No one can argue that the 747 is one of the greatest airplanes ever made. It was the biggest and heaviest and longest-range airplane in the world when it was first introduced over 40 years ago (and even today is just a hair smaller than the other giants). It was the first twin-aisle passenger transport. It is currently the fastest airliner in operation. (The Concorde and the Convair 880/990 have been retired; Passengers thought that the cost of extra fuel for going fast just wasn't worth it). Over half the world’s air freight is transported by 747 cargo planes. The factory built to assemble the 747 is the biggest building in the world by volume. Most importantly for you and me, the efficiencies introduced by the 747 (primarily the very-large-bypass turbofan engine, and also the wider cabin) made international air travel affordable to the masses; No longer would “the jet set” refer only to the very rich. Its impact in the world cannot be overstated.
If there’s one product that could be manufactured without changes or improvements, you’d think that the 747 could be it. I mean, it’s a fantastic machine! Why change it? Who in their right mind would take the risk, the cost, the time, and the inconvenience to change (and re-test, and re-certify) such a phenomenal design?
Well, Boeing is doing it. It turns out that we’ve learned a heck of a lot about airplane design in the past 40 years. New materials are lighter, stronger, less prone to corrosion or fatigue, and more durable. New turbofan engines have longer, curvier, more optimized blades, allowing for yet another drastic drop in fuel consumption, leading to even cheaper tickets and an even longer flight range. Aerodynamicists have figured out how to distribute lift over a wing in a way that allows it to create less drag, to give the pilot more control at a wider range of speeds, and to be bendy and flexible enough to absorb most turbulence. And all kinds of little things, from air conditioning pumps to hydraulic pistons, can be built much better today than in 1969. Boeing invested a lot of time and money to develop these technologies as much as currently possible for the 777 and 787, and then asked itself: If we were designing the 747 today, how would it be different from the 747 of 1969? Can we implement these new technologies, epitomized in the 787, into the 747? The result is the “747 dash 8”, a vast re-design of the classic jumbo jet, bringing it into the 21st century. It is currently in the middle of a several-month-long series of FAA-certification tests: 70% of the airplane has been modified from the previous version, including all-new engines and an all-new control system which are pretty much right out of the 787.
It’s always risky to apply new technologies to aviation. You think that you know how to design a fuselage to withstand the fatigue from repeated pressurization-depressurization cycles… and then you find out that you’re wrong, and people die. You think that you understand the forces of trans-sonic flight… and then you find out that you’re wrong, and people die. You think that as long as your structure is fail-safe, then it does not require regular inspections, since one part can fail and the others will carry that load… and then you find out that you’re wrong, and people die. You think that your cockpit displays do a good job of telling the pilot which way he’s going, and how much fuel he has left, and whether the runway is clear of other aircraft, and whether the weather at the destination airport has dropped safety margins below the minimums… You think that a quadruple-redundant hydraulic control system can withstand a failure at any one spot, or that your fancy computer-controlled fly-by-wire control system can prevent pilot-induced oscillations and inadvertent engine commands… You think that structure will have small stress hot-spots that can function as a canary in a coal mine since it will fail first, and fail safely, rather than a whole bunch of evenly-loaded structure all failing at the same time… You think that your computer simulations will accurately predict how and when a piece of carbon-fiber will start to break… You get the idea. Even updating as solid a design as the 747 brings about inevitable minor problems with aerodynamics, structures, etc.
But we develop new technologies, and we face the risks. Why? Because we have determined that, in the long run, the benefits outweigh the costs. Because where there is potential to make everyone’s lives better, we feel the imperative to investigate the possibility, to at least give it an honest shot before we decide that it’s not as beneficial as we thought.
Now I actually get to my point.
What could be more important to human well-being than our moral system? By that I mean: Our expectations of everyday behavior, our feelings about which behaviors are “good” and which behaviors are “bad”, our systems for encouraging good behavior and deterring against bad behavior, and so on.
Different societies have different moral systems. Each society has a moral zeitgeist that changes over time. And different people within a society will carry and defend different sets of moral values. Each country’s laws try to capture this moral system – this belief that certain actions are detrimental to justice and to everyone’s well-being – but the differences in moral preferences mean that no single legal code can capture all of the moral beliefs of all the citizens it applies to. (Besides, there's a difference between what things are right/wrong, and what things a government should have the power to regulate).
Most societies’ moral systems change over time. There exist many widespread social beliefs that such-and-such an action is detrimental to justice and to everyone’s well-being. Some of these beliefs get coded into law, some do not. Some of these beliefs are true, and some are not.
Here’s the interesting part: We’re still learning about ourselves. As different people experiment with different modes of behavior, as more data is gathered about the correlation of certain behaviors with certain consequences, as neuroscience reveals more about how we form our preferences and convictions, about what makes us happy and why… we are continuously in a better position to re-evaluate those moral beliefs.
Maybe the use of tobacco in public spaces is detrimental to most people’s well-being! Maybe state recognition of same-sex marriages isn’t detrimental to most people’s well-being. Maybe tough and strict gun-control laws don’t reduce (and actually increase) the rates of gun-related crimes! Maybe valuing kids’ self-esteem doesn’t help them become more successful! Maybe removing some traffic signs leads to an improvement in road safety! Maybe corporal punishment isn’t the best way to teach kids about discipline, or to reform criminals! Maybe drawing pictures of the prophet Mohammed, or naming a teddy bear after a boy named after the prophet, doesn’t hurt anyone other than angering some silly people.
Any issue – any proposed legislation, any decision made by an organization, any question about what everyday behavior is right or wrong – can be framed in these terms: When it comes to people’s well-being and to justice in a society, will [one of the alternatives in the issue] be beneficial or detrimental?
This is called consequentialism. You evaluate whether something (such as the adoption of a certain rule, or the choosing of a certain option) is right or wrong by evaluating the impact of its consequences in terms of justice and people’s well-being.
This is in contrast with absolutism. That’s when some things are “just wrong”, and some things are “the proper right way to behave”, whether or not these things are unjust and/or optimize people’s well-being.
Consequentialism involves always trying to get more data about people, about the impact of trying different things, so as to be able to make better choices in the future. You can only make data-driven choices, choices based on what actually works and what actually doesn’t, if you’ve observed how people actually behave. As you learn more about how people behave, you change your optimal choice-making systems accordingly, if your goal is to optimize well-being. Consequentialism is the moral equivalent (or, one might even say, the moral field) of science and engineering, which try to understand the mechanisms and processes of the world and to apply/harness them towards some goal (such as optimizing well-being).
Absolutism, by contrast, does not change. Even after a certain action is shown over and over to be harmless, or even beneficial, an absolutist can keep considering it to be “just wrong”.
All but the most liberal religions contain absolutist moral beliefs. Many Muslims consider it “bad” (fit for corporal punishment or even execution) to draw an image of the prophet Mohammed, to name a teddy bear after a boy named after the prophet, to publicly display romantic affection, etc., even though these things cause no harm (other than angering the people who believe them to be “bad”). Many Christians consider it “bad” for people of the same gender to have romantic relationships, even though these relationships are no more likely to cause harm than any other romantic relationship. Many Jews consider it “bad” to eat meat and cheese together, to eat pork or shrimp, to cut the hair that grows on their temples, etc, even though those things can all be safely done today. Many Christians consider it “bad” to teach kids about sex and contraceptives, even though teaching kids about these things leads to lower rates of unwanted pregnancies and of STD infections. Some Christians think that, since sex cannot be 100% safe, the optimal course of action is to abstain from it entirely (although, for unknown reasons, they do not feel this way about driving cars, flying in airliners, etc). These people feel this way because their absolutist moral code was sketched out thousands of years ago by people living in tribal or feudal societies, then edited by power-hungry leaders of empires. When designing these moral systems, the writers sometimes had their own power as a higher design objective than justice or people’s well-being. And even when they DID aim to optimize people’s well-being (such as by observing that people who ate shellfish tended to get sick, and then telling people “God says; Don’t eat shellfish!”), their data set was very limited, and was gathered in an ancient world lacking many of today’s medical technologies and understanding of sanitation.
(To be fair, some Christians - like Randy - try to support their moral convictions in a consequentialist way. They point to studies about the supposedly-nonbiological causes and supposedly-detrimental consequences of homosexuality, about how the sexual revolution of the 1960s supposedly made women worse off and was supposedly a detriment to the well-being of most people, etc. I sincerely appreciate their efforts, and wish them the best of luck. Because, who knows, their moral beliefs might be right. And such consequentialist research is the only real way to find out).
Some Christians are proud of the fact that their moral system works, and has worked pretty much unchanged for thousands of years. They say that it’s better to not mess with a winning team. They say that any change to those systems could only be bad. They say that, when you observe the consequences of some behavior and make recommendations based on your observations (“People who do X Y and Z tend to be healthier/happier”, etc), there are unacceptable risks, because your observations might have missed some crucial subtle consequence that make the recommended behaviors actually be detrimental in the long run.
All the arguments in the paragraph above are the same arguments for continuing to build the 747 from 1969, unchanged. I believe they are not very good arguments.
Let’s try and learn more about human behavior and human happiness by observation. Let’s try and apply those observations, to use them to create and promote behaviors that seem to improve justice and well-being. We’ll make mistake sometimes. Those mistakes will be costly. But we will learn from them (something that absolutists refuse to do).
It certainly beats the alternative: Restraining ourselves to a moral system sketched 4000 years ago by tribal leaders, edited 2000 years ago in order for a power-hungry empire to keep its citizens under control, and tweaked 700 years ago by unjustly-powerful monarchs and religions to claim that their power was divinely ordained. A moral system that explicitly allows slavery, and calls for harsh and painful punishments to actions that we today know to be inconsequential (by which I mean: beneficial to those who engage in them, and not harmful in any way other than angering the people who mistakenly believe those actions to be “wrong”).
How do we figure out which behaviors are good and which are bad? How do we tweak and optimize our moral systems? The same way we tweak and optimize other systems: The scientific method! We gather tons of data about what is working and what is not working, we maybe run some experiments to see whether this behavior or that behavior leads to greater justice and well-being, we use this understanding to develop better moral codes, we make mistakes and learn from them to make even BETTER moral codes. This is how we create, develop, and continuously improve things like buildings, medicine, airplanes, and even systems of government.
How is this possible even though “happiness” and “well-being” cannot be precisely defined? Well, “health” cannot be precisely defined either, but we know it has to do with longevity, with physical strength and endurance, with the absence of pain, with a mind that can think and remember and have fun and express itself, with the ability to do certain things unassisted, and so on. This loose understanding of the ideals of health – one that is different from culture to culture and from person to person – has not kept doctors and researchers from coming up with recommendations for how people probably should take care of their bodies. Some of those recommendations have been tragically wrong on occasion, but those are far outweighed by the good ones. We all live much much longer than we did just a few centuries ago, are far less impacted by most physical conditions, and can cure or outright extinguish many diseases. Yes, sometimes a medical recommendation leads to disaster until people realize it, but no one would sacrifice all of modern medicine to prevent the occasional mistake. It just wouldn't be worth it.
Why don’t we apply the scientific method to optimize our morals and our happiness, as we do for our health?
Because some absolutists think that they already have all the right answers, that their moral systems are either already-optimal or that the risk of change is too great.
They are wrong. Let us build the 747-8 of morality. Many people already are. The absolutists may win small victories, but it is only a matter of time before their mistakes are exposed by us consequentialists. The long arc of history favors us, and the absolutists will gradually be left in the dust.