Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Klorn and the Bozos

A member of the studio audience asked the following question:

Let's imagine a planet, far far away, called Zongo. Zongo is inhabited by two forms of intelligent life: the Bozos, who have lived on Zongo for millions of years, and the Klorns, who landed on Zongo a couple thousand years ago.

They have roughly equal intelligence, but Bozos, which are the size of fleas, are at the hunter-gatherer stage of civilization, while Klorns, which are as tall as mountains, have the vastly sophisticated technology of an intergalactic civilization - they can replicate anything they need or desire, they are invulnerable from any attack a Bozo could muster, and they can literally destroy every living Bozo with a single thought.

Klorns and Bozos are by no means strangers: Klorns have mapped out every single molecule in the body of every single Bozo (along with all the other flora and fauna of Zongo) - they know absolutely everything there is to know about Bozos. Meanwhile, the Bozos are forced to closely keep track of every Klorn, because they live in terror of them, and want to stay out of their way.

It's not that the Klorns hate the Bozos, or want to kill them. It's simply that Klorns do not regard Bozos as people. They do not matter to the Klorns at all. Now: does a Klorn have any ethical responsibility towards a Bozo?

I am going to do what Randy calls “typical Alonzo” - over-explain my answer.

We need to establish some additional facts.

First, there is no intrinsic value. Philosophers often use stories like this so as to test our moral intuitions, thinking that this is a way to map the universe of “intrinsic ought” If the question is, “Are there any intrinsic oughts in the possible behaviors of the Bozos?” The answer is “No.”

Second, there is no free will. desirism is not only compatible with determinism. It requires determinism. If the question is, “How shall we utilize our freedom of will?” Desirism can do nothing but throw up its hands and run away.

But . . . There must be some sense to the phrase “could have done otherwise.” There must be some way to alter behavior.

Specifically, for moral terms to be relevant, we must assume that the Klorns and Bozos are intentional agents who act to fulfill their desires given their beliefs. Furthermore, they must have some malleable desires - this is where the “could have done otherwise” emerges.

Finally, they must have something like a reward system - a way of altering their behavioral rules (desires and aversions) through rewards and punishments. (There might be other ways of altering behavior, such as with pills or surgery, but this would fall under the rubric of “medicine”, not “morality”. Morality concerns the use of rewards and punishment.)

Without these, any use of moral terms would not make sense. It would be like asking about the mass of an idea or the color of height.

Here, the statement, “[the Klorn] are invulnerable from any attack a Bozo could muster” comes into play. If this means that there is no possibility of reward or punishment, then the game is over. If there is no way to reward or punish effectively, there is no sense to the question, “What should we reward and punish?”

However, the ability to reward or punish requires only the ability to fulfill or thwart desires. If the Klorn have a desire to be thought well of by others, the Bozos can thwart this desire by thinking ill of them. The Bozos do not need the ability to launch a military campaign, but they must have the capacity to make true (it false) some proposition P that the Klorn want to be false (or true, respectively).

So, now, do the Bozos have reason to use reward and punishment to alter the behavior of the Klorn, using these tools to promote behavior that contributes to the fulfillment of their desires?

Obviously, they do.

Do the Klorn have reason to promote among other Klorn concerns relevant to the well-being of the powerless?

Well, relevant to one of the comments above, Klorn have reason to promote among other Klorn a desire to be thought of well by others. Thus, they have reason to create in other Klorn the types of sentiments that the Bozos can use in influencing Klorn desires.

Similarly, we should assume that the Klorn have the ability to fulfill or thwart the interests of other Klorn. Under this assumption, Klorn have reasons to promote in others who CAN thwart the interests of others an aversion to doing so. This will generalize into an aversion to thwarting the interests of the Bozos as well. While we can imagine the Klorn promoting an aversion only to thwarting the interests of other Klorn, it is not, in fact, easy to hone desires so precisely. If you build exceptions into the sentiments, then you run the risk that at least some people will see you or somebody you care about as one of the exceptions.

Finally, I want to address a fact that is extremely relevant and almost always overlooked when addressing these types of questions:

You and I, and the people reading this argument, are not impartial observers. We are a part of a real world community and we have reasons to question the effects of our answers in the real world.

We have reasons to have people in the real world have an aversion to abusing power. We have reason to promote in others an aversion to taking advantage of us when we are vulnerable - when we sleep, if we are sick, when they have a weapon and we don't. This means that we have reason to promote an aversion to taking advantage of power among those who read these words. One way to promote such an aversion is to say that it would be wrong for the Klorn to harm the Bozos - that they would be deserving of condemnation - and to praise them if they concern themselves with the interests of the Bozos.

One might be tempted to see this as a lie that we tell in order to trick other people into having particular beliefs. We must "believe" that the Klorn have moral responsibilities towards the Bozos because if failure to believe or promote this fiction makes us a danger to each other. However, this interpretation is mistaken. If by saying that it would be wrong for the Klorn to ignore the interests of the Bozos I mean by this, "people in our community generally have many and strong reasons to promote a sentiment of aversion to the Klorn disregarding the interests of the Bozos," . . . if this is what "wrong" means, then the statement that the Klorn ought to consider the interests of the Bozos is a true statement.

Consider the fact that were are not impartial observers, that we use moral terms to promote useful desires and aversions among members of our own community, and the question of whether the Klorn ought to take the interests of the Bozos into consideration becomes a question of whether we have reasons to promote a sentiment of disapproval among fellow humans towards Klorn who disregard the interests of the Bozos.

The statement that "we humans discussing this hypothetical example have reason to promote among each other an aversion to the Klorn abuse of power" is a true statement.

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