Technology: Ethical Calculus

“Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while virtue finds and chooses the mean.”

— Aristotle, “Nichomachean Ethics”, Datalinks

Ethical Calculus is a second-tier exploration technology.  It depends on Social Psych and enables the faction to build Children’s Creches in their bases (which increase the population growth rate of the base) and enables the adoption of a Democratic social model.  Democracy, in the game, increases efficiency and growth at the expense of increasing unit support costs.

These strengths and weaknesses, combined with the other social choices, lead to some interesting gameplay implications.  For instance, Democracy synergizes well with all three economic models.  When running Planned, the efficiency bonus cancels out the penalty from central planning, which enables excellent population growth and good industrial production.  When running a Free Market economy, the efficiency bonus mitigates energy loss from far-flung bases, so there’s some good synergy there.  And when running a Green economy, the democratic growth bonus cancels out the growth penalty, enabling maximum efficiency along with a high Planet score.  For many factions, this means that Democracy is the one right political choice when not at war.

As for the quote, I must admit that when the game first came out, Ethical Calculus was the future technology that seemed the most absurd.  I mean, it has to mean that people have generated a brand-new mathematical science of ethics that yields quantifiable answers to ethical conundrums.  That seems pretty impossible.  And why would you possibly need something like that in order to unlock Democracy?  Most countries nowadays have something resembling democracy right now, in real life, and it’s working out all right.

But, in thinking about it, I think Reynolds deserves some more credit here than I was previously willing to give him.  In practice, democracy has a lot of problems.  Virtually everyone, no matter where they might fall on the political spectrum, agrees that democracy has a key flaw: terrible ideas are often popular.  In that case, the system needs to do something other than just blindly put these terrible ideas into practice.

But what if we really did have a science of ethics?  And that science told us exactly how we should weight public opinion, minority rights, and private interests?  Well, then, suddenly a democratic system of government would be a lot more appealing.  As would giving up children to be raised by the state in creches.  It’s analogous to how having powerful enough computer programs makes a centrally planned economy a lot more plausible.

I think this points toward the genius of SMAC as envisioned as a clash of philosophies.  Each one gets to put its best foot forward; there aren’t any strawman arguments here.  At the same time, there are tradeoffs presented.  Even at their best, they aren’t all the just the same thing.  That adds to the feeling that there are real stakes at play here.


5 thoughts on “Technology: Ethical Calculus

  1. northstar1989Blake

    You seem to be misunderstanding the meaning of the word “creche”. It’s a British term for a daycare (probably selected by the game devs as “Children’s Creche” is a lot more catchy than “Daycare”, and less familiar), not an orphanage. Parents aren’t “giving up their children to be raised by the state” as you say. They’re just being cared for during the working day- and the older ones likely given some kind of formal education. The justification for tying the Children’s Creche to Ethical Calculus is more likely than not that Ethical Calculus needs to be *taught* to future citizens in order to be effective, and perhaps also that the calculations of Ethical Calculus quickly confirm the importance of investing in care and education for the children while the parents go to work…


    1. PDV

      Creche is a term frequently used in Sci Fi to refer to places where children are raised communally. See the Star Creche in Cetaganda in the Vorkosigan series, the Jedi Creche Masters (though this seems to be fanon, not canon) in the Old Jedi Order, etc.

      Especially since the icon is a stylized diapered baby, not a child, I think it’s most likely that this refers to a communal child-raising situation.


  2. PDV

    I think you’ve generalized too much about the Ethical Calculus. It’s not necessarily an objective system of what ought to be valued; it could be “merely” an objective calculation from values to correct actions, with all the accounting for uncertainty, meta-level considerations of needing to resolve disputes with differing values and long-term bargaining strategy accounted for. It would also need an indisputable method of deducing what values a person holds, since we’re not very good at that, but “computable ethics” is a serious field of study in the present day (though it’s new; it wasn’t a field when SMAC was created).

    In fact, the goal of “computable ethics” is to create an Ethical Calculus, and solving it is considered inherently vital to the task of creating an artificial general intelligence without destroying humans and everything we value. Most approaches so far would work as applied to a limited ideologically-aligned subgroup of humanity more easily than all of humanity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      I am not certain why you think that I claim Ethical Calculus is an objective system of what ought to be valued. If it were, this would be the final tech in the tree instead of a second-tier technology unlocking a form of government from Earth. And the game would be a lot less interesting.

      In the context of SMAC, what one should value is clearly an open question. And the factions themselves are intended to embody the various answers to that question. As you say, Ethical Calculus is best interpreted as a mechanism by which one can determine the correct way to get from where you are to what you say you want.

      I suspect that Reynolds might agree with you on the long-term importance of this development, given where Ethical Calculus lands on the tech tree. SMAC explicitly does not allow the creation of anything resembling AI without it. You need Ethical Calculus for the Gene Splicing->Neural Grafting line, and you also need it for Intellectual Integrity->Cyberethics->Pre-Sentient Algorithms. So the fixed structure of the tree itself rules out SMAC ever generating a world where AI does not grow out of human values. As the struggle among human values is kind of the point of the game, I think this was a wise decision. And, not coincidentally, a main reason why the addition of aliens in the expansion was so disappointing.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Colio

        Really? I like the addition of the aliens in the expansion… I’ve played the game so many times now that its good to have another main scenario to play with.Granted,I don’t always have the alien factions there when I play – actually probably 80% of the times I don’t,,, but its also good to have the other human factions… it makes the “RANDOM” faction selection actually do something.


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