Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Frontier of Ethics

Ethics is a really complicated and diverse field, but one of its most interesting historical features has been the steady widening of the boundaries of various ethical systems. As the world has developed and globalized, we've seen people start affording moral weight to things that were previously ignored: individuals belonging to other racial groups, individuals in other countries or regions, individuals with different religious beliefs, animals, etc. Excluding the question about the moral status of animals and biological systems, one can't help but conclude that someday the domains of most ethical frameworks will expand to encompass every human being. This vision, called cosmopolitanism, is already realized in a host of issues today. Climate change is probably the best example, but stuff like human rights, global poverty, prevention of global pandemics, and world-destroying asteroid protection also count.

Photo Credit: Secular Student Alliance
Recognizing that the world is getting more cosmopolitan begs the question: what comes next? What other ethical frontiers (e.g. "expanding moral circles") are out there? Certainly the species boundary is a big one: what is the moral status of animals? Should dogs factor into our moral calculus? What about bugs or bacteria?

Another boundary that isn't fixed is pegged to technology: as new technology develops, novel ethical dilemmas will emerge. What is the proper use of cloning, genetic engineering, and biological enhancement? To what extent should we limit fabrication technologies that could be used to make weapons? How will new communications technologies disrupt incumbent political, social, and economic structures?

Photo credit: Don Davis
The list goes on. But although there are many dimensions of ethics that will remain dynamic forever, I'm not actually convinced cosmopolitanism represents the endpoint it's usually portrayed as. It's obviously true that cosmopolitan ethics encompasses every human being on Earth. But there's another important set of human beings whose ethical status is ambiguous: humans that haven't been born yet. What is the ethical status of the welfare of humans living 100 years from now? 500 years? 1000 years? In policy terms this issue is known as the discount rate, and it underlies a shockingly large set of contemporary issues. Strange then that it receives almost no explicit attention in the political discourse, the popular philosophy literature, or in undergraduate philosophy programs.

I'd like to delve into this topic in the future, but for now a good start might be to identify what the new endpoint of this temporal frontier of ethics might be. I suggest something like the equal weighting of all humans into the future; a discount rate of zero. Call it "chronocosmopolitanism." Now obviously the practical implications of affording equal moral weight to someone alive today and someone living in 10,000 years is... tricky and ridiculous. But it's an important limit case that can serve to frame this debate.

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