Re: MORALITY: right & wrong (was: A Bioethical Foundation for Human Rights)

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Thu Nov 08 2001 - 07:46:16 MST

On Wed, Nov 07, 2001 at 04:15:14AM -0800, Robert J. Bradbury wrote:
> Anders provided a detailed response to my supposition that he
> might be a "moral relativist". I would cite his summary:
> > To sum up, rights only get voided when actions make your rights
> > interfere with the rights of others, and even then the decrease in
> > rights is partial, temporary and ideally should be minimal.
> So the key point seems to be "actions" from his position.
> If one does not take "actions" then one can only loosely be
> accused of violating the rights of others.
> By this argument, it would seem that Mr. bin Laden is nowhere near
> as guilty as the pilots of the recent planes turned into bombs.
> He has supplied funds to and trained terrorists but has not
> really committed any terrorist acts himself. It would seem
> that from the "action" perspective that conspiracy to commit
> acts of terrorism is a less heinous crime than acts of
> terrorism themselves. And yet we now know that conspiracies
> can cause a much greater loss of freedoms than any single
> act of terrorism.

I think you have a point here, but at the same time I wonder if from a
ethical point of view there is a significant difference in culpability.

Traditionally humans have always punished/rewarded leaders for the
results of their subordinates, which were presumably due to the leaders'
efforts. But is this suitable for ethics? It seems that it is more a
question of how much of the ethical subjecthood of the subordinates the
leader has acquired than being a leader or planner.

Let's imagine two simple special cases. In the first case bin Laden
telepathically mind-controls his men to perform the attacks. They have
no free will, no ethical subjecthood. In this case the culpability would
rest solidly on bin Laden, and the men would actually be regarded as

In the other special case they acted completely out of their own free
wills, with no control from bin Laden and support only in the form of
advice and resources they could choose to follow or not. They had free
will and could at any point have selected a different course of action,
which implies that they are responsible for their actions. Here
culpability is solidly on their shoulders. If you start blaming bin
Laden in this scenario for the original idea, then you should also blame
all authors and movie directors for all actions their works cause.

In reality the situation was somewhere in between: the terrorists were
to some extent coerced into the acts (by having their families hostage)
and had apparently closed minds that had been partially "programmed" by
bin Laden (or rather, his followers). I would still say they had free
will and were culpable, but there is also a transfer of guilt here
through the coercion (which corresponds to bin Laden taking a certain
about of freedom from them to himself) and possibly (but this is far
more tricky) due to the mental "programming".

>From my action perspective bin Laden is indeed not as guilty as the
bombers, although he is severely guilty. They had a partial choice and
did not make the ethical choice. He largely caused the situation, but
the actual execution was left to ethical subjects. If that doesn't
appeal to the standard human reaction, that does not have to be a
problem with the ethical perspective. I also wonder if the practice of
putting the blame on the evil planner rather than the people doing
things isn't risky because it seems to absolve the doers too much; maybe
it would be better to show that you do get punished from following
bad orders?

Note that we run the risk of ending up in a messy debate here about what
we mean with freedom and free will. I think this is an area we need to
study more closely in terms of a transhumanist concept of ethics and
humanity, but at the same time I right now lack the time to do it
properly. It is also extremely important from a political perspective:
when we claim we are supporting the free self development of humanity,
what do we really mean by that?

Some definitions of freedom (such as the marxist) claim that you are not
free if there is any form of coersion, need or incentive involved. Which
turns even the most libertarian situation into a power struggle -
of course means that the issue becomes to chose the right kind of
coersion rather than escaping coercion altogether.

What should the extropian definition of freedom be?

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

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