Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Grab Bag of Thoughts from William Wood on Strategies, Goals, the Emerging Science of Morality, and Science Fiction

William Wood, In a comment to David Brin's post on Facebook, 10/23/10,  wrote a thoughtful essay on values. He completed the essay with words on the usefulness of science fiction in exploring alternatives.

First, the question tossed out by David Brin.
David Brin If communism was a principal threat to freedom a generation ago, can there be any doubt that the madness and danger is coming from a different direction today?
Lighting the political lamp (it may be on for a couple of weeks), let me begin with a disclaimer, for those of you who don't know me ... I despise all dogmatists, including those on the far-left. As a one-time keynoter for a Libertarian Party Convention, I have the bona fides of someone who has re...

Source:, [10/23/10]

Next the Essay in a Comment by William Wood

Here's a grab bag of not-entirely-related thoughts...

FIRST, David, I think you are absolutely right to point to measurables [sic] as a basis for evaluating the success of alternative strategies. This is hard won data that we should prize accordingly.

SECOND, I think that a large part of the problem is that parties in this discussion are at odds not only over methods but over goals. We can't even agree, for instance, whether addressing climate change IS a goal (i.e. if it is real and/or caused by humans having put trillions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere) let alone HOW we might address it.

One type of participant in the discussion will try to inventory worthy goals (based either on concrete issues such as climate change, defeating poverty, protecting the world from WMD proliferation, conquering cancer, etc., or on aspirations such as returning to the moon, placing humans on Mars, etc.), develop means to achieve them, then weigh priorities.

Another type of participate will enter the discussion not with projects such as these in mind, but with the goal to protect individual liberties. Projects such as the above, requiring collective, coordinated will (and expense), are most easily seen as a threat to one with individual liberties in the forefront of her values.

This second problem is caused by the immaturity of the emerging science of morality. For so long, people have thought of morality in either religious terms or intuitive terms. Conceived either way, morality is no more than a fiction, a contest of who can persuade better to get his way. It's clear, though, that if we swap out the term "morality" and instead speak of a "science of human well-being", there is content here that is real. As Derek Parfit says, "Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement." (Reasons and Persons, p.454).

Looked at in terms of a science of well-being, it is clear that there is no such "thing" as a "right" to individual liberties (what could such a "thing" be? point to one, please!); acknowledging liberties, instead, is a strategy for achieving well-being -- one that works quite well in many contexts. We need to ask the deeper, harder questions, though. WHICH contexts, specifically? Where will it not work well? How may promoting the concept of individual liberty affect the aggregation of wealth, and what affects will that have on well-being? Etc.

Alas, many unknowns.

My own view is that promoting individual liberties (and their corollary: individual responsibilities and accountabilities) is probably a good default strategy for promoting well-being -- but the ecology of our interconnectedness is so complex, so little-understood, that we should be wide open to exceptions and in full support of more study.

Which brings me to my THIRD (and last!) point: SF as a genre is uniquely poised to be the literature of this experiment. It is the genre where positing possible futures is the norm! Some are posited as cautions, others as choices we may wish to pursue. We can rally 'til we're blue in the face, but what will really change the world is when lots of people can understand and embrace a choice for the future together. Stories do this far better than argumentation or argument! (Although, to Stewert's and Colbert's credit, humor does a damn fine job, too.) We need to be able to see, smell, LIVE the possible futures, in advance, to be able to choose them.

And sadly, I don't think sf is succeeding here. Not for lack of quality or insight, mind you! Gad, no! It's a much simpler reason: to connect to lots of people, literary sf has got to get off its high horse and get into film and television. Much. Much. More. What I would give, for instance, to have a series similar to Masterpiece Theater / Mystery! devoted to high-quality sf! How can we make this happen?!

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