Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Principle of Foreseeable Effect (paca)

Several years ago I was listening to some sort of British quiz or comedy show on the radio, and the host asked each of the expert guests to give something they wished had never happened. One of the guests came up with something like, "I wish America had never been discovered." There was a lot of laughter and hooting, because it is always good to get in a good U.S. joke. (This was before 9/11 and current political climates; has nothing to do with that.) The guest explained that he actually hadn't meant the joke that way. What he thought was sad was that the discovery of the American continents by Europeans had lead to the destruction of all the civilizations that were there previously. That was a tremendous loss to the world.

Most of you probably know about the Basque people and their language, spoken on the border of Spain and France. Basque as a language is known as an isolate, which means we have no evidence that the language is connected to any other language. It is not a Romance language like Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Provencal/Occitan, or French. It's not Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, or anything Indo-European. So how did these people end up speaking Basque when everyone around them for hundreds of miles (OK, don't cross the Mediteranean for this) speaks an Indo-European language? The best bet is that western Europe was once filled with all sorts of unrelated languages, and Basque was only one of a vast number. Then the Indo-European speakers moved in and if they didn't wipe out the peoples, they did wipe out the languages. Basque somehow is still hanging around when the rest are all gone.

The same story happened in China. The Han people, speaking the Chinese language, started off in the Yellow River valley and did not cover a tenth of what is considered China today, but their civilization and power grew and grew until vast territories that had always been independent and separate became Chinese. This is quite clear with places like Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang today, but a place that everyone considers Chinese now - like Canton or Hong Kong - in fact wasn't Chinese for much of Chinese history.

This same trend continues around the world. Japanese civilization is wiping out the Ainu on the Northern islands (and perhaps long ago all of the Japanese islands). The great mix of Asian and European ethnicities that makes up modern society in Hawaii is built on the fact that the islands were essentially siezed from the Hawaiian people a hundred years ago. I know native American groups moved around quite a lot and surely there was warfare and destruction and starvation due to loss of land along the way. We are all living on the graves of the peoples who lost.

What does this mean for us though? Does it mean that Spain and the United States and Mexico and the state of Hawaii and China are all horrible entities that should never have existed, as they would not have been possible without stealing and killing and taking from others? The problem is that all of those places are quite wonderful places as well, despite the bones which they sit on. American culture has contributed enormously to the world. These places all have in their way. Do the end results - the cultures and places that do exist - justify what happened?

Both answers seem wrong. We cannot either condemn all of the things that have been built on top of destroyed civilizations due to that destruction, and we cannot say that the world is better because those civlizations were destroyed due to the fact that many good things later sprung up. So what's the answer?

I think the main problem in deciding the value of civilizations, peoples, and cultures is that we silly humans just aren't capable of doing it. Those questions are too big, and any judgment we make is hopelessly muddled and parochial. Is the world better because the indigenous goverments of southern China are no more, replaced by the northern imports for 2000 years? Who the hell knows? Would the world be better if the U.S. never existed so that all the older peoples could have developed on their own, or do the American contributions of the Declaration of Independence, jazz, and the Apollo 11 mission make up for it? I certainly don't know. The questions are just too big with far too many unknown variables. The entire history of the world would be different without the discovery of the American continents. Would the European economies have developed differently? Would there have been colonialism stretching across the globe? Would democracy have become the model? Would science and technology have proceeded differently? Would the Qing dynasty be the dominant power without the Western challenge? Who knows?

What does this all mean for how we act then? This is where we get to my Principle of Foreseeable Effect. We have to admit that we can't make decisions based upon grandiose beliefs about the nature of the world 300 years from now. Instead you have to act locally with what you do know and what you can reasonably foresee. If you are an American official in 1846, you know that breaking treaties is wrong. Act on that. Yes, it is possilble that something necessary and good will come from what is an immediate bad act. But we very rarely can know that with much certitude. Yes, there was that episode of original Star Trek where Kirk had to let this woman die in order to prevent the Nazis from winning later, but Kirk knew that was the case. At that point he could make an informed decision. But how often do we know that sort of thing? So act on what you do know and let the rest fall where it may. And remember to use your ability to make moral judgements, don't give them up in a fit of despair, but when using those abilities, keep in mind how silly you are and how little you know.



Sammy Jankis said...

Let me preface this by saying I don't know whether you even read science fiction as your previous posts illustrate you are very interested in more intellectual pursuits. But, have you ever read Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card?

The story is one of your typical time travel to the past to change history stories. Technology is invented whereby people can look into the past to observe historical events. The characters learn through observation how the legends of both Noah (of the Ark) and Atlantis came to be.

There also begins a social movement to right wrongs that were committed in the past. One of the most egregious that the characters hone in on is the destruction of many Meso-American civilizations and the hardships suffered by Native Americans and slaves in North America. They choose to specifically focus on the effects of Columbus's voyage and the ensuing colonization that occurs afterard.

When technology is created to send people back through time, three people are sent to different time periods in order to stop the timeline from occuring. Each of the people are inserted at different points. One becomes part of Columbus's crew and sets about making sure his ships do not return to the new world. One goes in to a prior time period and appears as a god, teaching the meso-americans to forego human sacrifice and slavery. He teaches them metallurgy and alliance building in order to build a powerful nation that cannot be overpowered by invaders. The third goes to the people that will first meet Columbus and teaches them how to receive Columbus and his Christianity, but also prepares them to show Columbus a higher form of ethical Christianity.

While there are a few plot holes and plausibility issues, the book truly is a very interesting "what if" read and I thought it dovetailed nicely with the beginning of you conversation in this entry.

kristybox said...

I was going to say what Sammy said. I am rereading Redemption right now!

pacatrue said...

Yeah, but how does it end?!

Sounds cool. I've read Ender's Game but nothing more from Card.

Sammy Jankis said...

Well, I don't want to give away too much of the ending in case you check it out. But envision a world where Columbus doesn't come back and Westward exploration falls out of interest. Then a few years later envision Europeans scratching their heads beside a river as a vast fleet of meso-American warships slowly float by.