Monday, June 14, 2004

pop revelations

They just come to me.

Revelation #1: The Kill Bill series was foreshadowed by Uma Thurman's "Fox Force Five" discourse in "Pulp Fiction." Fox Force Five morphed into the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, with the addition of Bill and Bud. This I believe.

Revelation #2: Steven Den Beste, who has now riffed on his previous "Who Am I?" post, finds that he's dealing with a form of the House Elf dilemma being encountered by Hermione in the Harry Potter series. Den Beste's musings lead him to wonder about the ethics of creating creatures that want to be eaten (he cites Doug Adams's The Restaurant at the End of the Universe here)-- whether the ethical issues are or aren't affected by these creatures' desire to be eaten, and whether it matters that the creatures have to be intelligent enough to understand the concept of "being eaten" in order to choose that fate freely.

[NB: I don't think you have to be intelligent to want something, if we allow that wanting can be as simple as, say, wanting a drink of water. Having watched my centipede for weeks now, I see that it, too, has desires of a centipedish nature. I'd neglected to feed it for a few days, and when I finally dropped a large crumb of bread into the centipede's plastic container, it went nuts and chewed through a third of it right away. It was hungry; it wanted to eat, even if it couldn't think/express the thought. This "want" doesn't have to be linked to conscious desire and free choice, I don't think. The centipede also started shitting regularly again, though the dried shit looks-- and rattles around-- a lot like bread crumbs. Centicroutons. ...Croutipedes?]

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter's close friend, has been campaigning since Book 4 to release all House Elves from their enslavement, but she encounters resistance even from creature-loving people like Hagrid, who claim she'd be doing the House Elves a disservice: they were created by wizards to serve, and that's what makes them happy. Yes, there are occasional freedom-loving freaks among the House Elves, like Dobby, but on the whole, the race of House Elves is content to be enslaved.

Here's Den Beste's take:

Suppose we used genetic engineering to create a race of slaves with human level intelligence which were genetically programmed to want to be property? Would it be OK to own such a slave, just because it didn't mind?

Going even further down the slippery slope, what if a human child was heavily indoctrinated all its life into believing that he should be owned by someone else?

He might say he wanted to be a slave, and we might conclude he was telling the truth. But we could not ignore the fact that the attitude had been imposed on him via indoctrination. He says he wants to be owned, but he didn't actually have any choice; the choice was made for him.

I think we would have to conclude that such indoctrination of a human child would deeply immoral. It would be utterly repugnant ethically.

And it is hard to see how the eventual owner of such a voluntary slave could avoid carrying any of the ethical stain. I think it would also be immoral to own such a slave.

If it is immoral to use indoctrination to produce a willing slave, it seems as if it should also be immoral to use genetic engineering to make a race of willing slaves. And if owning an indoctrinated slave is wrong, it seems inescapable that owning a genetically engineered slave would also be wrong, irrespective of the fact that they wanted to be owned.

Or rather, because of the fact that they wanted to be owned. But Zaphod then speaks up: would it be better if they did not want to be owned?

No, but it would also be no worse. It would be wrong to own them no matter what they wanted.

They would not be independent moral agents. They have an opinion, but they do not have a choice. They might want to be slaves, but it would not be voluntary. That desire would be imposed on them, and thus it is ethically unhelpful. All it shows is the depth of the sin committed against them.

We do not free ourselves of our ethical burden by designing them so that they will reassure us that everything is OK. That amounts to ethical masturbation.

What do you think?

My thoughtless gut reactions:

1. I would have no ethical compunction at all about eating a creature that wanted (consciously/freely, or otherwise) to be eaten. Unless it looked too much like a human.

2. I'm not convinced we're going to be creating human-like machine intelligence anytime soon-- certainly nothing to pass the Turing Test-- so I'm not all that worried about the crossover issue of machines and slavery.

3. I agree with Den Beste's conclusion that, whether people are genetically engineered or merely indoctrinated to be slaves, slave-making and slave-owning are immoral.

Doubtless the above reactions aren't consistent, but I leave it to better minds than mine to ferret out the implications.

And now, my sweet: bed.


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