Ramblings prompted by Bruce

You should all read this interview with Bruce Sterling. Full of tasty nuggets on global warming, fiction writing, futurism, Google, other cultures, Texas, science funding, morality.

Rhys: The great Italian writer Primo Levi, who was an accomplished chemist, came to believe that research for the sake of research was fundamentally immoral and that individual scientists should remove themselves from fields of inquiry that might prove potentially hazardous to the human race. Is such a moral approach even possible?

Bruce: Not really, no. That's not practical. Individual scientists have no ability to remove themselves from their sources of funding, and to remain scientists. Governments, academies and major corporations fund their fields of scientific inquiry. Individual scientists do not have any veto power there.
When American politicians told scientists that stem cell research was immoral, the scientists grew indignant. Stem cell research is indeed potentially hazardous to the human race. It's a fact, but scientists don't like to be told that. They launched a counter-campaign to establish that the ban itself was immoral. These scientists were not being cynical. There are good moral arguments for conducting stem-cell research.
Scientists have never been morality experts. Scientists are naive about morality, no better than other technicians such as programmers or engineers. Philosophers and theologians are our cultural experts about morality. These moral experts can argue for or against almost any moral stance, convincingly. Two moral philosophers in a room will always quarrel. Two moral theologians in a room will kill each other.

They would kill Primo Levi, if they could capture him.

Bruce has it right. We can barely anticipate the first order consequences of science, let along the deep moral implications. Otherwise reasonable people can disagree about morality, even to the point of death. And the best moral arguments are rarely proposed by those with the most technical knowledge, while the most convincing moral argument are founded on weak or non-existent philosophical bases (insert Hypno-Beck here).

How then can we as a planetary civilization balance individual morality with the necessity of making group decisions. One path that we have been aiming towards is global homogeneity, through the hegemony of capitalism (or if you want to get into your retro-time machine, world socialism). This approach will always have dissidents and people who are abandoned by the system, extremists who threaten the consensus from all sides. Singulatarians, Al Queda, Black Bloc Anarchists, and Bolivarianism are all opposition to this capitalist consensus.

Perhaps we need a minimalist moral philosophy. Thinkers far deeper than I have tried to strip ethics down to the minimal core principles (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) This would work, except that A) many groups want to forcibly extend their ethics and culture to everybody else and B) there are some decisions that have to be made on a planetary scale, like those about pollution, war, treaties and trade, and the future of the human race.

I would like to refer to this post on visions of the future (Wall Street vs Maker Movements) about what kind of governments we need. Global capitalism has brought the world immense wealth, but also dangerous concentrations of power, a complete lack of accountability, and immense inefficiencies and endemic fear of risk and change. Maybe we need a government big enough to dissemble itself.

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