At my Georgetown lecture last night on our robot future, the smart econ students focused their questions almost entirely on ethics. They seemed to assume they understood enough about the social situation, and were obsessed with the ethical ways for humans to treat robots, robots to treat humans, etc. I’ll bet they’d also be quick to condemn Roman centurions’ ethics, also figuring they understood enough about their social situation. But I think they’d need to learn lots more about either of these worlds before they could begin to offer useful ethics advice. Some of my young idealistic friends like to talk about figuring out what they could do to most help the world, and might go to Burma to see how the really poor live. I tell them one has to learn lots of details about a place to figure out how to improve it, and they’d do better to try this on a part of the world they understand better. But that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as saving the whole world all at once.Democracy in America has a nice example of the perils of far ethics:
THERE is this third-world country that's both a major producer and transition zone for drugs, that has a long, difficult-to-control border through rough, arid terrain where populations that share a common language and ethnicity on either side seem to transition freely, where the police are so lawless and ineffectual that the government has to replace them with regular army troops, where local government is so corrupt and so enmeshed with the warlords who control the drug trade that some people are talking about devolution to failed-state status, and where open gun battles raging on a near-daily basis between army troops, drug warlords, and civilians have killed thousands of people so far this year; and it’s not Afghanistan. [...] Should we deploy troops to northern Mexico, employing an extensive counterinsurgency strategy to hunt down drug gangs and protect local populations, and send thousands of aid workers to establish jobs programmes and reduce corruption in the Mexican government? Most Americans would treat such a proposal as absurd. And rightly so. The job of suppressing drug gangs and reasserting the legitimacy of the state in Mexico is a task that will be carried out by the Mexican state, and America can only play a limited role in assisting that, particularly given the long and touchy history of American interference in Mexican affairs. And yet for some reason we believe that American policy is capable of accomplishing things in Pakistan and Afghanistan that we would never dream it could do in Mexico, even though Mexico is right next door.So before you judge, walk a mile in someone's shoes. Ethics are context-dependent.
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