Moral Rules, Ancient Sumerian Wisdom, and Killer Robots

Introduction

Is morality simply a matter of living by the correct moral rules? Some people may be (and have been) tempted to say so – for example, some students might be tempted to think that the 10 Commandments or the Golden Rule or the categorical imperative can provide a complete guide for moral living. This question is the focus of a key debate in moral philosophy about the codifiability of ethics, and this lesson examines that question in the context of ancient Sumerian wisdom writing and current issues in the ethics of technology.

Text and Courses

Texts:

  • The Instructions of Shuruppak (excerpts below, or see http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section5/tr561.htm)
  • Purves, Jenkins, and Stawser (2015), “Autonomous Machines, Moral Judgment, and Acting for the Right Reasons,” Ethical Theory and Moral Judgment, esp. Sections 1-3.
  • Optional, advanced course: McDowell (1979), “Virtue and Reason,” Monist.

Courses:

  • Ethics, Introduction to Ethics, Virtue Ethics, History of Ethics

Overview

The lesson should open by motivating the practice of codifying moral rules as an important and viable approach to morality by trying to emphasize how natural and pervasive systems are moral rules are and have been and how convenient they would be (if they contained the true moral rules). This can be done in a lot of ways – e.g., it might be worth mentioning moral rules that are especially salient or familiar to your students (in some Anglo-American contexts, the 10 Commandments or the Golden Rule might be helpful here – also see the suggested activity below).

To help orient students to considering rules, this lesson gets started by looking at the Instructions of Shuruppak, which is likely the oldest recorded ethical text we have. Shuruppak was an ancient Sumerian city located in what is today southeastern Iraq, and the Instructions of Shuruppak have been dated to around 2500 BCE, over 2000 years before the birth of Socrates. The text is inherently interesting, but its antiquity also helps to unsettle the myth that all philosophy began with the ancient Greeks. This (slightly fragmentary) text consists largely, though not entirely, of specific moral rules. The text itself is not long, so the whole thing can be assigned, or, for convenience, the excerpt below would work well:

In those days, in those far remote days, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years, at that time the wise one who knew how to speak in elaborate words lived in the Land; Curuppag, the wise one, who knew how to speak with elaborate words lived in the Land. Curuppag gave instructions to his son…

  • You should not loiter about where there is a quarrel; you should not let the quarrel make you a witness.
  • You should not speak improperly; later it will lay a trap for you.
  • You should not travel during the night: it can hide both good and evil.
  • You should not boast in beer halls like a deceitful man.
  • You should not beat a farmer's son: he has constructed your embankments and ditches.
  • You should not choose a wife during a festival.
  • Nothing at all is to be valued, but life should be sweet. You should not serve things; things should serve you.
  • You should not speak arrogantly to your mother; that causes hatred for you. You should not question the words of your mother and your personal god.
  • … you should not travel alone eastwards.
  • You should not pass judgment when you drink beer.
  • You should not curse strongly: it rebounds on you.
  • You should not eat stolen food with anyone.
  • You should not pick a quarrel; you should not disgrace yourself.

At this point, it is worth asking the students whether they think all morality could be boiled down to moral rules / negative moral rules (“You should not…”). Point out that even the Instructions of Shuruppak contain more than moral codes, but aphorisms, which are different. It can be fun to have the students try to decipher the meaning of the aphorisms:

  • Heaven is far, earth is most precious, but it is with heaven that you multiply your goods, and all foreign lands breathe under it.
  • Fate is a wet bank; it can make one slip.
  • A loving heart maintains a family; a hateful heart destroys a family.
  • A drunkard will drown the harvest.
  • The wet-nurses in the women's quarters determine the fate of their lord.
  • Without suburbs a city has no center either.

About halfway through the lesson, switch gears to start talking about contemporary issues relating to codifying moral rules and especially the listed article “Autonomous Machines.” Focus especially on the discussion of the codifiability of morality. Discuss whether potential limitations on codifying morality should inform / constrict the technologies we develop.

Discussion Questions

  • Can all of morality boil down to simple rules or codes?
  • Can we be moral without ever relying on moral rules or codes?
  • What do you think are the most important moral rules in your own life?

Activities

You could begin the class by asking students to come up with a list of their own 5 most important moral rules, and then share them with their discussion groups.

Alternatively, you could give students a more targeted task, such as designing a system of rules for robots / computer programs to follow in certain circumstances (e.g., what rules should a self-driving car follow when it detects a potential human being suddenly step in front of it?)

Authorship

Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)
sethrobertson@ou.edu