On a lighter note, with Aristotle and Will Smith: robots, zombies, and aliens

Image credit: snorgtees.com

Image credit: snorgtees.com

If you have wasted enough time on the ‘net these last couple of years, you will no doubt have run into the triple Venn diagram reproduced to the left of this paragraph. Now in philosophy, diagrams of this sort have a real, but limited value. They can be used to evaluate some simple arguments, and they show the relationships–or lack thereof–between certain sets of things. Here, of course, the diagram accurately highlights the key similarity between robots, zombies, and aliens: the fact that they tend to be deadly to humans. Were they to actually exist, that is. (Robots here understood as killing machines, not the cute little ones who preside over marriages in Japan).

But Venn diagrams also have their limitations. Don’t worry, I’m not going to nerd out and discuss all those. The main thing to note is just that they show interrelationships, but they don’t always accurately represent causation.

So, in terms of the dialogue above, don’t assume that aliens and robots are deadly to humans because they have advanced technology. Technology is morally neutral, and can be put to good or bad use. Nor does the lack of emotion shared by robots and zombies necessarily cause human death. In fact, emotions like jealousy and rage have been contributing factors to lots of human deaths throughout history, so a lack of them could be good news (plus, we are, as a culture, beginning the rethink the unfair stereotype of the heartless zombie–see, for example, Warm Bodies). I will admit the taste for human flesh that unites zombies and aliens could surely be a contributing factor to human fatalities–but only if coupled with great power of some sort. There are lots of evil-lookin’  little insects that I suspect of having a desire to snack on me, but thus far they have not killed me (as far as I know).

No, the true cause of the death to humans does not show up on that Venn Diagram above. But we know it anyway, because we know it as a failing in ourselves and in our fellow humans: lack of moral reasoning, the ability to think well about what kinds of conduct are good or bad to do. This absence comes about in different ways in zombies, robots, and aliens, just as it comes about in different ways in humans.

Robots lack moral reasoning because they have not been programmed with it, or they have been programmed inadequately. They are akin to the bestial character type identified by Aristotle in Bk. VII of the Nichomachean Ethics (hence NE), what we might call the criminally insane. Such a person just seems to be lacking the basic moral reasoning ability common to all humans. The bestial person does not just do evil things–he does the kind of evil things that even other evil people avoid. Or to put it differently, he fails to recognize the basic goods that all humans value, like the preference for saving a child’s life over an adult’s life. That’s the reason Will Smith does not like them in I, Robot. Smart man, that Will Smith.

Zombies lack moral reasoning because of voodoo, or a virus, or having been buried in the creepy part of the woods out behind the Pet Cemetery. But with them it is less of a total absence of moral reasoning than that their moral reasoning gets completely and utterly overwhelmed by their bad inclinations to eat people and other living things (the material substrate for such reason, the brain, is after all still there, which is why you have to shoot them in the head or decapitate them) They are akin to the incontinent character type identified by Aristotle in the NE. Such people, and such zombies, are bad. They do bad, evil things. But they may be, after a long time and with lots of help, actually curable. This is why Will Smith never gives up hope for that cure in I Am Legend. We won’t forget you, Will.

Aliens lack moral reasoning because their countless intergalactic conquests have led to the total corruption of their moral reasoning, a total blunting of their consciences. They are thus akin to Aristotle’s vicious character type in the NE, people with bad inclinations and bad moral reasoning. Here, according to Aristotle, there is no hope for a cure. For to what could you appeal to effect such a cure? Reason is totally corrupted; such people think bad actions are actually “good.” All you could hope to do, in such cases, is to somehow recondition the inclinations as is attempted with Alex in A Clockwork Orange. But as Will Smith knows, reconditioning the inclinations obviously isn’t going to be a practical option in regard to an large intergalactic cockroach thing, the rampaging alien of Men in Black. All you can do in that case is make it mad by stepping on little earth cochroaches until your coworker blows it up from the inside with a laser gun. Will Smith does what he has to do, every time.

We can conclude, then, with Aristotle and Willard Christopher Smith, Jr., that the ability to reason well about moral matters, and carry through this reasoning in action, is what really makes someone–or something–good or bad. Don’t get fixated on the tentacles, dripping blood, and cosmic death rays. They are only the symptoms, not the disease.

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7 Responses to On a lighter note, with Aristotle and Will Smith: robots, zombies, and aliens

  1. 00doggerel says:

    That was fantastic

  2. Greg Ward says:

    Hilarious examples – but were does the Fresh Prince fit in? Seriously though, the I, Robot movie suffered by so radically altering the books, especially by neglecting Asimov’s Laws of Robotics – which form the basis for modern AI ethics. But maybe less translatable to the big screen than Mr. Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      lol. Yeah, chalk up I, Robot as another casualty of the book to movie transition. The only somewhat recent exceptions to this general trend I can think of are The Last of the Mohicans and The Painted Veil.

  3. theflashcook says:

    Where do young children fall into the determination of good and bad? A few minutes around a young child and it quickly becomes clear they lack the ability (or perhaps the willingness) to reason morally – they are only interested in what pleases them. Are they bad as a result? My efforts to reason morally with such a child have been moderately successful at best – here’s my recent post in case you’re interested! http://theflashcook.com/2013/05/10/thats-not-nice-browned-butter-pound-cake-with-strawberries-and-greek-yogurt-cream/

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      As the father of a two-year old, I so very much know what you mean. I would not say young children are bad, but rather amoral–since they don’t fully command reason yet, they can’t really be bad or good. They are sort of outside of morality, and it is our task as parents to bring them in. If find that scary.

      Thanks for the link. Based on the title, I think I am going to enjoy it!

  4. Pingback: Because everybody likes zombies and Venn diagrams :) | Syllable in the City

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