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

From: Charlie Stross (
Date: Tue Jan 23 2001 - 06:21:31 MST

On Mon, Jan 22, 2001 at 11:14:07AM -0500, Michael Lorrey wrote:
> Do you believe in any sort of objective reality? If you do, then it
> should be not very difficult to extrapolate objectively human rights
> from physical law.

Your search for certainty is laudable but unreliable: it boils down to
just another expression of the religiosity that infuses American culture.

The universe doesn't owe us a living. The wave front from a [hypothetical,
I hope!] gamma ray burster five hundred light years away may reach us
tomorrow and exterminate every species on the planet -- just as other
GRBs suffice to sweep the universe of life periodically. If that were to
happen, what, then, would the whole of human existence signify?

Sweet fuck-all, that's what.

Contemplating such possibilities is distinctly unpleasant to us, because
as a species we are survival-oriented. As Richard Dawkins observed, we
-- and every other organism on the planet -- are descended from a three
billion year long family tree of winners. Those branches that didn't try
to win hard enough got pruned. It would be surprising if we could confront
the possibility of our own extinction with equanimity, wouldn't it?

So let's try to derive a concept of rights from this mess ...

To start with, all I know is that, pace Descartes, "I think -- therefore
someone is". (For all I know I'm a simulation in some corner of a much
smarter being's mind, so I can't simply settle for the traditional
"cogito, ergo sum".) I also know that I want to continue thinking and,
preferably, receiving external stimuli that are compatible with my
continuing to do so.

Solipsism might seem like a rational viewpoint at this stage, but it's
by no means necessary: I know that _I_ exist, I perceive that you match
my internal model of how a human being might think and communicate,
therefore by Occam's razor it's simplest to conclude that I am just one
of a class of entities, and you are another. So I'm not alone.

By Occam's razor I can also assume that you posess the same core
motivation as I do -- to continue thinking and interacting with your

Our environment lets us do many wonderful, if stupid, things that appear
to challenge our continued ability to think -- things like jumping off
tall buildings without a parachute, swallowing weedkiller, or shaving
with a chainsaw. So I don't do those things. I assume you don't want to
do those things, either.

More importantly, I assume you don't want *me* to do those things to
*you* -- and this is a mutual relationship (no, I do not want Michael
Lorrey to try to shave me with a chainsaw).

Among rational beings -- and I will credit you with rationality until
contradicting evidence emerges -- two-way communications are possible. Let
us posit a universe populated by Michael Lorry and Charlie Stross. I
propose to you, "I will undertake not to kill you, if you provide me with
an identical undertaking." Well okay, we might shake hands on the deal,
but what if one of us does so insincerely?

At this point, we expand the universe to include Everybody Else. The
agreement becomes multiway, and requires everybody to agree that, "I, the
undersigned, promise not to kill any other party to this agreement without
their express prior written permission" (or words to that effect), with
a rider: "further to this, if another party to this agreement violates it
with respect to a third party, I am prepared to come to the third party's

What we have here is enforceability: if I go bananas and try to push
Michael Lorrey off a tall building, everyone else who's signed on to
our social contract is required to come to his aid. (And vice versa if
the roles are reversed.)

At this point, we can talk of a right to life, which imposes an
equivalent duty of intervention on society at large, of which we are all
members. (Society at large is the set of all those people who signed
the mutual non-murder pact.) Yes, we now have an obligation. But we
also have some collective security. The security breaks down if people
begin to disregard the obligation imposed in return for their right;
it's not an absolute right to life. But it's one that doesn't rely on
appeals to numinous truth, the laws of physics (which may be merely the
figments of some a-life researcher's imagination, and us the victims of
a cruel jape), and so on.

We can extrapolate a shitload of comparable rights from the core, golden
rule: "do unto others as you would be done by". These are not cheap
rights -- each of them costs us some sort of obligation, although the
obligation may be discharged collectively ("society" pays some of its
members to carry a badge and police the mutual non-murder pact). We also
have a problem: this is not an ideal world, nobody gave me a contract
of rights to sign when I was younger, and many people don't realise that
rights need to be enforced. Other people seem to believe that a bunch of
delegates can vote for a new right ("the right to a moon made of green
cheese") and it will magically appear overhead.

The main point is to get away from magical thinking about rights --
that they exist in majestic splendour as some sort of emergent feature
of the human condition, which itself is fixed and unchangeable -- and
recognize that they're conditional on us defending them, and can apply
to other classes of beings (as long as they can agree to abide by them).

It's the magical thinking about rights, and the inane insistence that
an eighteenth century document with some nineteenth century amendments
is the ultimate definition of human nature, that gets up the noses of
us Europeans (who've lived through a century in which our conception of
rights, and the need to defend them, had to be reconstructed very painfully
from the wreckage of a misguided attempt to do away with them completely).

-- Charlie

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