RE: Defining Right and Wrong

From: Ben Goertzel (
Date: Sun Nov 24 2002 - 05:59:40 MST

MRA wrote:
> For the first... I am positing that moral Rightness is an *absolute*
> quality of the universe, therefore if you are correct in saying that
> ethical/moral values cannot be tested against reality, then my whole
> argument falls. Indeed, if you are correct, then *any* argument that
> suggests there is absolute right and wrong will fall, and all
> morality is arbitrary - merely a random side-effect of human social
> consciousness. I suggest that any action taken by a sentience can be
> judged against this absolute value, by the sentience itself, viewed
> through a window of ver own intelligence and understanding of the
> situation.

My views on this issue are subtle and, although quite clear in my mind,
rather difficult to verbalize.

I find there are several complementary valid perspectives on ethics/morals.

>From one such perspective, indeed, ethics/morals cannot be tested and are
"arbitrary." Testing can tell you how well a given goal is being
achieved -- but ethics/morality sets the goal. And the only way to judge
how good one goal is versus another, is to create a meta-goal: a goal for
the process of goal-creation.... But then how does one judge the meta-goal?
etc. etc.

>From another perspective, though, I don't really think all ethical/moral
systems are equal. I feel some have more "integrity" than others, in a
sense I find hard to pin down. By "integrity" I don't just mean
self-consistency and self-honesty; but I admit I don't (yet) have a fully
rigorous characterization of what I do mean.

Perhaps a superintelligent superwise mind will progress beyond where I have
on this issue (it would hardly be surprising!!) and form a useful notion of
the "integrity" (or whatever) of moral/ethical systems (i.e. a useful

My guess, then, is that this will not take the form of a single criterion of
Rightness, but rather of a valuation on the space of moral/ethical systems
that recognizes multiple inconsistent moral/ethical systems as essentially
equally valuable.

And, I doubt that the meta-ethic will involve allowing all beings to have
universes that maximize their own subjective desires at each point in time.
It's *possible* that it will, but I doubt it.

But now I've slipped into psychoanalyzing minds that are far far beyond
me... the confidence level is sinking!!!

> > Of course, some ethical/moral systems could be logically
> > inconsistent -- that is one way of narrowing down the set
> > of all possible ethical/moral systems ... iff one believes
> > that ethical/moral systems *should* be logically
> > consistent. Most human ethical/moral systems don't seem
> > to me to be very logically consistent...
> >
> If you are correct, then is HIGH TIME that we made a logically
> consistent, and empirically verifiable ethical/moral system. If
> Friendly AI isn't it, then I'm betting on the wrong horse.
> Michael Roy Ames

In my view, Friendly AI isn't really an ethical/moral system. (Of course,
Eliezer may disagree!). In my view, it might rather be thought of as

-- trying to encourage a certain probability distribution on the space of
ethical/moral systems.

-- trying to promote certain ethical/moral principles that do not however,
in themselves, make a whole & consistent system

For example, Friendly AI is trying to encourage ethical/moral systems that
involve significant compassion for all living/sentient organisms, and that
involve respect for freedom of living/sentient beings. (It is doing more
than this also, of course.) These are principles which some moral/ethical
systems will agree with more than others. Friendly AI wants to encourage
future superintelligent AI's to evolve moral/ethical systems that will agree
with these principles...

On a slightly different note, I am still not sure what you mean by
"empirically verifiable ethical/moral system." This almost strikes me as a
nonsequitur. Could you give me an example of the empirical verification of
an ethical/moral system, and then an example of the empirical refutation of
one? Perhaps that would help me to better understand what you mean by these


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