Re: Ethical theories

From: Philip Sutton (
Date: Sun Feb 01 2004 - 06:35:35 MST

Hi Ben,

Here are my first dribbles of thought on the 'ethical theories' thread...

Are you looking for only theories on ethics or perhaps including theories
on wisdom too?

Ethics are (simplistically?) about right and wrong - where I think the
issue of 'right conduct' in relation to 'the other' I think is central.

But I picked up a feeling from your comments that you are definitely
covering the notion of 'wise conduct' as it bears on the self's best
interest - for example "treat others well because that will allow a higher
level of personal self-development".....

The issue of how we/AGIs can judge masses of systems that may or
may not be directly commensurable still remains whether the focus is
on ethics (with regard to the 'other' or wisdom in relation to both the self
and the 'other').

I haven't yet thought enough about your idea of having a meta-level
system for comparing ethical and wisdom systems. I did have a go at
something like this years ago when I was trying to develop ways of
judging wildly different economic systems as part of a virtual reality
exercise - ie. each scenario would have it's own internal logic and
cultural success factors - but how would you choose between the
preferred futures (using your current values? or the values within each
scenario? or using a meta-judgement system that somehow allows you
to be across all these systems at once?)

There's some interesting insights from psychological research that
suggests that people's long term circumstances have surprisingly little
effect on their subjective sense of hapiness. People tend to have a
normal state of happiness that is set by internal factors and they trend
back to this state after deviations caused by external changes.

Having such a psychology perhaps makes it easy for humans to be
able to live stably in a staggeringly diverse number of ways - as shown
by anthropological and sociological studies - so adding to human
resilience and survival. (Having said this however, I'm not sure what
this thought has to do with your core interest of finding a meta-
comparison/judgement system for ethical/wisdom(?) theories!!!)

You original line of inquiry started when you ported the meta approach
to judging scientific systems to the ethical theories domain. But isn't
the scientific domain about what 'is'/what 'could be' rather than what
'ought' to be? Using scientific insights we can imagine alternative
possible states of reality. But ethics and wisdom acutally influences
which of those states we try to bring into existence.

Maybe ethics only can be created by social beings. ie. ones that are
programmed to consider the needs of 'other' as well as the needs of
'self'. Wisdom could be generated/practiced by a non-social being as a
technique for seeking the super-optimised achievement of the being's
felt objectives.

But if a being can change its own objectives then how can it judge what
is wisdom? Doesn't everything collapses back into relativism.

Maybe what we are after is a solution that is not actually infintely meta
but a more mundane thing......given that we have more than one being
in the universe now that can reflect on how the world could be
structured and that these beings can act socially to find a mode of
moving into the future that improves the chances that each of being
achieving a decent and worthwhile life they can now choose to shape
new beings that enter this population (children / AGIs, etc.) to also show
the same respect for others and that we can help shape the new entity
so that it maximises its chance to be fulfilled while living in this socially
considerate way.

So the objective is a kind of mutual adjustment so that the system as a
whole is adjusted to optimise for a set of the parts of the system.

But there is also a thread of our thinking, on this list, where we seem to
be subscribing to a sense of creation or progress where the parts of the
system are the vehicles for the unfolding of the system as a whole to
achieve a greater state. But how can parts of the system judge what is
a better condition for the system as a whole - especially in the distant
future which has yet to evolve?

Are we playing around with two drivers?

- an urge to create a social system where all sentient beings with
sufficient reflective power are expected to optimise their own lives in
ways that are not at the expense of the other beings that are given
moral regard

- an urge to contribute to the unfolding of a more wonderful
universe....... (but what constitutes a more wonderful universe would
most likely be rather different for different beings)

Cheers, Philip

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