The Creation of EveThe Creation of Eve, held by Ashmolean Museum, which depicts God creating Eve from the rib of the sleeping Adam (Genesis 2: 21–23)

By John Harris

'How to be good?' is the pre-eminent question for ethics,  although one that philosophers and ethicists seldom address head on. It was the question Plato posed in a slightly different form in The Republic when he said: “We are discussing no trivial subject, but how a man should live”.

Marcus Aurelius thought he knew the answer. When he unequivocally stated in his Meditations “A King’s lot:to do good and be damned” he was  himself a king and ruled almost all of the world that was known to him. He could with impunity both do good and be damned. Edward Gibbon famously remarked that “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the human race was most happy and prosperous he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus”.  Marcus Aurelius, the father of Commodus ruled for the last 19 years of this period. Grotesque carving of Eve and the forbidden apple, on the bell tower of New College, Oxford Carving of Eve and the forbidden apple, on the bell tower of New College, Oxford 

Recently philosophers and scientists have tried to identify how to make the world better by making people more likely to do good rather than evil. Many of these have proposed ways of changing human kind by chemical or molecular means so that they literally cannot do bad things, or are much less likely so to do, in other words by limiting or eradicating their freedom to do bad things. 

How to be goodThis same problem has also faced those interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI). If we create beings as smart or smarter than us how can we limit their power deliberately to eliminate us or simply act in ways that will have this result? How can we ensure that they act for the best? Many people have thought that this problem can be solved by programming them to obey some version of Isaac Asimov’s  so called “laws” of robotics, particularly the first law: “a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The problem of course is how the robot would know whether its actions or omissions would cause danger to humans, or for that matter, to other self-conscious AIs. Consider that ethical dilemmas often involve choosing between greater or lesser harms or evils rather than avoiding harm altogether, allowing or causing some to come to grief for the sake of saving others.  

How would a human being who, for example,  had been rendered unable act violently towards other people, or in ways that caused pain, defend herself or others against murderous attack? How would an AI programmed according to Asimov’s laws do likewise? 

John Milton knew the answer.  In Paradise Lost Milton reports God as reminding humankind  that  if we want to be good, to be “just and right”, then we need autonomy:  “I made him (mankind)  just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” 

This dilemma, felt no less keenly by God than by the rest of us, of how to combine the capacity for good with the freedom to choose, is now facing those trying to develop moral bio-enhancers and those working on the new generation of smart machines. This is what Steven Hawking meant when he told the BBC in 2014 that:  

“the primitive forms of artificial intelligence we already have, have proved very useful. But I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” How could full AI which would enable the machine which (who?) possessed it to determine its own destiny as we do, be persuaded to choose modes of flourishing compatible with those of humans? Of course we currently have these problems with respect to one another, but at least we have not as yet shackled our capacity to cope with these by foreclosing some options for self-defence by moral bioenhancement. 

In the future there will be no more “men” in Plato’s sense, no more human beings therefore, and no more planet earth. No more human beings because we will either of wiped one another out by our own foolishness or by our ecological recklessness; and no more planet Earth because we know that ultimately our planet will die and any surviving people or AIs along with it. Programmable robot called Nao at the Cyber Security Institute A programmable robot called Nao at the Cyber Security Institute at Oxford

Initial scientific predictions on the survival of our planet suggested we might have 7.6 billion years to go before the earth gives up on us.  Recently Steven Hawking said  

“I don't think we will survive another thousand years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” 

To be sure we need to make ourselves smarter and more resilient and we may need to call AI in aid to achieve this if we are to be able to find another planet on which to live when this one is tired of us, or even perhaps develop the technology to construct another planet. To do so we will have to change, but not in ways that risk our capacities to choose both how to live and the sorts of lives we wish to lead. 

As Giuseppe di Lampedusa had Tancredi say in The Leopard, “If we want things to stay as they are things will have to change”…and that goes for people also!

John Harris is the author of How to be Good (Oxford University Press, 2016) and is professor emeritus in science ethics at the University of Manchester

Read more on Oxford Today:

The Trouble with Oxford? Famous dons get short shrift from Stefan Collini

Her Dark Materials: Costa Book Winner Frances Hardinge

Images © OUP, Shutterstock


By Richard Whitaker

"No more human beings because we will either of wiped one another out by our own foolishness or by our ecological recklessness" (above).
Does the author mean "No more human beings because we will have wiped one another out either by our own foolishness or by our ecological recklessness"?
One really does expect better quality writing in OT.

By RH Findlay

Have we not survived for at least 200 000 years without artificial intelligence? Therefore, given the perceived risks, why is it being pursued (the same could be said for a lot of our very dangerous technology, such as the nuclear bomb and drones)? It is, I suppose, being pursued because someone, somewhere, is curious to see if it can be done and would like to be the first to publish success in that area; because someone thinks they can make a quid selling a gadget that does the washing up, services the car and washes the floor; and because deep in the depths of our darkest military minds it is perceived as having the potential to save "our boys" from being shot.

But why should our boys (and their boys) be put at risk of being shot, in the first place? The First World War gave the lie to that kind of stupidity.

By Stephen B

The use of the Milton quote is welcome but needs to be put in its wider Christian context.
When God says "I made him just and right" he is referring to Adam, not mankind in general.
According to Christian reasoning, Adam's "original" sin then made the whole creation crooked; one of the consequences of which was that human choice is consistently more slanted to evil, self-centred decision-making processes.
Thus theoretically we have the freedom to choose the good, but it takes heroic effort to choose rightly. This is a kind of heroism which has little in common with the Enlightenment concept of choice as choosing between staying at home or going to to opera tonight.
Having said that, Milton stood at the transition from this older Christian understanding of original sin and the modern Enlightenment period, which thought human nature could be salvaged by creating better political and social conditions (for Milton, a republic). Can this tension be resolved? Probably not. The Oxford don Kolakowski was right when he said the conservative and utopian elements in human nature will always remain at war with one another.

By Laís Baptista

hello, I am a high school student in Brazil and got a little shaken by what I read. First I would like to say, if we (humans) in the past did not have consciousness of right and wrong - if we have today - and created these concepts, how to make sure that the right really is right and wrong is wrong? If these classifications exist in fact. The human mind lives in complete changes, whether in relation to ethics, morality and reason; Such concepts that were created by man over the years. In the past there was "nothing wrong" (something was accepted by the society of the majority) in beheading people in public squares, in blacks and Indians to enslave, to repress women simply for being a woman ... What I mean by that is that the mind of man in general, it changes; So how have the basis of what is right and what is wrong? "But Lais, wrong affect the next and the correct only helps" - OK. In the past was for the "good" general decapitate the squares a thief, now for the general good people who perform such acts are held in cells; Why not the crucifixion? (Equal to Jesus). The human mind has changed, and will continue to change for ever as the land there; We can only know if it will be for better or for worse. The man in recent years has become noticeably cold and selfish, perhaps because of the technology that was presented to us, perhaps only said mental evolution and inflated ego ... I do not know. But while all human beings (which never cease to be human beings) do not agree with each other, do not help and stop thinking immediately to have it easy, this can ever discover the concept of right and wrong good and the bad.

By Jane Reed

Dear Lais, if you were shaken by reading this article, may I say that I (a 57 year old, with numerous degrees and qualifications) was both moved and impressed by reading what you have written. Your moral instincts seem to be excellent and your last sentence beautifully states a modern version of the compassionate Way taught by the Buddha and by Jesus - the hardest path for human beings to follow, and a form of wisdom which easily gets lost in sophistry and philosophical debate. Good luck on your own path, and thank you for sharing this.