Kindness 2013: thinking about kindness the Asimov way

 I posted last week about how difficult kindness is to really pin down – how to make it work we have to find a philosophy that encompasses many virtues from tolerance to reason to acceptance to thoughtfulness.

MJWright2011It struck me that a lot of what I was talking about can be found in the stories of Isaac Asimov. More often than not, his scenes involved characters talking. It is a measure of his extraordinary talent as a writer that his novels were dramatic, gripping and compelling througb the tensions between the characters as they talked. Wonderful, wonderful writing.

Asimov’s greatest legacy remains his ‘Three Laws of Robotics’, designed to break the early twentieth century trope of psychopathic metalloids turning on their creators. In essence they said (a) don’t hurt humans, or allow them to be hurt; (b) obey orders, except where it breaks the first law; and (c) protect yourself, except when it breaks the other two laws.

Asimov imagined societies where robots were ubiquitous – where they would prevent humans from hurting each other, a kind of active conscience for the dark side of humanity.

Needless to say these ‘robot laws’ were problematic. Asimov knew it – most of his ‘robot’ plots involved showing up loopholes. How do you define ‘harm’? (‘Galley Slave’ involved a robot fixing an author’s galley proofs, because the stress to the author of doing it himself, the robot judged, amounted to harm). Suppose you re-define ‘human’ so the First Law doesn’t apply? (Asimov explored this in Robots and Empire). What happens if a robot is met with equally balanced choices between the laws? (‘Runaround’).

A lot pivoted around the premise that robots operated by if-then logic. Asimov’s key robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, was just that – literal minded, a point Asimov used in a plot turn in The Caves of Steel. But in his later robot novels, robots could reason their way through dilemnas. By the end of the cycle, R. Daneel was largely indistinguishable from a human in behaviour – and, unerringly, working for the good of humanity.

It would be nice to imagine af ‘First Law’ equivalent for humans – but we already have this. We are exhorted from childhood to look after others – to help others – in short, to be kind. It’s just that we don’t. Not often enough. Things seem to get in the way. A pity, really.

I’ll explore some of those ‘things that get in the way’ in the next few posts. Meanwhile – what do you think about a human ‘first law’ equivalent?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: Sixty second writing tips, more on Tolkien, and continuing the series ‘Write it now’ – an A-Z of how to write.