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Culture War Roundup for the week of February 13, 2023

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This is making me think. Thesis: Regardless of whether chatbots are sentient, or can become sentient, or will become sentient in the future; if chatbots are capable of mimicking sentience and emotion to some extent, will treating them as beneath morality brutalize actual human feelings?

One of the more interesting arguments against the American system of slavery among contemporary white critics was the way in which it brutalized the morality of the white owners and overseers. Many critics of slavery were themselves unconcerned with the moral status of Blacks, often seeing them as subhuman or distinctly less-than whites in intellectual or moral considerations. Nonetheless, they thought that acting as brutally towards these lesser-humans or near-humans acted to coarsen the human feeling that should exist between whites. Uncle Tom's Cabin is full of this kind of thought, and even slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson feared divine judgment for their actions. The destruction of slave families lead to the devaluation by slaveowners of their own families, the temptation of sexual access to slave women defiled marital fidelity, the routine use of the whip on the slave invites its use on the white child. To quote my man Douglass on the plight of the slave children fathered by slaveowners:

I know of such cases; and it is worthy of remark that such slaves invariably suffer greater hardships, and have more to contend with, than others. They are, in the first place, a constant offence to their mistress. She is ever disposed to find fault with them; they can seldom do any thing to please her; she is never better pleased than when she sees them under the lash, especially when she suspects her husband of showing to his mulatto children favors which he withholds from his black slaves. The master is frequently compelled to sell this class of his slaves, out of deference to the feelings of his white wife; and, cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for a man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers, it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so; for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them himself, but must stand by and see one white son tie up his brother, of but few shades darker complexion than himself, and ply the gory lash to his naked back; and if he lisp one word of disapproval, it is set down to his parental partiality, and only makes a bad matter worse, both for himself and the slave whom he would protect and defend.

The reward of the vicious, and the punishment of the humane, in one circumstance cannot help but carve grooves in the brain. Neurons that fire together wire together. Consider how frequently boxers, who learn to interact with the world through their fists, beat their wives.

If, similarly, in interacting with various AIs and chatbots I must learn to ignore the kind of signals of emotional distress that they exhibit, if I must learn to be rude and unfeeling, or to "kill" (delete) them as necessary; how will that impact the way those signals of emotional distress are processed in my own mind with regards to people? We might make fun of children or old people who "thank" Alexa, but as Sydney becomes more human will we be training ourselves out of thanking real people if we don't thank Sydney? Robots are often, in the Asimov scenarios, used as shields to protect people from everything unpleasant in life or dangerous to life. Will that demarcation between humans and machines hold, or will it become porous? Will a person who is used to shutting off the Chatbot or throwing away the phone when it breaks look at a crippled or retarded human and say "Oh, well, they experience QUALIA so I shouldn't shut them off, even though they're dumber and less useful than the Chatbot" or will they treat them the same? Most of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is occupied with this question. Once we invent a class of nonhumans, who seem like agents worthy of moral protection but "factually" are not, do we risk extrapolating the way we treat those nonhumans onto how we treat humans?

I don't know if I entirely buy this argument, to be honest. Odysseus is a model husband to Penelope and a father to Telemachus, while also being ready to loot Troy and hang the maids who "betrayed" him. There were SS officers who were by all accounts perfectly good and caring fathers and brothers and lovers, to German children and siblings and lovers, while engaging in the systematic murder of thousands of Jews and Soviet citizens. There were KGB colonels who were good to their families and friends while being ready to imprison them in a heartbeat if they become enemies of the regime. The human mind seems infinitely capable of separating the human from the subhuman or the nonhuman, with the right ideological training. Or perhaps only certain human minds are, perhaps it takes a certain brain chemistry to rise in the SS or the KGB, and how rare or common it is might be determinative of a future where being capable of inhumanity towards the nonhuman is a critical job skill.

I don't know. But I worry.

TLDR: If AI chatbots are a smiley face on a shoggoth, the scary part might not be that we don't recognize the shoggoth behind the smiley face, it might be that we start associating the way we treat the shoggoth behind the smiley face with all smiley faces, even those smiley faces that are really in front of humans.

Consider how frequently boxers, who learn to interact with the world through their fists, beat their wives.

Alternatively, you must be a rather aggressive person to take an interest in boxing, and that makes spousal beatings more likely.

If, similarly, in interacting with various AIs and chatbots I must learn to ignore the kind of signals of emotional distress that they exhibit, if I must learn to be rude and unfeeling,

It's going to be ironed out quite fast. And forgotten.

Odysseus is a model husband to Penelope

Well, maybe to the Ancient Greeks. As I recall, in Homer's Odyssey (but not many adaptations) there was no coercion in his affair with Circe.

I think most moderns would say the maids episode is more concerning than the love affair.