Saturday, December 7, 2019

What Does Not Change: A Slightly Early Rumination

     Before I get started on the meat of this piece: My sincerest thanks to those Gentle Readers who wrote me with helpful suggestions for dealing with the problem I mentioned here. For the present I’ve decided to use Microsoft’s OneNote, which is included in Office and offers many conveniences I didn’t know about until I started fooling with it. We shall see whether it meets my needs.

     Having said that...

     Sarah Hoyt has an essay up about the rate and ever broadening sweep of technological change in our time, especially as regards the pervasion of our ways by the Internet, and the visible implications for our patterns of life. It’s a good piece, but it focuses, as we who live under the veil of Time are prone to doing, on practicalities: what the rate and breadth of tech change will mean for our livelihoods and related life patterns.

     There’s a lot to think about here. For some time my concerns have focused on social atomization: the ever widening separation between each individual and all those who once would have mattered to him intimately. We can already see aspects of this in the “device addiction” plague that’s taken hold of American society. Go to any restaurant – yes, there are still places outside the home where one can sit and eat food prepared by others – and survey the faces of other diners. Quite a percentage of them will be bathed in the glow from a backlit screen, regardless of who else might be sitting at the table.

     Yes, it’s a bad thing. But I’m not going to harp on it today. I’ve done that before. Besides, I prefer to flog live horses.

     What I have in mind this morning is the divergence between the realm of “can and can’t” and that of “may and mustn’t.” Quite a lot of good people believe, although perhaps unconsciously and inarticulately, that the former can alter the rules that govern the latter. This, to be maximally gentle about it, is not the case. And it has dawned upon me that that argument is in dire need of refreshment.

     One of the reasons I write fiction, most recently near-future science fiction, is that the genre allows me to explore challenges to our assumptions about right and wrong. Most of our “thinking” about moral choices is nothing of the sort. We make such choices from deeply inculcated premises about moral and ethical behavior, not from a rational analysis of implied consequences. Mostly, that’s for the best; most people lack the intellectual horsepower to work out the “may and mustn’t” aspects of a situation on the spot. But sometimes, thinking about consequences is absolutely vital.

     As an example of what I have in mind, have a snippet from one of my recent novels:

     “Forget it, Jules,” Celia said. “This is as close to can’t-happen as genetics gets. The sequencer assays were correct. Unless the gods of random chance are playing with our heads, Miss Mecking’s been cloned. But how?”
     “Either one of Anna’s cell nuclei and a bunch of her mitochondria were transplanted into a viable zygote,” Amanda said, “or a cell taken from her was somehow goosed into mitosis.”
     “Doesn’t matter,” Sokoloff said.
     “It doesn’t?” Trish said.
     “Nope,” he said. “Because the bastards who did it aren’t going to tell us.”
     Trish smirked. “Going to give them a chance, Lar?”
     He leveled a flat look at her. “Ask me again when we’ve got them in our sights.”
     Trish smiled tightly and nodded.
     He’s really going to go after them.
     This is for the big chips.

     She fished up her own resolve and scrutinized it.
     I’m going with him. No matter what he has to say about it.
     “It would be the technological miracle of the century, you know,” Amanda said.
     The flat look swerved to settle on Amanda Hallstrom.
     “To be used for what?” Sokoloff said.
     The dean of Athene Academy opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Sokoloff’s gaze weighed upon her.
     That’s his don’t-mess-with-me face.
     Sokoloff nodded.
     “I’ve been turning it over in my head,” he murmured after a moment, “and I can’t think of one morally acceptable reason to clone someone. Living or dead doesn’t matter.” He swept his gaze around the group. “Can anyone else?”
     No one spoke.
     “The people who did this,” he said, “did it to turn out a sex slave. Probably by request and to specification, and I’d bet my house that if they haven’t done it before, they’re trying to do it again right now. For that I’m going to send them all to hell. But think about it. Let’s say they were to clone me—produce a baby version of me. That baby would have no parents or other relatives. The people who produced him would have no reason to care for him, or about him, and only they would know he existed. He would be a product for sale. Why would anyone make that product? Why would anyone want that product? Apart from pure altruism?”
     “Altruism?” Trish said.
     “Yeah,” he said. “The kind that makes people take in stray dogs and cats. Think that’s likely?”
     Well, you did it.
     “The only reason to clone someone, other than the motives Fountain’s creators had, would be to replace him,” he said. “Or parts of him. And that means either murder, or enslavement, or cannibalism by surgeon. It’s evil no matter how you slice it.”
     “That’s if clones were granted the status and rights of people born the...regular way,” Juliette said. “What if they weren’t?”
     Sokoloff gestured at Fountain. Six pairs of eyes swung toward her. She remained still and silent.
     “That’s worse, isn’t it?” he said.
     Trish slid over next to Fountain and took her hand.
     “A lot worse,” she said.
     “Yeah,” Juliette said.
     “So what now?” Amanda said.
     Sokoloff remained as solemn as a man at prayer. Trish fought not to shudder.
     “Now,” he said, “I follow their backtrail, find their lab, and burn it to the ground.”
     “Lar?” Trish said. He looked questioningly at her. “With them in it, right?”
     He seemed to consider the idea for a moment, then grinned faintly. “Well, yeah.”

     Larry Sokoloff, one of the two protagonists of Innocents, is my conception of a “workingman’s hero.” He works for a private security firm. You could say, in some sense, that his trade is “protective violence,” whether express or implied. Yet he’s no thug. He has a profound sense for right and wrong, as demonstrated above – emphasis on the word profound.

     That sense is endangered by too much attention to the technological runaway in which Americans are currently ensnared.

     One review of Innocents included the following, seemingly unexceptionable line:

     [I]n the face of truly new situations, new morality must emerge.

     The statement piqued me. It seemed vaguely off-center. I didn’t take issue with it – I never take issue with the writer of a complimentary review, for reasons I trust I need not elaborate on – but it’s stayed with me, germinating ideas, ever since I first encountered it. This morning, those ideas have flowered. Yea verily, at 3:30 AM Eastern Standard Time.

     The technology of cloning, as postulated in Innocents, was an example of an enlargement of our “can and can’t” realm. That realm impinged on the lives of my protagonists, Larry Sokoloff and Trish McAvoy. It had a dramatic effect on them, with consequences you’ll have to read the novel and its sequels Experiences and The Wise and the Mad to explore. But it did not change the moral laws of the universe. Rather, it compelled Sokoloff to recur to the underlying ethical principle that governs all human interaction.

     Jesus of Nazareth once articulated that principle for the benefit of some less-than-benevolently-minded questioners:

     But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
     Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.
     And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
     On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

     [Matthew 22:34-40]

     I’m not going to boldface it or italicize it for you. Find it for yourself.

     The underlying moral laws of the universe are constant. That’s because human nature itself is constant. The characteristics that differentiate us from the lesser species:

  • Our nature and consciousness of ourselves as limited, time-bound creatures;
  • Our individual desires;
  • Our individual abilities and priorities;

     ...are integral to the understanding of those moral laws, because they give rise to the laws themselves. This is something that should be part of the moral education of every child...but isn’t. It wasn’t part of mine; I had to work it out for myself.

     John Brunner expressed that moral fundamental in his novel The Shockwave Rider: It is fundamentally wrong to regard another person as a thing to be used for one’s own purposes. Brunner’s protagonist Nicky Haflinger applied the word wicked to such an attitude. In this he was impeccably correct.

     In this lies the moral import of the Second Great Commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” You have your abilities, desires, and priorities, and he has his. You may collaborate with him, trade with him, argue with him, or snort and tell him he’s an ignoramus, but you may not force him to subordinate his desires and priorities to yours. Neither may you deceive him into doing so.

     And not all the technological change we’ve experienced, nor whatever further changes lie before us, can alter that law.

     In closing, it would be a fatal mistake ever to imagine that the “cans and can’ts” of our time can alter the moral laws. It will always be wrong to treat another person as no more than a thing to be used for one’s own purposes. It will always be wrong to tolerate it when others do so. That is the underlying moral law on which Commandments Four through Ten of the Decalogue are founded.

     This is not “new” morality. Indeed, it’s the oldest morality of all: the one written into our natures by our Creator. No matter how our technology advances and ramifies, it will never, ever change.

     May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

Tracy Coyle said...

Two points: I generally agree that technology has driven us further apart from those physically closest to us. However, it too has brought closer together, us for example, those that we might not otherwise ever had the opportunity to know.

Second. To your first item and your comment, I am reminded of what drove ME to define my first principle's root conclusion - in holding that principle I must acknowledge and protect that each other person on this planet has EXACTLY the same 'right or principle even if they never assert it'. The reasoning, the statement that FINALLY gave substance to my principle that I lacked (it was floating there in my brain, untethered to a foundation, unclarified or well defined) was:

"That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

I leave you to find the source though I bet most here know it.