Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dystopianist Ethics

Existential risks are not well resolved by trial and error, to paraphrase from Nick Bostrom. What then are we to do if we believe that ecological crisis, tyranny, or some other impending catastrophe is either likely or inevitable? Three core principles:

1. Consider that our fears are probably mistaken. From before biblical millenialists to yesterday's Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Tim McVeigh and Aum Shinrikyu, history recounts much misery caused by dystopians who foresaw imminent disaster.

2. But we must also then consider how much is at stake if one's fears are correct. Truly existential risks compel us to consider the true costs of a 'false negative' error. How could one today reasonably value the permanent diminution of humanity's potential? Consequential ethics confronts a unique obstacle when evaluating distant future impacts. Accepting that we don't know how much we don't yet know, we cannot now assume that future generations might not attain knowledge which makes their lives qualitatively better than our own. They might conceivably 'find God', perhaps even literally. Or they may learn and accept an actionable higher purpose for humanity. Any 21st century consideration of acceptable existential risks must accept this possibility, today unquantifiable, and with it the unknowable likelihood that the value of future lives should be 'premiumed' rather than 'discounted'. Assume any probability to an infinite future value and the cost/benefit arithmetic is fundamentally simplfied (as in Pascal's Gambit).

3. Open inquiry best identifies fallacy and clarifies reality. Those who want to act based on reality must first “mine the network” to collect paradigms, questions, facts and validations. This isn’t exactly rocket science, but history repeatedly shows that most harmful radical action is based on erroneous assumptions, uncritically accepted. Open inquiry is the best preventive of such error, but it needs to be open-minded as well as open sourced. Here we must be our brother's keepers, challenging our facts and paradigms and also our receptivenesses.

This is a work in progress and your thoughts, corrections and clarifications are sincerely appreciated.

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