Reality Skimming

Hardwired for Morals and Reetion Psych Profiling

MRI Brain Scans, Being Hardwired for Morals and Pilot Profiling in the Okal Rel Universe

Stimulus | Response


"Whose Life Would You Save?" / Carl Zimmer
Discover. March 14 2004, Vol. 25, No. 4.

"Morality is so instinctive that even primates make moral judgments. Chimps may be smart, but they don't read Kant." - Zimmer

Zimmer's article reports on the work and ideas of Joshua Greene, a philospher/scientist who studies the MRI scans of brains exposed to moral decision making. Greene's work suggests that we use emotional intelligence, not reason, as our primary resource when resolving moral dilemnas such as whether to save many by deliberately killing one, or to sacrifice an infant hostage for the sake of protecting a crowd of bystanders.


Lynda's notes (March 14, 2004) on article "Whose Life Would You Save?" by Carl Zimmer, in April 2004 edition of Discover.

Reetion psych profiling science, in the Okal Rel Universe, presumes that physical observation of cognitive behavior, given mild (even subconscious) dreamlike experiences, can tell you a lot about someone' s probably reactions in real life. Granted that this represents an advanced technology relative to what we have acheived to date in real life, I was encouraged by the article in Discover on the research of Joshua Greene. A short synopsis of that article's gist is given below. In a nutshell, it suggests that something like Reetion psych profiling is at least based on known science.

It might very well be possible, in other words, to gain a psych profile of someone through direct observation of their brains.

Is that a good or a bad thing?

For a Reetion living on a rare and precious planet, or a vulnerable space station, who depends on the services of reality skimming pilots, it has to be a good thing. Here's the problem: you need the pilots to fly, but any one pilot who turns terrorist (or just psycopathic) could wipe out millions of people. Solution, don't let any pilot who fails a psych profiling pre-flight screening test get into a cockpit. Non-pilots control the docks in the Reetion world. A pilot with dubious moral strength would simply not be allowed to get into a ship. Since reality skimming induces depression and physical damage, there is still the risk that a pilot will "go bad" due to injury during a trip. The best that can be done, there, is to do post-flight screening and keep an eye out for when a pilot should be forcibly retired. Like Gelacks, the last resort for Reetions is to sick a moral pilot on an immoral one if a problem arrises. But in the Reetion world this is a case of tracking down renegades who try to evade management by the Reetion Space Service. Gelacks, of course, with their larger population of tougher pilots to draw on, can indulge in constant vigilance by station warders who keep an eye out for possible trouble and are expected to stop crazies from damaging their stations. Ordinarily, anyone who tresspasses on a station's challenge sphere, while in skim, is pounced on without question and destroyed. (Allowing and incoming pilot to "skid-in" is a major act of trust in his or her honor. It also saves the incoming pilot time taxiing to dock at sub-light speed.)

So sure, if you have a bunch of necessary but potentially dangerous pilots to manage, psych profiling them might make sense. What about for the rest of us?

Personally, I would be firmly against psych profiling of just anyone for any purpose. I am also aware of the potential for abuse, which Alison and I dramatized in Far Arena, one of the mainline series of Okal Rel Universe novels (ETA from Edge ... sometime in 2005 or 2006?). But if you asked me whether I would feel it was justified that world leaders with the potential to push big red buttons of mass destruction ought to be psych profiled in order to hold office ... well, yes. Damn it.

People who chose to occupy positions that oblige them to hold the lives of millions in their hands should not retain the right to be secret psychopaths if we had the technology to test for that.

As with all tests, of course, one has to allow that the results of Reetion psych profiling will never be perfect. The crux then becomes a case of which side you err on. This might be familiar to many as the question: "Is it better to jail one innocent man or let one guilty one go free?" In the Okal Rel Universe, it plays out as: "Would you rather ground one moral pilot or have one immoral one fly." Like the Reetions, I would err on the side of grounding the occational moral pilot, unjustly, simply because the stakes are so huge.

Just for the record, by the way, the biggest scope for error with psych profiling is the sheer complexity of human behavior. How someone responds in well controlled, non-extreme conditions may be different (but not completely unrelated!) to how he or she responds under psych profiling.

Another FYI that I want to trot out under this heading is why Lurol, in Courtesan Prince, is so dead certain about Amel's morality. In large part, that's because the data the Reetions have on Amel is much more profound than anything the average psych profile would yield. Amel's ability to relive the past so vividly made it almost like being there while some rather extreme things were happening to him. The usual caveat about psych profiling being based on responses to mild stimuli is therefore eliminated. Lurol, of course, also has a lot of faith in her science and understands it better than the average Reetion stationer. Hence her certainty Amel would never in a million years threaten a whole station is not incompatible with the vote by the stationers to let him go rather than risk it. Whatever the level of scientific knowledge about anything, people will always -- and should always! -- have opinions about it.

Related article: Reetion Government, Reality Skimming

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