RE: Ethics and free will

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Mon Feb 07 2005 - 19:05:00 MST

At 04:17 PM 2/7/2005 -0800, Phil G. wrote:

>It is possible to develop a decent legal system
>based on your ideas, John - although you might
>not have insanity or youth as a defense.
>This approach (never considering circumstances
>in any legal case), called legalism, was tried in
>China about 1000 years ago, and the results were
>so unpopular that the empire was overthrown
>after only a few years.

Well, 2200 years ago. :) The Khmer Rouge of their day, but more persistent.

This is perhaps off-topic, but does resonate curiously with the dread one
feels toward certain kinds of AI proposals. See, e.g.:

< Operating on Legalist principles, Ch'in government concentrated on
strengthening the power of the military and the control of the central
government. Under the control of its emperor, the Ch'in regime instituted
bureaucratic reforms, and enforced uniformity of thought by attempting to
eradicate all other philosophical teachers and writings. The Great Wall was
begun under the Ch'in Regime...

Legalism, the philosophy and intellectual foundation of the Ch'in state,
gained a brief but powerful period of philosophical dominance in China
under the Ch'in. Legalists might today be called "realists"; they argued
that the answers to society's problems couldn't be found in the past
because human society always changing, a radical concept for the times.
Legalists wanted a rationally organized, centralized state with a strong
impersonal government. They saw human nature as naturally lazy and selfish,
and men as naturally reluctant to work for the common good or engage in
warfare. A ruler needed absolute authority to control the populace through
strict enforcement of stringent laws. Administrators should be promoted on
basis of merit, not birth, and no one should be above the law. Those who
contributed to state should be rewarded, and those who did not should be
punished harshly as examples. Legalism believed there were only two types
of useful citizens, farmers and soldiers. All others merchants, artisans,
philosophers, innkeepers, aristocrats, historians destabilized society by
encouraging personal avarice, making the people question authority, or
causing discontent. Legalists saw Taoism as a threat because it made
citizens lazy and inward-looking, and Confucianism as a threat because it
taught that primary loyalty was to the family and personal relationships,
which could interfere with people's loyalty to the state. Legalism opposed
formal education except in practical fields such as medicine and
agriculture; it especially opposed history and philosophy, which taught
people to think independently and question authority.

The Ch'in state's harsh laws and the quick speed of changes caused the
entire system to collapse, and rebellion spread as the Ch'in lost popular
support. Despite their real accomplishments, the First Emperor has been
universally reviled in Chinese memory; and popular folk tales denounce his
cruelty and tyranny. Millions died after being conscripted for his wars,
wall-building, and tomb-building. Many more paid crushing taxes to support
the projects. All intellectual discourse was prohibited, and many
intellectuals were burned alive for refusing to give up alternate
philosophies or for hiding banned books. In 213 [BCE], the government
ordered all books other than histories of the House of Ch'in and works on
agriculture, medicine and divination to be confiscated and burned, under
penalty of death. Scholars appealed and many, especially Confucians spoke
out in protest, and 460 were arrested and executed. The book burnings
destroyed forever many of the ancient texts and created gaping holes in our
knowledge of pre-Ch'in China. >

Damien Broderick

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