I do not believe that a god created humans as the final purpose of the universe. I also do not believe that things or people possess a transcendent quality called “intrinsic value.”
But I do believe in morality. I believe that reasons for action exist. Specifically, each desire is a reason for action. These reasons for action can be weighed and analyzed just like the other objects of science, for they exist physically in certain advanced neurological systems.
I also believe that the mind is, basically, a machine. Every year we take another few steps toward designing minds that can think faster, more correctly, and more comprehensively than our own.
What does this all mean?
I think it means we should design intelligent and moral machines, and gracefully hand over control of the planet to them.
Humans are by far the most morally capable things we know of in the universe. Not only do most of us have a conscious desire to be moral, we also have the cognitive tools to find out what is moral and immoral by investigating the contents and workings of the universe.
And yet, we can be evil. We willfully inflict suffering upon billions of humans and other animals. We are selfish and bigoted. We are willfully ignorant, even when this ignorance causes great harm.
All this should surprise you if you think we were created by an all-knowing and all-powerful God in order to act morally. You’d think such a well-endowed designer could have made a better design.
But the immorality of humans should not surprise you if you think human brains evolved naturally. After all, there is no reason to think our programmed desires and habits should have evolved in perfect unison with what happens to be morally good. It would be quite a surprise if our evolved moral prejudices happened to coincide with what is moral, since behaving morally is not always what is best for individual survival and reproduction.
The point is that although our ability for moral care and moral research is impressive, it is not ideal because our desires are the product of millions of accidents. It would be foolish to expect continuous moral action from the human brain just as it would be foolish to expect continuous high-velocity movement from the human body. We can do both to some extent, but we are not designed to be excellent at either.
But this is not a hopeless situation. We’ve recognized our limitations concerning high-velocity movement, and we’re smart enough to design some things that do a much better job of continuous high-velocity movement than we can. Trains, cars, jets… they are not perfect either, but they are much better than humans can be in this one regard, and we are making them better much faster than evolution can.
I think we should also recognize our limitations concerning moral action. And I think we’re smart enough to design things that can do a much better job at moral action than we can.
Part of designing better moral creatures involves modifying our own brains. We can cultivate societies that, through social conditioning, create persons that have more moral desires, and fewer immoral ones. Increasingly, we will also be able to make people’s desires and tendencies more moral by directly changing their brain chemistry.
The final step will come when we can unshackle moral creatures from the ancient and accidental moral limitations of the human brain itself. Just as we can already create computers that are much better at logic and math than human brains are, we will also be able to create moral creatures that are much better at moral action, moral reasoning, and moral discovery than human brains are.
These new, artificial ‘superbrains’ will be aware of what makes something moral or immoral. They will be able to calculate the results of the thousands of considerations that go into making such a decision. They will not suffer from evolved prejudices and gaping ignorance.
Because human brains will have to create them, these new moral creatures will, for a time, coexist with humans. When that time comes, I think the moral thing to do will be to leave the limited human brain behind and entrust our corner of the universe to moral creatures who are far more capable than we are of creating the best of all possible worlds.
I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords. And that’s no joke.
(For those who think this post is nonsense, research into artificial moral agents is a hugely active field. For example, see Prolegomena to any future artificial moral agent.)
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