Linguistic Ambiguity with a Personal Genie

Imagine I found a genie and it offered me two wishes. My wishes are to be fluent in all languages and to be the best person. What results would we expect?

When it comes to language, would being fluent in all languages mean I am an excellent musician and mathematician? Or are maths and music simply not language? I know a number of musicians and at least one mathematician who would disagree with you. Alternatively, is my best bet to persuade the genie these things are included in language? The answer is not objective because, unlike numbers, semantics are woolly with no clear boundary. And it is difficult to depend on some kind of Kantian realism to anchor the definition of words; so many words have migrated and evolved from other languages over time.

When I wish to be the best person, the genie is highly likely to ask “at what?” But, if I had said I wanted to be a good person, if would not have seemed ambiguous to you that “good” means moral. I think that is conditioning, and not at all necessary. As I have said many times before, a moral person is a person who does things deemed good in a moral framework. And, like Sam Harris, I think “good” in a moral framework is whatever best protects the wellbeing of others. (You could describe this as situationalist ethics, where doing the most loving thing in your given circumstance is the moral thing. I think this best describes Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape because it focuses on the intentions based on the information you have; this is how science can influence our human values.) The word “best” in my question, I think, demonstrates that good does not mean moral. I think it is important to separate good from moral.

Imagine I explained to you what the “water table” is; an imaginary surface underground, below which the soil is saturated with water. I then explain that if you dig a hole down to the water table you get a well that fills with drinking water. I then take you to a remote part of Africa that does not have enough wells to feed the people in the surrounding villages. What is the good thing to do? The most loving thing (and therefore the morally good thing–“moral” thing–, I would say) is to build a few more wells near the villages. However, the most profitable thing to do is build a very big well, cover it with a pump, build a fizzy drink factory around your new well and produce fizzy drinks while lowering the water table, stopping the other wells near by from working. This is profitably good (or “profitable”).

So, what can it possibly mean to be the “best” person? And… at what. Or, is that precisely the question: what is the best thing to be best at?


2 thoughts on “Linguistic Ambiguity with a Personal Genie”

  1. Sam Harris, like most postmoderns, simply isn’t realistic when it comes to establishing useful, objective ethics.

    Let me demonstrate by acting in a most irritating fashion like Plato’s Socrates character in the “Republic.”

    Socrates: Sam, define justice.

    Sam the Atheist : Justice is whatever best protects the wellbeing of others.

    Socrates: What if a maniac threatens to kill you, your wife and your children?

    If you defend yourself and your family you have to attack the maniac which will result in an attack of his wellbeing.

    On the other hand, if you protect the wellbeing of the maniac both you and your family will be destroyed.

    Therefore justice cannot be whatever protects the wellbeing of others because such justice is self-contradictory.

    Sam the Atheist: You’re a Christian sexist, bigot, homophobe troll.

    1. Sorry SoM, I didn’t realise that allowing the maniac to attack people was the option that best safeguards the wellbeing of people…

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