Re: Ethics in a void (Re: meaning of life (RE: (repost) ))

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Thu Jan 25 2001 - 08:23:37 MST

On Thu, Jan 25, 2001 at 09:35:10AM -0500, wrote:
> .... The reflexive
> surrender to authority, be it at a tribal or ethnic level or at a "national"
> level to leaders like Saddam Hussein or religious zealots like the Taliban
> spiritual thugs who now rule Afghanistan, seems to be driven by deep cultural
> tendencies that predate any simple notion of "state control".

Yup, agreed. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I have a problem
with natural rights derived from some definition of human nature -- it
replaces behaviour mandated by fiat ("you'll do things my way because
I say so") with behaviour mandated by appeals to nature ("you can't do
that -- it's unnatural").

> The problem is
> clearly both more complex and more memetically ingrained than the modern idea
> or practice of state authority.

> ... The prospect of equipping people driven by tribal ethnic
> passions and who do not possess ingrained cultural restraints derived from
> respect for individual autonomy and private property with the technologies of
> the mid-21st century is surely the greatest threat to our survival,


> I don't presume to have an answer to this question, but one thing I know
> won't help us find solutions is the more potent form of "cultural
> relativism", which prohibits the passing of judgments on cultures different
> from our own.

The taboo on passing judgements seems to me to arise from an inability to
conceive of the validity of a *subjective* judgement. (Which, I suspect,
arises because these people think they've discovered the One True Way --
something on an internal contradiction in their belief system, no?) It's
also a problem for those people who can't differentiate between folklore
and a testable theory.

> ... His discussion of the prisoners' dilemma unfortunately
> seems to be an afterthought, rather than a fundamental analytical tool. It
> seems he is unaware of the powerful insights provided from iteration of the
> classical prisoners' dilemma, although he ALMOST works it out on his own.

The iterated prisoner's dilemma is the most powerful tool we've discovered
in attempting to build a solid ethical framework without appeals to human
nature, god's law, or the divine right of kings. You can sum up most of
my previous "ethics in a void" piece as an application of iterated PD
scenarios to human relationships. (And "do unto others as you would be done
by" is, not coincidentally, a starting position for the winning "tit for tat"

> Theoretical concerns aside, I believe that the weakness engendered by
> cultural relativism poses a fundamental threat to survival over the coming
> decades. Some cultural values and practices WORK in the modern world and
> others don't. Some tend toward peace and prosperity, and others tend toward
> violence and poverty. Not only do we have to be able to SAY this, we have to
> be able to ACT on this realization.

By my definition, cultural relativism is a *winning* position. But I'm
not talking about idiot academics who think that, because we can't be
certain we live in a perfect society, we cannot be allowed to criticize
anyone else.

I'd just like to note that the positions I'm opposed to are *all* absolutist
ones, and that I believe (at present) that moral absolutism is more likely
to lead us into error than a healthy dose of skepticism.

-- Charlie

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