Posts tagged Ethics

Abraham’s Dilemma

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[Foreword: Though the language may seem abstract and probably pretentious, this piece is aimed at encouraging a possible reinterpretation of religious text in more practical terms. I hope you can bear (with) it!]

This came back to me recently, having touched upon it during my Uni days. The problem is outlined at http://www.slideshare.net/aquinas_rs/biblical-moral-dilemmas and summary below: God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’. He said, ‘take your son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offerhim as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ Genesis 22:1-2 In Genesis 22 Abraham takes his son Isaac to be sacrificed as God has commanded (a ram is offered in Isaac’s place). Abraham and his wife Sarah had waited a long time to have Isaac. God had promised them a child in their old age and yet God asks Abraham to sacrifice him! Even if it does not raise moral questions, it is a least counter-intuitive. But Abraham does not falter. He takes Isaac as commanded and it is not until Abraham raises the knife to kill his son that God intervenes. Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac is enough for God to know that the patriarch would not ‘withhold his only son’ from him. A ram is conveniently found in a thicket and offered in Isaac’s place.

The basic understanding of this story seems to be that it was about demonstrating Abraham’s great faith and willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God, who lets him off at the end. i.e. God would never actually demand such a sacrifice as it is patently horrific, but it serves to illustrate the kind of strength of will that faith may require. However, there are other puzzles arising from this scenario if we consider it as a hypothetical situation where divine and mundane morality conflict. i.e. What if God actually demanded such a sacrifice? (more…)

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I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen Academicals’ recently, and recalled this particular excerpt where the daunting Patrician – getting a litle tipsy – recounts a personal childhood experience:

The Patrician took a sip of his beer. ‘I have told this to a few people, gentlemen, and I suspect never will again, but one day when I was a young boy on holiday in Uberwald I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.’

This mini-tale called to mind a personal experience when gorge-walking with a group of youths somewhere in Devon. The party came across a sheltered rock pool between turbulant waterfalls, in which we were greeted by a lone duckling. It chirped without fear and swam right up to us. As we passed through the pool it followed us with uncertain paddling and bobbing, the ripples of our passing threatening to drown it at any moment. Then, after we had traversed the pool, and helped one another to clamber up the next obstacle, it watched us leave, spinning in circles and attempting to follow. Of course the water kept throwing it back each time it tried, in vain, to come with us. We stood atop the waterfall, catching our breath, and discussed the situation. The duckling had likely become separated from its mother and been swept downstream to this place where it was effectively trapped. We could not help it for fear of our human scent rendering it alien to its own kind anyway. All in all it was a particularly heartbreaking moment and when asked what was likely to happen to it I was pretty frank about its minimal chance of survival.

As we pass through life our roles change, sometimes we are gods holding powers of life and death in our hands, and sometimes we are victims of forces that threaten to devour us. Some feel trapped in roles they feel compelled to play, through love, fear, notions of duty and myriad other reasons that twist and twine into bonds. I wonder, if those bonds were severed, what kind of god would you make? In whose image would you attempt to craft the world, and according to what principles? The Patrician speaks of becoming the moral superior of a supreme being, but given the status quo I do not feel that is remotely difficult. The difficulty may rest in retaining your notions of morality as you become a god. Power transfigures the best of us, and the result may be scarcely recognisable…

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

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Word of mouth is a wonderful thing. A friend has pointed me towards the following stories which are both entertaining and challenging. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Sci-fi around encountering alien values and reconsidering our own. From blog found here.

http://robinhanson.typepad.com/files/three-worlds-collide.pdf

Fantasy themed

http://yudkowsky.net/other/fiction/the-sword-of-good

Interview with an Antichrist

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Most of us will be familiar with the idea of the Antichrist from popular culture and films. In Monty-Python terms, if Jesus is a very naughty boy, the Antichrist is very naughty indeed! There seems to be some confusion over the nature of the Antichrist however, with some suggesting it is a metaphorical reference to the sin in every man. If we supposed that the Antichrist was indeed a man (or woman), what might he be like? What might motivate him? What makes him fit for the job? Does he ever have doubts? Does he like ice-cream?

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Living with Responsibility

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This starts with pretty simple questions. What am I responsible for? When is it reasonable to say something is my fault? Problem is, things get interesting when we start taking responsibility for making choices about what we are responsible for.

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The Problem with Thoughtcrime

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Prejudice is a belief or judgment made before or without due consideration of the facts.

Discrimination is acting on your prejudice.

I have recently heard of discrimination being condemned, but prejudice by contrast being ‘acceptable’. This is dangerous territory. In Orwell’s ’1984′ there was attempted policing of the very thoughts of society. To think contrary to the status quo was a criminal offence. I defend the right to free thought vehemently, but in doing so please be careful not to defend prejudice as well.

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Riders – Part 2

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Sam simply stared. She lay on her back, spreadeagled, looking at the stars. Her bed was glowing softly in a blue-white light. The rest of her room had gone, leaving just her, her bed, and the vast starlit blackness. No breeze, sound, or heartbeat served to give any indication of time. In fact, the soundless vacuum denied every attempt to cough or speak.  If Sam had the slightest interest in astronomy she may have noticed, or failed to notice, the missing constellations regularly adorning the night sky on earth. As it was, it all served to heighten the sense of detachment and strangeness of the moment. Her fingers twined uselessly in her sheets as her mind recoiled from the void stretching like a pit before her.  It recalled childhood fantasies of falling upwards into the deep blue sky whilst lying supine on a summer’s day, alone in a grassy field with nothing but dandelions and pebbles for purchase.

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The Lovely Bones

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Recently watched the film then read the book. The film was excessively harrowing, but the book was very good.  One thing that came out of it for me was a bit of a puzzle.

Spoiler alert for anyone not wanting to hear crucial parts of the plot! To summarise, a bad man does nasty things to a lot of women and children. Right at the end of the book, he ‘gets his comeuppance’, being killed in a freak accident that closely resembles the ‘perfect murder’ that the murdered Susie Salmon’s sister concocts at one point in the book. This seems to suggest that either Susie somehow intervenes from her heaven, or god has a sense of humour, or maybe it is all just coincidence. Now, here’s my puzzle.

Why do so many people – almost all of them – watching the film or reading the story feel that the bad guy ‘getting his comeuppance’ is almost cathartic, practically cheering his demise? I mean, it’s a good thing that he won’t go on to kill again, but his death does not bring the dead girls back. It doesn’t even bring any real succour to them or their living relatives as it happens pretty anonymously to all of them. It seems to me that it was a plot device aimed pretty squarely at the reader/observer, to bring some sort of relief. But what kind of relief actually makes sense?

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