Monday, May 09, 2005

The Geek Does Philosophy

One of the themes I like to touch on here is to use Science Fiction as the laboratory for running thought experiments. Books or movies, good concepts make the story. Jinnderella opens the box with a post combining a discussion on biomedical morality and an anime entitled Full Metal Alchemist. That story builds on the line of what price should one be willing to pay to acheive good for themselves or others. Jinn adds the classic what-if scenario first written (I believe) in The Brothers Karamazov where would one sacrifice an innocent child to acheive a world with no more suffering, would you do it?

I left a comment about the idea that not making the sacrifice would be selfish if one believed one's soul would be damned in the decision and put that ahead of all of the rest of the world. I'm going to follow a different line for this post.

Mathematics has a tricky concept in infinity. It is not a number, since infinity is endless and any number N has N+1, thus proving N is not the greatest.

That bit of math was necessary to tie into the next part, namely Moral Calculus. When one says something like: "It is not right to steal, even if you are hungry," it implies that stealing is worse then being hungry. Another factoid of most moral calculus is that doing something for someone else is better than doing it for oneself. So make the substitution and the question becomes "Is stealing worse than letting someone else go hungry?" Add more complications with just what the end is (neighbor, friend, child, two children) or if the sin is committed actively or passively (is it a sin to not do good?) and suddenly you find yourself making a list of crimes and beneficiaries ranked in precedence. The biggest difficulty is when one has to ditch theory and face the situation in practice. You might say that you can kill an attacker to save a victim's life, but would you be able to pull the trigger when the time came?

One might hope to have a mental list of goods and evils, and that in the end, the ledger comes up positive. From what I hear, St. Peter conducts a really harsh audit.

Much like mathematics, moral calculus can not define infinity. Moral caculus can not state what is the greatest good or the greatest evil. Are there acts so evil that nothing can justify it? Are there ends so good that any means can be justified?

In my mind, the knot rests on the active vs. passive question: Does one sin by not doing good? To say yes implies that one must decide for everyone else around them what is good and enforce it, that for the sake of one's own soul, sacrificing the freedom of others is a good trade. It is not a large step from this reasoning to bombing abortion clinics.

To say no is to invite utter isolation, that one must not harm the attacker while he kills. It is to invite the wrath of the adage "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing."

We try to make a heirarchy of virtues and sins, but without an absolute there is no end to the complication. Is there something so good that sacrificing one's own soul is a good act? Deep down, I believe that one can do wrong in inaction. So if I were truly faced with the Kill an Innocent/Perfect the world choice, I know that I would be damned either way. Either I would have literal innocent blood on my hands or the metaphorical blood of all who suffer. I'll end this on an incendiary note, if given this choice, what would Jesus do?


jinnderella said...

Well, there is situational calculus we use for robotics, and logic calculus (lambda calculus)-- why not moral calculus?
And Gamer, what about the kinds of infinity? Aleph-nought is my favorite.

But seriously, like Alyosha, i could not do it. Catholics call those "sins of omission". i'm damned anyways.

jinnderella said...

BTW, did you see my Diamond Age post?
aren't you the expert?