Tag Archives: ethics

I, Robot and the NAP

I_robotAs machines begin to take on more executive functions, the question of ethics has appropriately been raised. Who is responsible if a self-driving car runs over a mailbox? In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov conceived of a solution where machines would be imbued with rules to prevent them from behaving badly. Those rules were known as the Three Laws of Robotics and are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These rules form a plausible ethical system for robots, but even Asimov knew they would be insufficient. He wrote a number of stories showing how the laws could break down in his book, I, Robot. The problems with the rules are ambiguity and the possibility of internal contradictions. In the stories, poorly constructed rules for guiding behavior led to robots to commit all manner of misdeeds.

Inconsistent rules not only plague Asimov’s fictional world, but the real world as well. Continue reading

Button Pushers and Apologists

push_buttonIn his recent article “Don’t Smash the StateSteven Horwitz warns that thinking about government as something that should be wiped out of existence is a diversion, and libertarians could better spend their time and effort with a more appropriate mental model.

Specifically, he views the state as a bomb that must be defused carefully or bad things will happen. He urges libertarians to reconsider radical notions like, “smash the state” and gives both a moral argument and a practical argument for picking it apart in an orderly manner.

The moral argument is that getting rid of state activities in the wrong order could cause unnecessary problems for innocent people who are dependent on the state. The practical argument is that trying to get rid of government all at once will not work. Both of these points are superficially compelling, so it is important to show their shortcomings before libertarians get the wrong idea about the state.

The moral argument says that if someone is dependent on the government and that dependence is solely due to government action, for example the minimum wage, then it would be good to remove the minimum wage laws before removing the wealth transfers that support these people. Here Horwitz says that, “Our analysis of the all the damage the state does should carry with it a deep concern about the victims of that damage.” However, there are an even greater number of victims who are totally discounted in his analysis, namely victims of taxation. Continue reading

Good, Evil, and Ethics

jack o'lanterns

Jack o’ lanterns

Good and evil are often portrayed as opposing choices in an individual’s life, or opposing forces of history. Yet, good and evil are not opposites and this mis-characterization often leads to confused thinking on the part of philosophers, storytellers, and others.

The first thing that should be noted about good and evil is that they are adjectives that apply to different things. Good and bad can describe just about anything, but evil only applies to things that people do.  One might have a good apple or a bad apple, but one would never have an evil apple. On the other hand, one could say that what someone does is good, bad, evil or the opposites of those.

As examples, one might say that it is good to exercise, bad to over-eat, evil to murder and not-evil to read a book. Aside from evil and not-evil, these adjectives are not mutually exclusive. So one might say that it is good, bad and not-evil to eat ice cream. Something can be good and bad in different ways, so there is nothing wrong with describing eating ice cream as both good and bad.

Similarly, as good and evil are not opposites they can be used to describe the same thing. An action that someone takes might be good and evil at the same time. For example, murder is an archetypal evil. Yet, if a politician that a farmer does not like is murdered, the farmer might consider that a good thing, making the murder both good and evil. Another scenario might be if a man robs a bank to buy medicine for his sick mother. Continue reading

Review of David Friedman’s “Machinery of Freedom”

The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman

The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman

David Friedman recently published the third edition of Machinery of Freedom, his classic book on anarcho-capitalism. Even after 40 years it is still a great read for both fledgling and seasoned libertarians.

Friedman does his best work using economics to describe how, and why, anarcho-capitalist institutions could, and should, be developed. He gives an excellent historical examination of Iceland, which had a legal system that showed how some libertarian ideas would work in practice. In Chapter 37, he also has some wise words for radicals about civil disruption, discussing how shock tactics and property damage will only instill in people a desire for strong government. He warns that anarchists should avoid traditional revolutionary techniques used by those who want to usurp government power because the same strategy does not work for destroying government power all together. It should be noted that this book is not just an historical tour of libertarianism. Friedman includes many modern topics, including crypto-currencies and anonymous online markets.

Rather than take a broad look at the different areas where Friedman shines on well traveled topics (global warming, private courts, market derived law) and nit-picking other areas (pollution, foreign policy, writing style), this review will focus on the implications Machinery of Freedom has for libertarian ethics. This is because the most important contribution of his book 40 years later is not the libertarian answers he was able to find but rather those questions that he has been unable to identify solutions for after all of these years. In this way, Friedman lays out clear challenges to young libertarian thinkers who are working on the next generation of libertarian insights.

Friedman’s challenge consists of two fundamental problems with principled libertarianism that, even after 40 years, no one has answered to his satisfaction. Continue reading

Ethics Education at Frontsight Firearms Training Institute

frontsight It was pleasant surprise when my two day defensive handgun course at the Frontsight Institute included not one but two lectures on ethics. Some people might have felt cheated by having to spend a number of hours in a classroom rather than on a gun range, but most of my fellow classmates looked enthralled — and with good reason.

The lecturer was very charismatic. He painted ethical scenarios with articulate ease. He made it clear that while it is important to know how to safely use a handgun, it is equally important to know when to safely use a handgun. One cannot plan for every possible scenario, so a person needs a set of rules to live by. These might be called ethical rules or moral rules, but they are the rules that will guide a person through stressful situations, where there is no time to think. Continue reading

The Ones Who Walk Away From Statism

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

If you have not read Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” then take a moment to do so.

The story describes a city that is perfect except for one thing. One child must suffer so that others can be happy. Furthermore, the people who live in Omelas are all shown the suffering child when they come of age, so no adult lives in Omelas without knowing how the system really works. 

This is, of course, an apt analogy for statism. Every state exists through taxation, which victimizes at least one person. All states in history have inflicted additional suffering on both those who live in their territory and those outside of it. So Omelas might be considered an ideal state — one with minimal suffering and maximum happiness.

In the story, those who come of age in Omelas do one of two things. Most rationalize the abuse of the child and continue to live their comfortable lives. However, a few decide instead to leave Omelas. In the same way, those who support government are the majority in modern society. They want to live in Omelas and are willing to sacrifice others to do so. A few, however, realize that this is unethical and make the hard choice to reject statism regardless of the changes it might bring.

Continue reading