties. This is one reason that I adopt an axiological approach rather than a deontological approach.

These are technical issues out of moral philosophy, but they have their analogues in ordinary experience. Everyone is familiar with attempts to explain away moral dilemmas, and everyone knows how unsatisfying these attempts can be. Even if, in a moment of self-deception, one manages to convince oneself that there is no moral conflict, the feeling of moral conflict remains.

Sometimes this particular species of dishonesty takes the form of simply denying that a moral dilemma can occur because it is a moral dilemma. In other words, if the prospect of a moral conflict is too difficult to bear, the claim can be made that it has not come about, does not come about, or will not come about — as though moral contradiction were a formal condition of non-existence, like not being self-identical.

I experienced this feeling of the denial of unpleasant moral choices especially strongly some time ago (in September 2004, to be precise), when Foreign Policy magazine ran a cover story on The World’s Most dangerous Ideas. Eight notables were invited to issue a warning for an especially dangerous idea, and Francis Fukuyama (of “end of history” fame) wrote against transhumanism:

“The first victim of transhumanism might be equality. The U.S. Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal,” and the most serious political fights in the history of the United States have been over who qualifies as fully human. Women and blacks did not make the cut in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson penned the declaration. Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. In effect, we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.”

While Fukuyama did not explicitly argue that moral dilemmas cannot occur, implicit in this passage is the idea that something can be such a moral horror — for example, violation of the “red line” drawn around human beings, said to be sacrosanct — that we must do everything we can to prevent it from happening.

This is so far off base that it is difficult to believe that anyone could take it seriously. Life is cheap, and human beings are routinely deprived of their lives on the most tenuous of pretexts. The norm of human moral equality is at times a moral ideal to which we aspire, but it is honored much more in the breach than the observance. So if we have drawn any “red line” around human beings, it is only as a target. That is the reality of the human condition, like it or not.

Have we drawn a red line around human beings?

For Fukuyama, transhumanism represents an intolerable challenge to the presumption of human moral equality, therefore we must not allow it to happen. In a similar spirit, it could be said that the extraterrestrialization of human civilization would pose an intolerable choice between moral horrors, therefore we ought not to allow it to happen. And, in fact, if we wanted to systematically disrupt the emergence of human spacefaring civilization, it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to prevent this coming about.

Should we take proactive measures to prevent ourselves from facing moral dilemmas in the future? I find this a problematic proposition. I find it problematic because the historical record gives us examples of anticipated moral horrors that turned out to be less than horrific once they were upon us. It was with this in mind that I wrote yesterday that, “changes in civilization between now and some future time when this dilemma might be faced will involve changes in our perception of moral dilemmas.”

There is a well-known and oft-quoted passage from Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population in which Malthus wrote:

“Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants, and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. The former, misery, is an absolutely necessary consequence of it. Vice is a highly probable consequence, and we therefore see it abundantly prevail; but it ought not, perhaps, to be called an absolutely necessary consequence. The ordeal of virtue is to resist all temptation to evil.”

Malthus makes a theme of the contrast between misery and vice, which turns up throughout his essay. What exactly does he mean by it? For Malthus, misery is mass starvation brought about by overpopulation, while vice is the use of birth control to limit overpopulation. For Malthus, birth control was such a moral horror that he obviously though it on a par with mass starvation.

While I am sure that there are people who still feel this way today, I am also sure that there aren’t many people who feel this way today, and even hardened opponents of birth control would probably waver if faced with the real prospect of mass starvation. Today, birth control scarcely appears to us as a moral horror, so that the apparently hideous choice between moral horrors — between misery and vice, as Malthus put it — never happened.

With this in mind, we ought to hesitate in any ambitious campaign to “save” our descendents by sparing them a choice between moral horrors they might face in the future. By the time the future becomes the present, the conditions once viewed as morally horrific may have lost some of their horror. They might also have gained in horror; it is entirely possible. We just don’t know. There are a great many things in the world today that we regard with moral horror that would not have made our ancestors blink.

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