Owning Ethics

by Carson Reynolds

Here is a question for you: can someone own ethics? The philosopher in me would be tempted to reply, “well it depends on what you mean by own.” For instance, Aristotle had written and cataloged ethics so throughly that it would be fair to say that (at least for a time) that he owned ethics. In the jargon of hacking culture, to own is to dominate. Thus, I might own ethics if I earned the top score in an ethics class. Still another way of owning ethics is to dominate the “googleshare” so that when someone types ethics into google, your site comes up. This is usually done by manipulating reputable sites into linking your site. You could also start a genre of identity academia involving the use of a possessive adjective: like hipster’s ethics.

Of course, there is a much more straightforward method for the ownership of ethics. This would involve patenting a mechanism that purports to provide “ethics.” It seems a recently filed patent “Inductive Inference Affective Language Analyzer Simulating AI (# 6,587,846) ” does just that.

I think a broad interpretations of this patent expresses two naiveties. (1) That ethics can be implemented (2) That ethics is property. What is actually patented is a rule-based expert system, which implies that ethical behavior can be provided by a finite number of rules.

Kant did a bang-up job coming up with one rule for ethical behavior in his categorical imperative. This would be a far-better basis for a rule-based system, at least if simplicity and parsimony are metrics. But there is a problem with using rule-based systems, especially if they purport to provide a notion of what is “good.” The problems is that Godel’s arguments could be extended to suggest that any machination involving a finite set of rules will not span every foreseeable ethical good.