On Philosophy

June 2, 2007

Is Godzilla Evil?

Filed under: Ethics,The Philosophy of — Peter @ 12:00 am

Is a volcano or an earthquake evil? No, since they don’t have minds. Because they don’t have minds they can’t make choices, and so there is no sense in which an earthquake or a volcano be held responsible for its effects. But what about Godzilla? Godzilla must have some kind of mind, given that it is some kind of giant reptile (dinosaur?). Perhaps Godzilla is even intelligent, but interacts with the world in a different way than we do, such that neither of us perceives the other as intelligent. Does any of this give us the right to hold Godzilla responsible for its actions, and judge Godzilla as failing ethically?

Of course some will object to entertaining the possibility that Godzilla is ethically responsible on the grounds that Godzilla isn’t a rational agent. Now I will grant that it is likely that Godzilla is not supposed to be a rational agent. But objecting to entertaining the possibility on these grounds is a bad idea, because it supposes that we have a good way to tell who is and who isn’t a rational agent. For all we know Godzilla is rational, but is following a Godzilla-logic that we don’t understand, and which makes Godzilla unable to understand the way we reason. So to object on those grounds alone needlessly cuts off worthwhile ethical speculation; and unless you have a infallible way of determining who is and isn’t a rational agent then developing some other way of determining who is ethically responsible is probably useful. And if it still bothers you then simply assume that Godzilla has some kind of Godzilla rationality, as I will for the rest of this post (because honestly rationality is probably required to hold someone ethically responsible for their actions).

One possibility is that Godzilla is ethically responsible because both Godzilla and us can suffer, and hence we both have ethical responsibilities toward each other. This is the reasoning that some people use to argue that we have ethical obligations towards animals, although in this case we are arguing that Godzilla has ethical obligations towards us. But I think that this line of reasoning is a poor one. It seems reasonable to insist that ethical obligations always go both ways. That person A is ethically responsible for their poor treatment of person B if and only if person B is ethically responsible for their poor treatment of person A. If we extend ethical responsibility just because the other party can suffer this violates this expectation. We would have an ethical obligation to treat animals well, but they couldn’t have any ethical obligations towards us, since they aren’t rational. And if they could have ethical obligations to us then every carnivore would be an evil beast, because they would be constantly neglecting their ethical obligations towards other animals.

But let us just assume for the moment that Godzilla is ethically responsible for his poor treatment of us, assuming that he has Godzilla rationality. Wouldn’t that mean that we would have ethical responsibilities towards ants, assuming that they had ant rationality? It would certainly seem to. But how do we know that ants don’t have some form of ant rationality? Since we don’t have a complete theory of mind we can’t say for sure who is and who isn’t rational. Thus the ethical course of action is to err on the side of caution, and assume that ants (and other animals) are rational in their own way, until proven otherwise. But this means that our mistreatment of ants, and other insects, is unethical. But that is absurd. Simply by resisting disease we kill other organisms, and so we would all be necessarily evil.

Such considerations move me to think that there is more to ethical responsibility than who can suffer and who is rational. As I have argued for elsewhere, it seems to me that ethics emerge only because we can form societies, and interact in other ways that are mutually beneficial. Godzilla clearly cannot form a society with us, or even co-exist with us. If we encounter each other Godzilla will try to stomp on us, and we will try to kill it with mecha-Godzilla. Thus Godzilla, even if rational in its own way, is not ethically responsible for his treatment of us, and we aren’t ethically responsible for our treatment of it. And so Godzilla is not evil, but rather more like a natural disaster, despite the fact that Godzilla has a mind of some kind.

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