Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

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Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby Tailsteak » Sun Jul 07, 2013 5:23 pm

I was thinking about Back to the Future recently, specifically the ethical issues surrounding Biff's use of the almanac. The perspective I came up with is this:

The only reason that this can be considered an ethical question at all is that Doc never makes his time machine public.

Which, in itself, is kinda weird, when you think about it. I mean, they videotaped the original demo for some reason, and Doc is a scientist - he should know about how science works, standing on the shoulders of giants, etc, etc, etc. And sure, they're concerned that unsafe use of time travel would cause the universe to implode, but that's all the more reason to get some sort of official regulatory body involved, right?

Anyway, back to the point - if time machines were well-known and commonplace, obviously there'd be laws governing their use. And, just as obviously, use of future knowledge in any and all gambling would be forbidden. Ergo, this isn't really an ethical question. The answer is already obvious. It's perhaps the best example I can think of for Kant's Categorical Imperative - behave in such a way that, if everyone followed the same principles you do, the world that results is the one you'd want to live in.
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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby Alex Starkiller » Sun Jul 07, 2013 5:53 pm

Um. Well, is there a debate in here somewhere, a question you want answered?
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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby Horizon » Sun Jul 07, 2013 6:32 pm

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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby snowyowl » Fri Jul 12, 2013 1:10 pm

Bump.

Doc mentions several times (but only after the point where he learns that Marty bought the almanac) that he wants the time machine dismantled and his notes destroyed, to prevent anyone else from abusing it. He's only prevented from doing so by the fact that the entirety of BTTF2 and 3 is one long crisis. He had an opportunity to destroy the time machine after being trapped in 1885 - which is where he wanted to live out his days anyway - but he didn't, because Marty would need it one last time to get back to 1985. (His letter instructs Marty to destroy the time machine once he gets home.) The fact that Marty doesn't do this is what kicks off the plot of BTTF 3.

Of course, the ending makes no sense with this in mind.
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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby Globus » Fri Jul 12, 2013 1:24 pm

Why not? True Love(tm) does tend to change a person's views...
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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby snowyowl » Sun Jul 14, 2013 5:26 am

For all the reasons Tailsteak mentioned. He ends the story with the Time Train, that he clearly intends to use, yet he doesn't seem to think that Marty and the other inhabitants of 1985 deserve to know about his invention. He's not acting ethically: if humans can be trusted with time travel, then he should tell them about it, and if humans can't be trusted with time travel, he shouldn't be using it.

Now, perhaps he simply got recruited by his own descendants as part of their Time Police force, to ensure time travel is used responsibly and doesn't mess up the universe with paradoxes. I like that interpretation. But it's not hinted at in the movies. (And why did that train crossing close when there weren't any trains approaching? At least, approaching from any of the usual directions.)
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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby Merle » Tue Jul 16, 2013 11:19 am

I do believe the best answer is "arrogance". Doc Brown believes that only he can be trusted with the secret of time travel - and presumably it is non-obvious enough that he expects that if the secret dies with him, no other person in all of time will ever successfully re-invent the flux capacitor.
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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby MysticWav » Tue Jul 16, 2013 12:09 pm

Is it arrogance if he's right?

Personally, in situations where evil is the primary risk, I don't see anything suspect in the judgement of those that make the calculus: probability of evil getting hands on technology X harm potential of technology > good offsets of making technology available. You know the probability that you yourself are evil is 0, which negates the risk there, and as long as you don't spread the tech, and thereby have to rely on the goodness/spreading judgement of a less knowable entity, then there is no outsized risk in keeping it to yourself.
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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby Alex Starkiller » Tue Jul 16, 2013 12:10 pm

MysticWav wrote:Is it arrogance if he's right?

Yes.
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Re: Time travel ethics / Categorical Imperative

Postby snowyowl » Tue Jul 16, 2013 12:38 pm

MysticWav wrote:You know the probability that you yourself are evil is 0

I think this is an oversimplification.

You know that there are evil people. You know that most of those people consider themselves to be good. So there is some chance that you are actually an evil person who considers themself to be good. Hence, act in whatever way you'd like someone else to act if they were in your position. (In ethics, this is called the Golden Rule; for more information, see Matthew 7:12.)

Alternatively, you might be good now but with the capacity to act evil in the future. You don't know you'll always feel the way you do now, and you might know of things that would provoke you to act irrationally. And I'd expect time travel to sensitise a person to the notion that their older self will act differently from their current self.

Plus, keeping time travel to yourself like that is very hard to justify if anyone ever manages to hold you accountable for your actions. It's not likely that anyone will hold Doc Brown accountable, but that's a common flaw in stories where the characters are game-breakingly overpowered.

It's still possible that he'll make an ill-advised trip to 6000AD and get interrogated by a hyper-advanced justice system. Or maybe civilisation gets wiped out in a few hundred years and nobody ever rediscovers time travel... but Doc Brown has a history of righting that sort of wrong, so that probably won't last long (metatemporally speaking).
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