Watching the re-make of Battlestar Galactica I came across a thought-experiment in practical ethics that seems to me far more interesting than the rather trite runaway-train examples I knew from university ethics classes.
The situation for the thought-experiment is this:
The last remnants of the human race are fleeing their robotic exterminators. Owing to what the (human) military commander perceives as a poor tactical decision, the lawfully-elected civilian President has been incarcerated and martial law has been declared. With the support of civilian and enlisted sympathisers, the President has escaped immediate custody and is on the point of disappearing into hiding amongst the populace, supposedly accompanied by her immediate staff and a few abettors amongst the military.
Up until this point, by the nature of television drama, the focus has been on the President herself and senior military officers, both sympathetic and antagonistic. At the last moment, however, it is made clear that even flunkies and acting extras have an independent moral choice, when the President’s principal aide unexpectedly reveals his personal moral dilemma.
“Madam President. I understand what you’re trying to do…but, it’s going to divide the fleet. At the very best it’s going to create an insurgency against [the military commander]; at the worst, civil war. Taking part in that is a line that I will not cross.”
This strikes me as troubling, but far from unrealistic. I am genuinely unsure what is the morally correct action here.
For the sake of this thought experiment, let us accept without question the idea that our protagonist fully believes the President is the rightful and best leader for the human race. Let us assume he is convinced that the best outcome, both morally and practically, would be for the military dictator to quietly step aside and reinstate the President. Let us also assume he genuinely believes that that will not happen, and that internal opposition will materially reduce the prospects of survival for the remainder of the human race.
If we left it at that, most people would agree that he had no choice but to submit to the military in the interests of the survival of our species.
However, this character is clearly thoughtful and reasonable, so let us add in another opportunity for dilemma. Let us suppose, as is strongly hinted at, albeit not explicitly stated in this drama, that although he genuinely believes all the above, he recognises the possibility that he might be wrong.
This creates a genuinely realistic and sophisticated moral dilemma. His best outcome would be for the President’s insurrection to be swiftly and painlessly successful. The worst outcome would be a protracted civil war.
Should he give precedence to his admittedly fallible assessment of the President’s chances, betray her, side with the military dictator he considers illegitimate, in order to swiftly put down the President’s opposition, in the hope of avoiding the total destruction of humanity at the cost of casting humanity into autarky for the foreseeable future?
Or in the alternative, would it be better to be true to his convictions and back the President, in the hope of preserving a free society, even though he believed that in doing so he was placing the survival of our species at greater risk, but recognised that he might be in error in this assessment? In short, the question is not the commonly poses but simplistic one of “should the moral or the pragmatic choice prevail?” but its more sophisticated child: “Given uncertainty about the future, should we cleave to moral certainty despite grave fears of the likely outcome, or betray our preferences for fear of utter calamity?”
To me, these ten seconds in Battlestar Galactica seem far more interesting than almost anything in my undergraduate ethics course. But if this seems too obscure, or too adolescent, treat this posting instead simply as a comment that there is more serious ethical debate in ten seconds of a popular commercial sci-fi drama than in a month of ‘Newsnight’ interviews.
Following on from Brian’s recent essay in which he wonders about the point of spacefaring, here is a sort of related essay by the science fiction author, John Scalzi. Strongly recommended. (H/T, Boing Boing).
I have read a number of Scalzi’s novels and I enjoyed them a lot. I recommend that people who are interested start with Old Man’s War.
Shannon Vyff of the Immortality Institute gave a talk yesterday in London on the advocacy work that she undertakes, promoting unlimited lifespans. At a basement room in Birkbeck, to an assorted crowd of extropians, greens and interested parties belonging to Extrobritannia, we heard from a person who actually leads the CR life.
Calorific restriction is controversial but the contrast for Shannon lay between her and, perhaps, her audience. As Brits, we are not particularly active in giving time or money to deserving or undeserving causes, and it was quite breathtaking to see an upstanding example of American voluntarism. From my perspective, it was gratifying that Ms. Vyff decided to devote her energy to causes closer to my heart: life extension and anti-aging.
Her other focus is on the introduction of these ideas to a wider audience of primary school children, proving an inkling of the wonders that technology can provide. This is coupled with the joy of thinking positively about the future and working for it and, to my mind, counts as an important antidote to the killjoyous scaremongering of the luddite greens whose tool of social control is to make children ashamed of life itself. Perhaps there are better written books, but not in this field. Vyff wishes to harness the motivational power of science fiction for a new generation.
Like the Libertarian Alliance, the Immortality Institute remains an outlier. Despite debates over entering the mainstream, the group decided to retain its name, a wise decision. As these concepts become more accepted, other groups will spring up to advocate more moderate agendas, but the promotion of pure life extension remains a valuable project in and of itself.
I suppose I should not be surprised that transhumanist ideas, mutilated in a fascist form, would start to reach breakthrough point. Slightly late in the day as this was noted in September, but drinking wine and trawling Stross is one way of dealing with Saturday’s ennui..
So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I [Charlie Stross] hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism:
The new tech is going to foster discrimination and differentiation. This will be enthusiastically taken up by those in power to maintain control. It will probably have a short shelf life as all such attempts to limit the (trans)human spirit do; measured in decades rather than centuries now. No doubt the kleptocratic elites of many countries will jump on this bandwagon to paint their already black rule a darker shade. Tempted enough by shiny power to create closed systems, too stupid to realise that they just shortened the life of their political schemes, by curbing their ability to adapt and change. In the long run, they will either die out or be bought out.
My only prediction: by the end of this century, we are going to be sick and tired of the suffix, -humanism.
There you were, in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers…and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the sea, and who knew that the future was not going to be what respectable people imagined
- George Orwell on his discovery of the writing of H.G. Wells, as quoted by Cynthia Crossen of the Wall Street Journal, in a context that is quite worth reading, as is the follow up discussion at io9. Come to think of it, these sorts of “respectable people” (along with those who believe that housing is not a high risk investment and therefore expect to be bailed out with my savings when this turns out not to be so, those who are in favour of the television licence fee, and…) may be what I have in mind when I proclaim how much I despise the middle class, as I am prone to do.
Via the David Thompson blog – which has a weird and wonderful collection of oddball stuff every Friday, I came across this aspect of science fiction movies.
Some nifty photos and links on this website as well.
Dominic Lawson tears into the moral cant and dubious economics of those who want to festoon the UK with windmills as a solution to so-called man-made global warming. As he says, other countries, such as Germany, have spent large sums on such alternative technologies but have not, yet, been able to retire conventional power stations at all.
I am quite a fan of tidal power, as alternatives go (although I think that no serious energy policy that sidelines nuclear power is worth considering as a practical one). Unlike the wind, which is dependent on weather, tides are as regular as the orbit of the Moon. Reversible turbines could be powered by the regular, big currents that sweep to and fro in the coastal waters of countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Spain. And unlike windmills, they would not, hopefully, create a bloody great eyesore or hazard, either.
“Where are they?” is a question I would rather had remained unanswered, Mbotu mused. The stone-like bench, lost in the giant and austere entry hall, was cold and uncomfortable. It grew more so as time passed. He had been punctual. One does not keep ones God King waiting. The reverse, however, is a given. Mbotu had once done so himself. Was it only a year? Just one year since he had held the highest office there was: Secretary General of the United Nations of Earth. It might as well have been a millennium ago. The now redundant world government had succeeded beyond the wildest imaginings of its 20th century founders. After three centuries, war and everything associated with it had been abolished. No one was hungry; there were no rich, no poor; the environment had been saved and the excesses of unfettered capitalism had been reined in by the gentle power of the institution to which he had given over his life. Mbotu’s thoughts were interrupted by the echoing footfalls of an approaching functionary.
“You will be seen now.”
By the time the elderly Mbotu rose aching from the bench, the figure was already in motion. Instant and unquestioning obedience was simply assumed. No further words were exchanged and he followed as quickly as he could.
A lift took them to the top of the five kilometre ‘palace’, if that was the right term for the new seat of government. When the door opened it was as if he had crossed light-years to another world and in effect he had. This was the private residence of the alien warlord who now claimed the once peaceful and unarmed Earth for his own.
“Sit”, said an imposing alien figure. “Be comfortable”. As if realizing Mbotu’s thoughts, he added “There is no need for formality here. You are fully aware of your place and it is time to integrate you into the Imperial Government. You will be assigned quarters here. You will be restored to your former position and will retain it for so long as you are obedient and successful in carrying out our wishes. Earth must begin to pay its own way in the Empire and repay our investment in it. Our requirements are simple enough. You have advanced technology and global infrastructure. You will convert it to production to support our fleet and invasion forces. If all goes well, in a century or so you will supply troops as well.”
“But… we have no knowledge of arms and war”, interjected an appalled Mbotu, “We have expunged even the basics of dangerous technologies from our libraries and archives. They have been outlawed for generations!”
“We know. That is in fact why I am here and you are there.” After a pause he continued. “Perhaps I should explain the realities of the wider universe. Most civilizations travel a path similar to yours. They go from warlike tribes to larger and larger conglomerates hacking and beating at each other with primitive weapons. Then comes the first technological transition and wars which become more and more terrible. Those who survive become a single global state by one path or another. Since there is no longer a threat to be met, defences atrophy. There is no need for advanced arms, nuclear weapons or standing armies. Most societies degenerate to the point where they have only small special units for solving problems for the supreme ruler of the planet.”
He continued. “A few, like you, are more extreme. You have eliminated your military entirely. You have destroyed traditions which reached far into your past and once allowed the training of effective soldiers. Even if we had allowed you ten years warning you could not have fielded a fighting force worthy of respect. You blocked the development of nanotechnology, advanced spaceships, nuclear power, directed energy weapons, force fields and a hundred other things you deemed too dangerous. Your population became coddled and addicted to a safe and easy, if somewhat impoverished, life. The concept of self-defence, even if you still allowed so much as a sharp blade to be manufactured or kept, have become as alien to your population as invaders from another planet.”
“You believe you had a golden age, but soon enough your population will be taught the lie and will support our rule. By our standards you accomplished a global and equal poverty for all but the ruling class like yourself. We will return adventure to your decadent and risk averse populace. We will give you the option of thousand year lifespans and travel to the stars. Your children will be will be our willing adventurers and soldiers.”
Mbotu, steeled by life as a bureaucrat, diplomat and politician, stayed calm. “You say most. Obviously you are an exception.”
“Yes. A very small number of civilizations follow the path to Empire. From time to time we fight each other at the edges of our vast catchments, but for the most part we take the easier path. There are so many like you that it would be a waste of resources to spend our time locked in bloody combat and destroy the very planets and populations we seek.”
Mbotu changed the subject. “How long have you known of us?”
“Space is vast and the stars are like dust. Occasionally we stumble upon a pre-technological species, but for the most part we just listen. By the time we hear the first radio broadcast your sort are already into the endgame of the nation state. When we first arrived your Europeans were nearly ready for harvesting but there were still many capable of causing us annoyance. Your United States had the technology and fight to give us big problems. A deadly challenge to their supremacy might well have pushed them into developing some of the now proscribed technologies and made invasion too costly for us. Others like China and India had populations whom we would have had to mostly wipe out to stop them from fighting.”
“Over the millennia we have learned the virtue of patience. A few centuries is usually enough. Once you are decadent, disarmed and centralized…” the alien did what could pass for a shrug, “We arrive with a show of overwhelming force and you surrender without a shot. There are usually a few hold outs, but they are easily dealt with and turned into object lessons without wrecking what we want: a developed planetary civilization that will supply us the tools for the next conquest. You were not able or willing to fight for your freedom.” He paused for effect. “And now you are ours.”
[Copyright 20090712 Dale Amon, all rights reserved]
Like many people, I thoroughly enjoyed the new Star Trek film, which seeks to “re-boot” the series by going back to the early days of Messrs Kirk, Spock, Scotty and the rest in much the way that the makers of Casino Royale tried with some success to do with 007. I liked the paciness, humour and action of the ST film a lot; some of the cast were great. I thought the fellow who played Spock stole the movie with such brio that he should be probably up before a court for grand larceny. But I have a reservation: I thought that the guy playing Kirk was often a total jerk, albeit with some redeeming qualities, and it was wildly improbable that a starship would have employed him as a commander at that point. Yes, I know that the very premise of the movie is fanciful, but there has to be enough credibility and character development to make it work at even the level of fantasy (that is why Lord of the Rings triumphed as a movie series, for instance).
And this guy thinks the same way. But even so, Stark Trek is well worth the money and far more enjoyable than a lot of SF films I have seen in recent years.
Io9 lists their ten best sci-fi libertarian stories: and the mix is an interesting combination of the obvious and the outliers. The anarcho-socialist tradition, mostly British, is referenced, revealing some surprises on the influences that could be fictionalised as libertarian utopias. My own favourites are that hoary old goat, the fabian Wells, providing a counterpoint to his scientific socialism, and Eric Frank Russell with his homage to Gandhi.
Some would criticise the absence of L. Neil Smith, Ken McLeod and others, but lists are always a springboard for discussion, an opportunity to find works that did not blip the reading radar.
You might find this initial pilot for an animated not so far off future, ‘Tranquility Dome’, a lot of fun. The author, Chip Prosser, asked me to take a look and now I am wondering how soon the next episode will be available!
There was coffee. Life would go on.
- William Gibson. The Winter Market.
In truth, the anthology Burning Chrome contains some very fine short stories. I tend to think that it is a shame that Gibson gave up publishing stories pretty much immediately after he published his first novel, however iconic that novel might have been.