Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How I Learned To Start Worrying And Fear The Bomb

In case you were wondering where I've wound up on moral thought, I pretty much agree with Steven Pinker's outlook in his piece in The NY Times Magazine, The Moral Instinct. Much of our moral intuition comes from hard-and-fast rules (built into our emotional responses) that work in most basic situations, but tend not to produce good results when thinking about large-scale or complex issues. (This is an oversimplification, as is Pinker's piece.) Some more mature form of utilitarianism (one which takes into account human psychology and capacity for self-deception in moral thought, and thus is open to the need for at least a few absolutist principles) seems to be the best way to go.

As for my moral principles, I want to help save the world if that's at all possible; more particularly, I want human life to survive the next century and explore the cosmos. To that end, while climate change is a concern, I think the more pressing one is that we will exterminate ourselves (and most or all other life on Earth) through nuclear war, or engineered plagues, or nanotechnology, or something we haven't even imagined yet.

And while the more outlandish scenarios don't seem to have easy means of prevention, I can at least start to show interest in nuclear disarmament. It seems unrealistic with the present forms of global politics that the U.S. would dare disarm completely; but the major powers could be convinced that second-strike capability doesn't require enough warheads to completely exterminate all human life. If a nuclear war would be devastating but not the end of all humanity, that would be an improvement; because in our current situation, it seems to be only a matter of the wrong circumstances coming together that would launch one.

On an unrelated note, Edge Magazine asked a great number of leading academics a smart question: What Have You Changed Your Mind About? The answers are stimulating (even if- or because- they coincide on certain themes).

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