Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ethics and the Multiverse

What does ethics mean, if we live in a multiverse?

It's a dilemma that, to be honest, only worries folks with a bit too much time on their hands.  Still and all, it seems worth exploring, because ethics matter.  They do.  Our personal and collective ethics define who we are.  They give us integrity and direction.  But ethics, as a practice, hasn't quite yet gotten around to wrestling with the whole multiversal/many worlds thing.

Let's look at the two primary schools of ethical thinking, for example.  Classical ethical frameworks are typically described as either consequentialist or deontological.  Yes, big words, but let me break 'em down a bit.

Consequentialist ethical frameworks focus entirely on outcomes.  Whatever you need to do to achieve a particular outcome, do it.  The good is the final product, the result.  The classical consequentialist argument is the "Jews in the Basement" argument.  Lying, we would generally agree, is a bad thing.  One should not lie.  But if the Nazis are at the door, and they ask if you have seen any Jews, you do not say "yes, sure, they're hiding in my basement."  You lie, because telling the truth would create an evil consequence.

That's an extreme example, of course, but expresses the core of the consequentialist ethic.  It allows any action oriented towards a particular end.  If your goal is producing enough food to feed the world, then you do so.  You don't worry about factory farming, or about industrial scale agriculture tearing the heart out of small farms.  You are producing food.  The goal is achieved.  If your goal is reducing crime, you lock up most of the poor, and crime does go down.  The goal is achieved.  It doesn't matter, really, how you get there.

But in a multiverse, there is no one consequence.  There are all possible consequences.  Your lie may serve no end.  People may still starve.  There may still be crime, and war.  The consequence that was your intent vanishes like mist in the morning, and your actions are meaningless.

The alternative to consequentialism is deontology.  Deontological ethics are all about duty, honor, and justice.  You have a clear ethical framework, from which you act in any and all instances.  Fiat justicia ruat caelum, or so the saying goes for those who read Latin better than I do.  "Do justice, though the heavens fall."

It means that you act rightly, no matter what the outcome. If there is a mob beating a man to death, you intervene to protect that man. You do not consider the likely result, which is that the mob will beat you both to death.  If all of your friends and your community hate someone, and circulate willful lies about them to justify their hatred, you speak up in their defense.  You do not allow yourself to be swayed, even as your own reputation is ruined.  You know your duty.

But in a multiverse, there are a functional infinity of competing deontological claims.  Or, to use English, there are just so many possible interpretations of duty.  Am I doing my duty, if I'm following the orders of my leader and defending my nation/state/tribe?  Is this always so?  Am I being honorable, if I protect the purity of my faith by opposing those who violate the Absolute Truth I know with Utter Certainty?  Deontology creates binary, dualistic dynamics, absolute right and absolute wrong, and such ethics can make a mess of things even in a linear universe. Only a Sith deals in deontology, as Ewan MacGregor once listlessly put it in a mediocre movie.

If we inhabit a multiverse, an infinitely complex continuum, then binary thinking is even less meaningful.  Which claim do we allow to guide us?  What is our ultimate truth claim, if empirically speaking, everything is "true?"

That depends entirely on how we understand the good.