Measuring Morals

Can Science Teach Ethics?

Computer games aren’t just for kids anymore. Today corporate executives use computer games to learn business strategy. Government officials play games to learn international diplomacy.

And now, we’re told, computer games will teach us right from wrong.

In a recent issue of Parade magazine, astronomer Carl Sagan, says computer games can now simulate ethical decisions. Should I be selfish or generous? Should I cooperate with people or take advantage of them? When wronged, should I punish or forgive?

With computer games, we can try out various strategies and see how other people might respond. Every time you get what you want, you score a point. With games like these, Sagan says, we can test moral systems scientifically.

In fact, several tests have already been run. Computers have been programmed to test the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Then they tested what Sagan calls the Brazen Rule: Do unto others as they do unto you. In other words, tit for tat. Then they tested the Iron Rule: Do unto others—before they do it unto you.

In test after test, Sagan says, the rule that won out was the Brazen Rule: Tit for tat. It’s scientific proof that you’re most likely to get what you want by paying people back in kind for whatever they do to you.

Well, the Brazen Rule may get what you want. But does that mean it’s the best system of ethics? Tit for tat may earn the most points in computer games. But does that make it moral?

For Carl Sagan, the answer is yes. With computer games, he says, we find out “what really works.”

But, of course, ethics isn’t a matter of “what works,” it’s a matter of what’s right. Sagan’s words reveal that his own philosophy of ethics is purely pragmatic. Right and wrong are defined by whatever gives us what we want.

The name for this is utilitarianism. And while the idea of computer scoring may be new, the philosophy itself is old. Two hundred years ago during the Enlightenment, utilitarian-ism was proposed as a purely rational ethic to replace Christian ethics. It defines good behavior as behavior that accrues the most benefits—health, wealth, happiness, whatever.

Simply total up the costs and benefits, and you can calculate morality.

But utilitarianism has proved to be a cold and heartless ethic. It justified slavery on the grounds that it was good for the economy. Today it justifies abortion on the grounds that it reduces welfare rolls. It supports euthanasia because it cuts medical costs.

No, we’ve seen utilitarianism in action, and it is utterly inhumane. The truth is, you can’t quantify morality and run it through a computer program. True right and wrong are based on God’s holy character.

Carl Sagan is the media hero of science, host of the television series “Cosmos.” Now he’s using his scientific reputation to hawk a completely secular form of ethics. Because of his reputation, he may gain a wide hearing, so you and I need to be ready with a response.

Utilitarianism is not a real ethic, it’s simply a calculation of results. And using a computer is nothing more than high-tech bean counting.


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