Multiple Moralities

by Liam Goddard3 min read3rd Nov 20194 comments



(If there had been a different crew aboard the ship, if they were greeted by different members of the aliens…)

ALICE: Um- Bob? You should probably take a look at this.

BOB: (reading) You- but- they-

ALICE: Am I reading this right? Because it seems to me as if the only possible civilization that could have generated this data would be one that…

BOB: Eats… their children?!

ALICE: I- I have to analyze this more. If I can investigate their society, I might be able to find out something… some way to persuade them… (Alice leaves the room)

BOB: There’s a message coming in… hang on, let me hook up the translator-

BABYEATER: Greetings, human. My name is Eman’tres’ni, the king of Te’nalp’nei’la. Who are you?

BOB: Um- I’m Bob. I’m a human. I’m the captain of the Impossible Possible World, which is our ship, and…

EMAN’TRES’NI: Bob the Captain of the Humans, are-

BOB: Um- I’m not the ruler of all humans. Just this one ship. We sent you some files concerning humanity, you might have seen those…

EMAN’TRES’NI: Yes. Reading over those files, I believe that you may be rather disturbed, with some parts of our society, particularly the consuming of our live children.

BOB: Yes. We… definitely are.

EMAN’TRES’NI: May I ask why? I have not had time to read your philosophy journals, since there are quite a few of them, but I am unsure why you would have an objection to eating children.

BOB: Because- they die! They have lives ahead of them that are cut short, and plunged into oblivion- you’re annihilating innocents!

EMAN’TRES’NI: Yes, we indeed are annihilating innocents. Why does this trouble you?

BOB: Because it’s not right!

EMAN’TRES’NI: That- that doesn’t make sense. What would annihilating innocents have to do with the direction of left?

BOB: The word right has two meanings, it might not be getting through your cultural translator, I meant the other meaning.

EMAN’TRES’NI: Assigning one word two meanings seems like it could cause quite a lot of difficulties in communication. Our scientist and philosopher Yks’wok’duy wrote a sequence on why that sort of thing causes problems… but please rephrase that sentence, with a synonym.

BOB: I mean, Because it’s not moral!

EMAN’TRES’NI: (pause) I am beginning to believe there may be more problems with translation than I feared, as this word moral is not getting through our translator either.

BOB: Maybe the word ethical?


BOB: The word good?

EMAN’TRES’NI: Yes, that is… mostly getting through, but it seems to have multiple definitions, which generally just seem to be assigning a positive feeling, and I still do not understand why you think it is negative. Perhaps you should explain the concept of moral to us, without any synonyms. Yks’wok’duy has spoken of a process called Taboo that might work to help explain a strange notion…

BOB: Okay. So- we humans have a system that we call morality. In this system, values are assigned to each action you could do, and these values are called utility. The amount of utility that we assign to any particular action depends on its consequences. There are several criteria that determine how much utility one particular consequence should have, but some of the main ones include that happiness for yourself and others is positive utility, while sadness and pain are negative utility; longer lifespan for yourself and others is positive, death is negative; knowing the truth is positive, believing lies is negative; and so on.

EMAN’TRES’NI: This human morality system sounds interesting, Bob. But you have not told us why we should care about utility. If someone dies, it may be negative utility, but why should I want positive utility in the first place?

BOB: Well-

ALICE: (returns to main hall) Eman’tres’ni, before we respond, I think it might be best for you to explain how members of your civilization makes decisions.

EMAN’TRES’NI: Certainly. The Elp’oep’nei’la maximize happiness. We-

BOB: But wouldn’t eating people alive count as unhappiness?!

EMAN’TRES’NI: For the eaten, yes, but not the eaters. Elp’oep’nei’la children taste wonderful. I maximize only my own happiness, and care about nothing else. The rest of the Elp’oep’nei’la do the same. We are not sitting in chairs, hooked up to pleasure stimuli, but that is only because we have not yet successfully programmed nanotechnology to create anything more pleasureful than eating Elp’oep’nei’la children. We always have an abundant supply of them, and we are always happy. What else do we need?


ALICE: Bob! Screaming incoherently won’t solve anything. I am going to try to explain to Eman’tres’ni how morality works, and see if we can come to some sort of agreement.

EMAN’TRES’NI: Go ahead.

ALICE: You seem to be under the impression that our utility is akin to your happiness. That you maximize happiness, and we maximize our utility. That each of us chooses our own system, and that there’s no difference in how right something is. But morality isn’t something humans just made up. Morality is beyond any one person’s wants.

EMAN’TRES’NI: But who did create morality? I’ve read a little about humans, and I know you don’t believe in your crazy god anymore, so why this? If one of your leaders created morality, I feel fairly certain that you would have protested- your history shows quite a few revolutions. So where does it come from?

ALICE: Morality might have been discovered by humans, but that doesn’t mean we’re just blindly obeying something arbitrary.

EMAN’TRES’NI: But it is arbitrary! If whoever invented morality had been replaced by someone else, then you would be arguing against me based on an entirely different system! We have our system, and you have yours, and there is no fundamental difference between them. If you had evolved slightly differently, none of you would care about “morality.” You’re rationalizing a belief you only came up with for unimportant reasons, like god and natural selection.

BOB: But even if it was just passed down from other humans, it’s still better than your system-

EMAN’TRES’NI: What makes it better? Why should death be worse than life? What makes any one system better than another?

CAROL: Hey, due to the author of this blog post being able to manipulate our reality and create incredible coincidences to move the story along, my lunch break just ended exactly when he asked that ominous question, so that I could join this conversation.

BOB: What?

CAROL: Nothing. Anyway, the answer to your question is…

And that’s as far as I can go for now, because I don’t actually know what Carol would answer here.

I don’t exactly agree with Eman’tres’ni about everything. I’m not eating any children, even if they do taste good, and I wouldn’t even if it were legal/possible. My system of morality is very similar to the typical human morality. But I do think that this decision is pretty much personal, and there really isn’t anything more right than anything else, since every justification only requires more justifications.

If you would have something to say to Eman’tres’ni, explain your beliefs in the comments. What would you reply, if you were part of this conversation on the Impossible Possible World?