Thank you all for joining me once again. This will be the last in a short series of articles I have written regarding ethics and application to both storytelling and an understanding of leadership. They cover the difference between morals and ethics, a definition of duty, and the detail of values. If you haven’t been back through the last few posts, I highly encourage it unless you already have a basis in ethical theories. I have kept them short, punchy, and you will need that information as we dive into the world of David Brin’s Uplift.
David Brin has been writing for quite a while. I still remember as a kid, perhaps late middle school or high school, getting my hands on his Uplift novels and simply devouring them over a few days in the summer. It’s a fascinating concept, and while others have built on it since, he was always the first to have introduced it to me. It hinges around the idea that we can somehow impart consciousness, full self-awareness and the ability to act morally, on certain subsets of animal that are pretty close already. His examples here are of course in apes and dolphins, but I have read other books where they even applied this to cuttlefish. I had no idea that cuttlefish were so intelligent. Luckily, I don’t eat calamari that often. (And yes, calamari is not cuttlefish. But they are at least cousins, right?)
So now we get into the interesting bits. Humanity, in its great hubris or visionary planning depending on who you are talking to, has decided to actually create moral actors. Initially that sounds great, right? This is an amazing gift to give to an entire species to help them jump ahead in millions of years of evolution that may or may not have ever happened naturally. Wonderful. But of course there is a catch.
Is consciousness equivalent to happiness? Have we actually created more suffering in the universe by creating a sentient species? And then there’s this whole question of the contract; the 10 years of service that an Uplifted race owes to its benefactor. Is this a reasonable return for the gift of consciousness, or is it pure and unadulterated slavery? Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.
Let’s look at the ethical framework by which we could either justify or condemn uplifting a species to intelligence. As I alluded to earlier, a consequentialist or perhaps even a utilitarian would argue that in general, there is far more strife and unhappiness in a sentient species than there is happiness and good. I mean just look at the some total of human history, which might realistically be sketched out as the dull bits in between major wars, plague, slavery, and general bad times for most people. However, the deontologist might disagree.
If we have the power to raise up others to our level of consciousness, or perhaps even beyond depending on our command of artificial intelligence and its application, don’t we have a moral duty to do so? Should we focus on raising other creatures up from the British and animal nature that they have now, into an enlightened race that is capable of such wonders as art, music, and then even contribution to the common good?
These are of course just two different arguments under the different frameworks. But lastly I’d like to dive into a few virtues as a sort of tiebreaker, just in a little artificial world of argument we have created here. Because I’d like to keep this punchy I’m going to cherry pick a virtue out of Aristotle’s 12 virtues. Keep in mind that Aristotle’s virtues are generally considered to be spectrums. The virtue here is benevolence. A lack of benevolence might be considered meanness and would be a deficient vice, whereas the opposite would be self-sacrificing and considered an excessive vice. So if we could imagine the deep embodiment of benevolence, would that justify the actions of uplifting another race into consciousness? That depends on whether you consider consciousness to be a gift or a curse. I’ll leave you to conclude that one.
If you haven’t already read the books, or at least one of the short stories that Brin has written in that universe, I highly recommend them. There are a few that are somewhat genre bending, especially when the dolphins start galavanting across the known universe and we start diving into space opera but they are all highly entertaining. And as you read, I encourage you to decide what you believe and how you would justify the actions that the characters take, or whether you would condemn them and why. This skill not just the act of condoning or condemning but truly examining why you have chosen either path, is an important one. You can apply this understanding of ethics across your life, whether that includes writing in a compelling moral dilemma that will make your readers truly invest themselves in your story, or whether it means empathizing with another’s point of view when there is a disagreement professionally. I hope this short series on ethics has been enlightening and entertaining, and as always please let me know would you like to see next or any comments you have below! Happy storytelling!