All of the boys and the girls here in Paris… also think there are objective moral wrongs

I endured Steven Spielberg’s A.I. last night (and if you’re morbidly curious what my running commentary was like, you can find it here).  One part in particular stuck out for me.  As you’re never going to watch this film, I’m sure a SPOILER ALERT isn’t needed, but here it is anyway:


At one point, the nasty humans — or ‘Orgas’ as they’re known in the film — go hunting unregistered robots — a.k.a. ‘Mechas’ — and hold a circus where the Orgas torture the Mechas.  One Mecha pleads for its ‘life’ before it’s put into a cannon and shot.  The last we see is its burning face sliding down the cage wall while the crowd cheers.  A disturbingly attractive Mecha — played by Clara Bellar — has acid poured on her and the crowd cheers as she dissolves.

They draw the line with the protagonist because they mistakenly think it’s a real boy.

This neatly touches upon a broader problem in philosophy caused by the dominance of the rights discourse in modern applied ethics.  Most people are intuitionists: they can’t tell why what they’re doing is moral and correct, but they can generally spot the difference between good actions and wrong actions with bellyfeel.  It’s one of the roles of the philosopher to help people elucidate what they believe and how they can reason with others about what they believe.

Into the common language came the idea of rights.  Back in the good old days, rights came from God.  Every man was born with them (if he were white and wealthy) and they protected him from others.  Other people were taught to respect his rights.

Slowly, the ‘rights-bearers’ expanded to include non-whites and women.  To violate a person’s rights was to act against something that was inherent to that person: something inalienable.

This met with quite a few problems: what were the natural rights?  Everybody had a different list.  Ayn Rand — possibly the most infamous of the pseudo-philosophers — claimed that there was only one natural right: the right to property.   Americans believed that the right to the freedom of speech was the most sacred of all.  Philosophers from other countries thought rights to live ‘the good life’ were more important — some even mentioned the right of the elderly to be cared for by the young.  And so on and so forth.

It also had an ontological problem: where were these rights?  Atheists, for example, might have a bit of a problem believing that they were given rights by the Christian Deity, for example.

The shift was away from the idea of natural rights towards legal rights: rights were a legal construct which protected the individual from the State.  This caused even more problems: imagine that the Democratic Kakistocracy of Hypothetica begins torturing dissidents.  Humanitarian groups might be outraged at this abuse of human rights, but it’s only an abuse if those dissidents are protected by law.  They might not be.  If they’re not, it’s not an abuse of human rights.

But put all of this to the side for the moment.  Imagine if there were a person born who — somehow, someway — did not have rights.  To steal their stuff would not violate their property rights, &c., &c.  We shall call them ‘Jamie’.  Imagine that an ordinary person (call them ‘Jessie’) in the community  — named  approaches Jamie, drugs them, and then takes them to an abandoned warehouse to torture them.  We would think that something morally dubious has happened even though Jamie was devoid of rights.  It’s something about Jessie’s behaviour which has caused the moral revulsion.  We find it troubling when a person forms the attitude that they want to inflict pain on something else.

The same seems to hold when the other person is just simulating pain.  Consider an actor in a fake electric chair who imitates being zapped painfully when a button is pushed.  We would find it morally troublesome if somebody enjoyed inflicting pain on them, even though no pain was being inflicted.

The Mechas in A.I. couldn’t feel pain because they weren’t alive and didn’t have the cognitive capacity for pain.  But they could simulate pain.  The audience at the circus were positively gleeful at the idea of the Mechas simulating fear and pain.

There is an interesting problem where a person consents to another inflicting pain upon them.  Imagine two people (I can’t think of any epicene names at the moment) one of whom confides to the other that they get sexual gratification from sadism.  The other is happy to know this because they’ve been hiding the fact that they get sexual gratification from pain.  Legally, we might think what two consenting people do to each other is nobody’s business but the people involved.  Morally, we don’t need to be so hesitant and we can judge the parties as being immoral if we think they’ve done something morally wrong.  Have they?

I come down on the side of ‘Yes’.  I think it’s reasonable to believe that desiring to inflict pain on another person is morally wrong, even if that person consents.  Am I going to run about raining on people’s BSDM parties?  No.  I think, in the scheme of things, that it’s not a hugely significant moral wrong: at the end of the day, the parties are consenting.  The part that is troubling is that a desire to inflict pain is a desire to do something morally objectionable.  That they’ve found a convenient space in which to enact this desire does not make the initial desire less morally objectionable.  Similarly, I think that bashing a prostitute to get your money back is morally wrong, and yet people can live out that fantasy playing Grand Theft Auto.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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