Re: Mary Shelley?
Mon, 8 Feb 1999 16:40:43 -0800

J. R. Molloy, <>, writes:
> Scientists who play god have no more responsibility to their creations than
> do the genetic algorithms, molecular physics, and biological evolution that
> created the scientists.

A bold and challenging statement!

I wonder, though, if the reasoning really works. If you are saying that *because* algorithms, physics, and evolution have no responsibility to their creations, *then* scientists don't either, that doesn't work. Algorithms, physics and evolution have no responsibility, because by their nature they aren't the sort of entities that can have responsibility. They are simple, blind forces, natural laws, regular patterns in nature.

If we accept that there are things which can have responsibility and things which can't, if we are to attempt to make that a meaningful distinction, then the fact that some things fall on one side of that line doesn't mean that everything will.

People can and do have responsibility for their actions. Natural laws do not.

I've been thinking recently about Clifford Simak's novel, "City". Although written many decades ago, in some ways the setting is compatible with our ideas.

The human race is gone, having emigrated to improved bodies and minds on the planet Jupiter. (Today we might have them uploaded, vanished, Singularitied away.) Dogs are the dominant species on Earth, uplifted dogs gifted with human-level intelligence. (Actually, intelligent ants dominate our Earth, but the dogs are able to travel to parallel worlds and they run most of them.)

The dogs have attempted to apply their ethical system, which they have inherited from humans, to the jungle. Animals are no longer to live by tooth and claw; carnivores are made to understand the ethical implications of their actions, and are expected to refrain from their carnivorous acts.

Today, we set the bar pretty high for holding people responsible. Besides laws of nature, we don't normally hold animals responsible for their actions. There are exceptions: our pets are expected to learn some simple household rules, and wild animals will be killed if they attack humans. But most of the time we accept that it is their nature, and don't expect them to have the human ability to make reasoned decisions.

Even human beings, in many cases, are allowed to escape responsibility. There are a number of arguments based on diminished capacity which people can use to avoid responsibility for bad behaviors.

It is possible that in the future we will change the world to one where there are wider expectations of responsible behavior. We might even see Simak's conception of animal responsibility come into being. It would be a logical outcome and extension of today's animal rights movement. With rights come responsibilities.

It sounds comical today to imagine patiently teaching wild animals to behave ethically, but the greater wealth of the future may make it possible.