Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Moral Combat!

While we're relating email chains between Nate and myself (in general I think this material would be posted here except that it's actually too nerdy to put on the Internet, which is frightening) I'll paste this one from a bit over a year ago. I came across it yesterday in checking to see if I'd ever gotten Mom to email me her spaghetti sauce recipe (answer: no) because the word "sauce" appears in it. Anyway, it's been too long since we had a gratuitous Steven Pinker reference. And I still think it's funny, and it beats writing about workplace anxiety or lentil soup. --ed.

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Nate (1/16/08, 3:46 PM EST)
Subject: Moral Combat!

I just read this NY Times Magazine story by Steven Pinker about morality. It's long enough that you might not want to read it at the office if you want to still have your job in a couple weeks but I there's a lot of interesting stuff in it.

Maybe the least defensible reason I like it, though, is that Pinker gives some examples of moral thought experiments expected to provoke strong but hard-to-defend moral reactions, and I find these sort of oddly funny. I think this is because the style is breezy and prosaic, but the content comes off as rather salacious. Example:

A family's dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog's body and cook it and eat it for dinner.

I don't know. Maybe it's just the effect of reading two or three of them in a row, as they're listed in the article. At any rate, I propose the following additional thought experiments, and would be interested in learning how you respond to them morally:

Murray works as the quality assurance manager at a baby food processing plant. He is tasked with preventing contaminants from entering the baby food jars. One day, Murray kills his father and marries his mother.

A man decides that he would like to try cooking and eating human flesh. He places a classified ad online and meets a man who is interested sexually in being killed and eaten. With this man's consent, the first man kills him and prepares a cut of meat from his body. He grills the meat until it is very well done and then coats it liberally with steak sauce before consuming it, destroying the meat's characteristic flavor and texture.

All the workers in a colony are responsible for tending to eggs laid by the colony's queen. Workers do not lay eggs, except for "trophic" eggs used only for food. One day the queen dies. The workers then begin to lay their own eggs and place them in the colony's nursery.

A woman leaving for work in her car accidentally backs over her neighbor's cat, killing it. She secretly replaces it with an identical cat.

The general manager of a professional baseball team decides that the long-term interests of the team would be best served by trading away the team's top players in order to obtain younger prospects. He knows these trades will be unpopular among the team's fans. However, he cannot negotiate any trades that he believes would return enough value in exchange for the current players, so he fields basically the same team as the previous season's, except without any right-handed relief pitchers.

A man lives in a futuristic walled city where all laws are made and adjudicated by an advanced computer called Master Judge. Master Judge has been programmed with all known facts and therefore is believed to be perfectly just. The man is brought to trial and Master Judge deems him guilty, sentencing him to death. The man argues with Master Judge's handlers that he should be allowed to ask one question of the computer that will show its knowledge to be imperfect. This is forbidden but finally the handlers relent, believing that no such question exists. The man stands before Master Judge and asks, simply, "Why?" The computer console begins to shudder and smoke, and the man states with a smug smile that because Master Judge cannot understand this question, it has self-destructed. However, the computer suddenly stops smoking and prints out a piece of paper. The man, agitated, tears the paper out of the printer and reads it to himself. He dies instantly. Tentatively, the most senior handler picks up the fallen paper from the floor and reads it aloud to the others, and they all die as well. It never says what the paper says. I have that much of the novel written but I'm still filling out the backstory some more.

Well, anyway, I would say my day is going pretty well. Hope yours is too.


Jack (1/16/08, 3:58 PM EST)
Subject: Re: Moral Combat!

Well, I'll say it's funnier than most of the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" columns. Of course, this one is perfectly tailored to my genetic disposition and upbringing. My biggest surprise is that you only sent this to me. I'll have to read the Pinker later.

Jack (1/16/08, 4:00 PM EST)
Subject: Re: Moral Combat!

p.s. I'm pretty sure you want "Moral Kombat" with a K.


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