Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Morality of the Lone Survivor

Suppose that, suddenly, every person on earth would suddenly be gone from the earth except for you. You will be alone in the universe. Do you think you could not take any moral or immortal actions? Will pissing on people's grave be amoral? Would trying to work to re-create the human race with genetic know-how be amoral? Would bearing your condition with acceptance and bravery count for nothing? Would taking your life be an amoral, meaningless choice?

We have many and strong reason to promote a set of aversions that would make people reluctant to piss on people’s graves. Our desires are better fulfilled in a society where those we live with are interested in helping to fulfill the desires of others, and disinclined to thwart the desires of others. We capture a part of this in the concept of respect. Respecting others means showing a regard for their interests, while disrespect shows a disregard for their interests.

Recall that a desire that P is fulfilled in any state of affairs in which P is true. A person can have a desire for respect even after his death. This desire is fulfilled in any state in which he is treated with respect after his death, and disregarded in any state in which he is treated with disrespect after his death. In fact, an agent might have many and strong desires that he may wish to see fulfilled after his death – desires for the care of his children, desires to promote the fight against particular diseases, desires to have one’s poetry or music remembered for generations to come. All of these are reasons for action to promote a current desire to show respect for the dead.

So we have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to the thought of a person left alone after everybody else is gone pissing on our graves.

It is also the case that we have many and strong reasons to promote in people the desire to restart the human race if the rest of us should be wiped out.

There are a group of soldiers in combat. One of them writes a final letter to his family and says, “In the event of my death, make sure my unborn son gets this letter.” We have many and strong reason to promote an aversion to those kinds of promises. If we are surrounded by people averse to breaking those promises we can have greater confidence that our desires will be fulfilled after our death. Promoting in each other today a strong desire to restore the human race if possible is one way to help to ensure that our current desires will be fulfilled even in a universe in which only one person is left.

The story of the person leaving a will with his lawyer, or setting up a trust, is simply another version of the story of the soldier. The will is a letter that accompanies a request for a promise to “take care of these things if I should die.” Because, even in our final days, we have reason to act so as to realize states of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of our desires become true.

We also have many and strong reasons to promote a sympathy and consideration for the plight of others. We have reasons to be averse to the last person on earth simpering in a corner waiting to die. Our desires – and, in fact, desires we have many and strong reason to promote – are better fulfilled in a state where a person alone on the world reacts to his state with bravery and acceptance, that he may find value in the end of his life even though nobody will follow after him.

We have many and strong reasons to act to create people whose desires are such that they are disinclined to piss on our graves after we die, will try to restore the human race if possible, and to face any fate they cannot change with courage and acceptance.

We have these reasons.

All of these values are dependent on the reasons for action that we have. This is not the morality of a person alone in the universe. This is the morality of 6.5 billion people living on Planet Earth (what those 6.5 billion people have reason to what a lone survivor to want) that is then applied to a state in which one person has survived the disappearance of the rest of us.

There is no evidence here of reasons for action that exist that are independent of desire.

Even if it were to be taken of evidence of such a thing? What are those 'reasons for action that exist'? How do we find them in the real world? What are we really looking at when we claim we are looking at a desire-independent reason for action? The person who wants to propose such a theory would still have a great deal of work to do.

7 comments:

David B. Ellis said...

The thought experiment you describe doesn't say explicitly whether they're talking about all other humans disappearing or all animal life. The first sentence implies the former and the second implies the latter.

Kip said...

Alonzo> "We have many and strong reasons to act to create people whose desires are such that they (1) are disinclined to piss on our graves after we die, (2) will try to restore the human race [after everyone else is dead] if possible, and to (3) face any fate they cannot change with courage and acceptance."

Currently, I have no desire for #1 & #2. Does that make me a bad person? Or am I a good person, and these desires are not ones that a good person would necessarily desire?

יאיר רזק said...

There is no evidence here of reasons for action that exist that are independent of desire.
I never said there are such reasons.

All of these values are dependent on the reasons for action that we have. This is not the morality of a person alone in the universe. This is the morality of 6.5 billion people living on Planet Earth (what those 6.5 billion people have reason to what a lone survivor to want)
Almost. This is the morality that 6.5 billion people, 200 thousand years of (some level of) civilization, and 4.5 billion years of evolution instilled in the one survivor.

We are humans. Not some abstract machines engaged in a calculus of desires. When we act authentically, we reflect our past.

יאיר רזק said...

Kip: Currently, I have no desire for #1 & #2. Does that make me a bad person? Or am I a good person, and these desires are not ones that a good person would necessarily desire?

In my opinion, in case you're interested in it, this makes you a bad person. Or rather, should it really be the case that true self-knowledge will reveal that you lack such impulses, it would indicate that you are a non-normal person, having basic moral intuitions that would be classified as at least non-virtuous and possibly bad by a normative person. (In other words, I'd contend that you lacking such desires is a result of ignorance, in all likelihood.) That is, at least, my current speculation on human nature.

Kip said...

How much money would you be willing to spend to ensure nobody pisses on your grave after you die?

יאיר רזק said...

How much money would you be willing to spend to ensure nobody pisses on your grave after you die?

I'm not sure I'll have one, but if I do - a fair bit. Have you checked how much a tombstone costs? A decent burial plot? I wouldn't waste all that money to be pissed at. As a matter of fact, there are guards and caretakers and so on to protect graves from such offenses. People pay for this protection.

Kip said...

> Have you checked how much a tombstone costs? A decent burial plot?

Not really. I'm not that interested.

> I wouldn't waste all that money to be pissed at.

I doubt someone pissing on the tombstone will hurt it.

> As a matter of fact, there are guards and caretakers and so on to protect graves from such offenses.

I've been to several cemeteries; There was nobody there. Perhaps there are some "elite" cemeteries where someone stands guard, but not the ones I've been to.

> People pay for this protection.

I don't think very many people would. So, how much would you pay for it? If so, and you're right that lots of other people would pay for it, too, then I may just have a good business idea.