C[ancel] C[ulchr] C[rime] C[alculator] – the Dederometer

Claire Dederer raises this prospect, a moral calculator, online. The user would enter the name of an artist [for instance, Roman Polanski], whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you could or could not consume the work of this artist.

A calculator is laughable, unthinkable, she writes. But is it?

I’ve been doing some work on computus. As everyone knows computus is the calculation of Easter. When should it fall? Justin Smith-Ruiu, whose book I talked about here, generalises it to include the calculation of all significant dates (elsewhere than there, here). It entails the calculation of cultural significance, which as Smith-Ruiu points out is religious to start with, and deals with what appointments on a cosmic scale should be kept.

Computus evokes the history of computation. Every society that has had the means of mathematical calculation has used it to set the dates that ought ritually to be observed, days of festival and sacrifice, dates that summon people to activities as ordinary as the working day and as extraordinary as their entry into the transcendental realm, days to procreate, days not to, days to fast and the dates that are most propitious for either birth or death.

The implication is that this is the first role of mathematics, that before it came into the service of reason it was in the service of what reason calls the irrational, superstition and religion. Astronomy in this view comes from astrology as attempt to hold this or that social setup in harmony with the stars. Calculation has a moral role from the start.

Doing moral calculations of the sort that Dederer describes is behind all forms of calculation, from that by human reason to that assisted by computation from data sets, to that by the large language models of AI. What is calculated is primarily not what does come around again and again but what ought to, again and again. In the words of the song,

Harmony and understanding

Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation

— Galt MacDermot / Gerome Ragni / James Rado

— an interesting online calculation of moral relativities, courtesy of youtube