A Cop, a Dog, and a Computer Walk into a Bar: Personhood & Moral Subjectivity

I’m mostly writing about morality because I would very much like to stop writing about morality.

I say this because morality is, ultimately, a social construct — which isn’t to say that it’s nothing, but is to say that it’s malleable. It’s a feeling. You can’t whip out a morality-o-meter and measure morality. Even further, wildly divergent moral theories can justify the same actions — and actions are what actually matter. Further, despite how people tend to talk about various moral tendencies (deontology, consequentialism, etc.) pretty much everyone seems to be able to reason within multiple of them, and will even switch between them without thinking about it. When you get into neurology or evolutionary psychology the whole thing gets even more muddled — we might not even have the agency required for morality in the way that we think of ourselves as having moral agency.

More maddening, these issues will only get weirder in the future, with increasing technological change. Today, we debate whether or not it is morally permissible to farm animals. Decades from now, will posthuman intelligences be debating whether or not it is morally permissible for them to farm us? Today, we debate whether or not abortion is morally permissible. Decades from now, when artificial wombs change the conversation, will we be debating whether ownership of such an artificial womb allows you to turn it off with a fetus inside?

Looking at more grounded individual tendencies, things don’t appear much better.

Consequentialism falls apart when one acknowledges that the world is extremely hard to predict. That humans are deeply prone to motivated reasoning over what we believe plays into this as well — regardless of what I think of the strength of my evidence, it’s probably not going to convince someone who doesn’t already want to be convinced. Like many forms of moral realism, consequentialism fails to accept the limits of human knowledge and intuition.  Antifascism is a great example of this — for all my arguments as to the effectiveness of antifascist action, there are plenty of people who think that it actually makes the far-right even stronger — despite the evidence of the last four years, as well as the evidence of the last seven decades. Even further, the ultimate aims of consequentialism are in question. If we don’t really understand how the world works, there’s no way to be sure that our idea of an optimally/perfectly moral world actually functions how we think it does. It’s technically possible (this is an example) that the existence of neo-nazis (I don’t actually think this is likely to be true) is somehow necessary for the maximization of freedom. If we don’t actually have a great understanding of how the world works, then how we could we be certain one way or the other? Alternatively, it’s entirely possible that we might have two goals in mind (for example, no nazis and maximization of freedom — again, this is an example, I’m not actually in favor the existence of neo-nazis) that ultimately come into conflict with each other. Consequentialism looks more and more viable in the shorter and shorter term, but is ultimately unworkable as an absolute moral theory.

Virtue ethics is sort-of true, in the sense that people will usually act in similar ways to how they have in the past — and so, if one wants to be courageous (for example) in the future, one can start by being courageous today. But there’s nothing to guarantee that you will definitely choose the right proxies for the abstract ideal of a virtue, nor is there anything to guarantee that shifting circumstances won’t render your training counter-productive. For example, one might train oneself to be fine with working with marxist-leninists to fight neo-nazis, and thus end up not fighting marxist-leninists when the neo-nazis are disposed of. Even more than that, it often results in people coming up with ‘moral’ actions where they keep their hands clean of supposed wrongdoing, but avoid actually doing things to help others — for example, resigning from a position in protest; a useless way to keep one’s hands clean.

Utilitarianism is totally non-viable. There are so many problems with the theory, that it’s become almost a joke. Hell, just google ‘existential comics utilitarianism’. If you actually take utilitarianism seriously, you wind up with results that are horrifying to pretty much everyone. All it takes is one utility monster, and the whole system is utterly worthless. The only reason that it sticks around is that it’s a pretty decent moral framework for justifying statist policies — it is the Lysenkoism of moral theories.

Role ethics is micro-nationalistic and often hierarchical, and so unsuitable for anarchists. There’s a reason that it only becomes popular in strictly regimented societies where roles are already reified and can be misconstrued as having developed through some sort of natural and unavoidable process. Absent this socially constructed illusion, it seems horribly limiting to try to say that your moral choices only apply to certain people in certain contexts. People seeking autonomy need a universalist sense of morality.

Even nihilism doesn’t work — after all, if we don’t acknowledge that some things are preferable to others, then there isn’t really a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Which might technically be true, but also, I don’t care — I choose the less boring thing.

Care ethics is micro-nationalistic, but in a (largely) non-hierarchical way. An anarchist could certainly follow it, in comparison to role ethics (to which it is most similar) but the question remains as to whether this is really a moral worldview in the way that we are accustomed to thinking of morality — a distinction that, I believe, many of its advocates would acknowledge. It is carefully non-universal, contenting itself with the here and the now. Perhaps there is wisdom in that. Philosophers I have known have actually accused me of following care ethics — though I don’t know if I would agree. Is valuing one’s friends and caring for them really a moral act? Or is it merely an act of self-interest? Many have claimed that morality is what we do when we don’t benefit from it.

Ultimately, morality is just a feeling. Based on that, if I had to choose to call myself anything, I’d call myself an emotivist — or perhaps a casuist, a particularist, or even a deontologist. Morality is mostly based on things that one knows intuitively and without question to be moral or immoral, and moral reasoning is largely about defining how an ambiguous situation relates to an unambiguous one: from this, one can construct abstract rules that one finds to describe what feels moral and what feels immoral. One knows that slavery is wrong, and so one can understand wage-labor, the state, etc., etc to be wrong. One knows that being a neo-nazi is wrong. So: one understand punching a neo-nazi, or disrupting their activities less directly, to be right.

But, beyond all this, it simply isn’t important that we fight people with differing moral views from ours. I do not conduct my politics only with deontologists, in the same way that I only conduct my politics only with anarchists or the anarchist-adjacent. I don’t care about other people’s moral worldviews — I care if I can work with them. I care if they can make and keep deals.

When we act, we usually don’t do so alone. We do so with other people — and what we do with other people, we usually do so within the context of some sort of expectations of how those dealings will work. We make deals with them — I’ll do this if you do that, a spirit of reciprocity and mutually-beneficial cooperation. Of course, sometimes, deals are forced upon us — we are not exactly asked if we would like to opt into the law, or provided with the opportunity not to sign that contract of adhesion. In those cases, nothing about the person enforcing the rule matters to me that much — I can’t really negotiate with them, after all. It simply matters to me whether or not I decide to follow their rule. So, the specific form of post-moral thinking we must consider is not just how we act in the context of others, but instead specifically how we should act in the context of others of approximately equal power. In other words, the sort of people that we can engage in freed market “contracts” (such contracts are really more of gentlemen’s agreements, backed by reputation) with are the sort of people that we apply this sort of post-moral reasoning to.

In a sense, we could say that this means that the only things we consider to be people are things that can engage in deals with — deals that both parties must go through actual, meaningful negotiations on and then be (roughly) equally careful to respect.  This has several consequences that are both somewhat shocking and rather satisfying.

This means that, of course, rocks, animals, machines, the braindead, fetuses, etc. are not people. We cannot engage with them non-hierarchically. It might be possible to do something with an animal that one might call a ‘deal’, but it is almost certain that you could easily trick the animal — your superior intellect means that, even if you are currently acting as though you were engaging with them as an equal, you always have the option of dropping the act. Non-materially enforced equality is always just that: an act. You cannot really have an “equal” relationship where one of the participants can decide (at any given moment) whether or not the relationship will be equal.

But, this also means that you cannot really regard authority figures as people, either. After all, they are similarly incapable of engaging with you non-hierarchical. In practical terms, you can’t really negotiate (in a freed manner) with a cop. They can always simply arrest you for something or other, and that would be that. Or, as unionists frequently remind us, the boss is still a bastard even when he pretends to be your friend. And that is the operative word: pretend. Social relationships maintained by those with power over you are always full of lies and pretensions — they are methods of softer control, not true forms of friendship. The boss and the cop are, to you, not actually people: they are authority figures, and not people.

That is one of the more shocking parts of my definition: who is and who isn’t a person is subjective. Just as morality is subjective, just as value is subjective, so is personhood.

This argument can be extended into the hypothetical as well, what is often reserved for science-fiction. Some day, humans will be modified, or modify themselves. Completely synthetic intelligences may be created. Animals may be genetically modified into something that is not a mere animal anymore. The coming technological singularity may very well create intelligences that are to me (now) as I am to a dog.

We must be ready to answer the question: are these people? And if so, why?

The answer seems to be that if we can make non-hierarchical (which rules out post-human super-intelligences as being ‘people’ to us, but seems to include the rest) deals with us, then yes — they will be people, regardless of how “alien and strange” they otherwise might be. And this alienness and strangeness will be bridged within the freed market.

Frank Miloslav, in his review of The People’s Republic of Walmart, said:

Prices let us compress the complexity of our subjectivity and knowledge into a single number that helps us interact with others, allowing the distances between our capabilities to be bridged by assumptions… The capacity for prices to enable autonomous positive-sum relations between individuals is what has made capitalism capable of overcoming hurdles and challenges that would have destroyed any other system. However at the same time the current system must restrict our freedom of action so as to maintain the disparities of power…

Capable of compressing a vast amount of information into a single value, money allows for the negotiation of preferences at a level that no other technology has achieved to date… Its capacity for enabling distributed, stigmergic action and it’s flexibility in how it can be created and used makes it one of the most impactful technologies we’ve ever uncovered, worthy of sitting alongside such inventions as language in terms of expanding our capacity for action.

So, while democracy may give us warm fuzzies when it comes to making collective decisions, it’s currency that lets individuals of radically different backgrounds work together, find common ground, and develop positive sum relations, or at the very least respect their differences.

I hold that this isn’t just true for prices, but for deals in general — though, of course, prices are features of some of the most refined and easiest to navigate deals; I don’t need to share a language, just the ability to point, grunt, and write legible numbers in reference to a common currency. All our differences whether small or incomprehensibly vast, don’t matter if we can work together — and who we can work together with varies from individual.

The boss and the cop are not people to us, but they may very well (by my same definition) be people to each other. Similarly, while we cannot see the post-human super-intelligences as people, they will likely see each other as such. From the perspective of this unusual conclusion, a certain similarity emerges between the freed market and anarcho-transhumanism: both are prospective projects with the ultimate aim of putting everyone in a position to recognize anyone’s personhood.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory