Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Moral questions.

In a previous blog post, I said ‘Science fiction should ask the great hypothetical moral questions,’ and used the example of a new medical treatment giving immortal life.

But let’s take it one step further. Is it possible that societal needs dictate moral beliefs? Are they matters of convenience?

In a society where people lived forever, the need for human regeneration would be much reduced. Old mores might die hard. In the present day, there are groups who would find this hypothetical, ‘what if’ world of the future quite threatening. It threatens their moral belief system in the present world. It has to. Morality is anything but logical. It is strictly utilitarian when we admit the need for social control.

In the previous post I mentioned ‘a moral baseline,’ the only real purpose of which is somewhere to measure from. For the purposes of discussion, we have agreed abortion and birth control are ‘immoral.’ Otherwise we must talk about some other moral quandary, and at least in this case pretty much everyone has an opinion.

While I doubt if morality can be reduced to mathematical constructs, the analogy is a useful one.

In the present, our life-span is about eighty years. In the future, it might be something a bit less than infinite. This represents two results of the same equation, i.e., ‘what is the span of a human life?’ Let’s call it ‘n.’ Where there is an ‘n,’ there must also be an ‘x.’ Let’s call it ‘morality.’

At one end of the scale, ‘n’ has a certain value, eighty years. At the other end of the scale, it’s near infinity. This represents part of a graph. There are other factors.

At present, for the sake of argument, we have our ‘moral baseline.’ As suggested in the previous post, a sort of morally-centred group, believes abortion and family planning to be ‘immoral.’ But since the life-spans are different present and future, does there not seem some mathematical probability that the result for ‘x,’ the moral factor, might change as well? Otherwise, how could we get two different results, in terms of the life-span, measured at different points in time? For surely human life-span affects human moral values.

Morality does change, and it changes with the times. At one time, slavery was seen as natural, and the inferiority of some races was validated by divine revelation. People quoted the gods in justification, which has been forgotten in the modern world. People saw slavery in moral terms, and they saw the movement to outlaw slavery in moral terms as well. In practical terms, in terms of farm production for example, freeholders and tenant farmers were far more productive than slaves, they cost less and were more useful as allies in times of war. They were protecting their own land, while a slave is only presented with the choice of a master. At one time, the life of a slave was held to be of little account—now even slavery is outlawed, and the murder of a citizen, is not just a crime legally, but a sin morally. So moral values have changed, haven’t they? And they will change again.

The Spartans were a moral people. Their morality differed significantly from ours, and stemmed from their philosophical beliefs and their political circumstances, surrounded by numerous enemies. Yet judging by way of life of their neighbours, it was not the only possible solution.

This kind of question runs the risk of triggering side debates.

Science and politics have always been closely intertwined. Religion and politics are also intertwined. Science and religion must therefore be intertwined. They represent ways of interpreting and dealing with our world, our society. Our circumstances at whatever point in time, hence the study of history. Whether it’s science, religion, law, philosophy, history, these are just tools by which we define our world. It represents our moral baseline—it gives us somewhere to measure from. By the use of these perceptual filters, we exclude what is extraneous to our model. We study a thin slice of it, suitably dyed to help colour our perceptions of it.

Certainly there are those science fiction writers who would like to give us a sense of optimism about the future, while cheerfully admitting that they can’t predict it. I would prefer not to be too much of a doom-sayer myself. But I actually think we can predict it, if only in the most general terms. Bearing in mind that a dummy like me can somehow survive and operate in the 21st century, where by all accounts high technology is both pervasive and advanced, it’s possible to predict that a dummy like me will find the where-with-all to survive and even thrive in the twenty-third century, or the twenty-fifth, or whatever. The education, or perhaps the ingenuity of the common man will keep up with the times.

Once we realize that we know about a million times more than Julius Caesar could ever possibly know, then it becomes obvious that the common man of the future will know things we could never possibly know. They will have huge advantages over their ancestors in terms of knowledge, opportunities as yet imagined, and yes, challenges that to us look insuperable, for example overpopulation, political instability, the peaks and valleys of a globalized economy, the tension between opposing world-views, the long term effects of pollution, whatever.

Let’s look at our original scenario, the one where a little girl was born and she was the first of a new breed of humans of effectively immortal life-span. If we accept that runaway global warming could in fact render all life extinct on Earth, then it should move us to ask what would be the results of a doubling of world population, and a mass increase in standards of living, if all other factors were allowed to remain the same.

Let’s assume the young human female is going to live forever, and presumably be relatively young and healthy, a completely new and unforeseen state of being. No one wants to be immortal and yet old, right? So now we have someone who can have an unlimited number of babies. And each and every one of those babies would also be immortal.

In the future, moral questions still predominate. People will still have opinions, some extreme. And in terms of perceptual filters, people will have the ability to tune in to whatever point of view they choose. Once it reaches saturation level, it becomes their new reality, one that is indistinguishable, in their eyes, from actually having an objective point of view.

Here’s the link to the original post, the relevant bit is way down at the bottom.

(Forgetting actual crime for a moment, is there a need for social control? -ed.)

(Yes. As long as there are people we don't approve of, doing things that we don't like, or that somehow don't fit into our moral belief system. -louis.)

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