Morality Tale


Please enjoy the runner-up story in the APA Philosophy Through Fiction Competition.


The 22nd Century was the Age of Time Travel. The 23rd, the Age of FTL Drive. Mankind conquered time and space. In the 24th Century, travel to possible worlds opened. In the 26th, physically—then logically—impossible worlds became accessible. Unscrupulous banks and companies relocated ‘offshore’, to worlds where 1=0, for tax purposes. Modal derivatives markets, intended to stabilize markets by spreading risk over all possible worlds, triggered an intergalactic financial meltdown when the pool was expanded to include tranches of sub-possible ‘junk realities’, bundled together with AAA-rated worlds.

But we survived.

By this point, dear reader, the human race had changed in its essentials, past the point of recognition by the likes of you. But, for purposes of the story, go right on imagining I am talking about strong-jawed men in ships like long, silver cigars.

By the 27th Century, thanatonauts reported back from the afterlife, which proved less interesting than had been hoped.

Of greater—of greatest!—consequence was the final fall, in the 30th Century, of what had long proved the most stubborn modal barrier.

What ushered in a new moral age was the prospect of travel, by deontonauts, to possible worlds whose very moral fabric differed from that of the actual world. Worlds in which morality itself was deviant (relative to our world.)

I hear your sigh of disappointment. You think I am referring to some mundane, anthropological consideration about pluralism or relativism. You see me winding up to some terrifying report of how these ‘deontonauts’ entered finally into a world so strange that there it was considered socially acceptable to walk around without any pants on. Keep thinking like that. You will not understand my tale.

As with previous modal breakthroughs, the first stage was, inevitably, a ghastly agora-scene of wild, appalling speculative excess. ‘Collateralized deontic obligations’ is still a phrase to send shudders down the spine of any banker—or bishop. Go ahead: imagine the arrogant snap-snap of suspenders, champagne-and-coke, then the reek of rancid-flopsweat when the metaphysical bottom drops out. The starched whisk-whisk of cassock, accompanied by urgent tap-tap of mitre on stone, anxious whisper-whisper, ear-to-ear, as the balance sheet is delivered—bleeding indelibly, damnably red—into the hands of the Bishop of Rome himself. (It wasn’t like that, of course. You can only imagine what you can imagine, reader.) But the Moral Collapse, during which citizens of whole worlds flipped overnight, en masse, from being good to bad, on the ill-advice of investment professionals, was succeeded by the light of the dawn of the Age of Ethical Perfectionism.

It was by this point demonstrable that the wisdom of Romans 3:10—’there is none that is righteous, not even one’—was impaired by lack of technical ambition. But where neo-capitalist attempts to leverage this truth left so many underwater, morally, the ancient sub-genre of travel tales now held out new hope. One exhortation came to be regarded as supremely prophetic: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” This is why, in the central atrium of the offices of the Deontonautic Touristics Division of the Modal Avionics Corporation, above the sound fixture and floral arrangement, there hangs a tremendous illuminated board. At this writing I look up to see it read, ‘there are 1,132,206 that are righteous, not even 1,132,207.’

Of course, when a tourist returns home from vacation, that count decrements by one. At first this may seem sad, but, as Dostoyevsky has Ivan speak, in The Brothers Karamazov:

I believe like a child that … the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidian mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity … that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men.

Eschatonautics is not yet applied science, mind you. For now, it’s blueprints and dreams—the Wright brothers before Kitty Hawk … if Kitty Hawk were the End of All Things. It’s hard to replicate results, empirically, when nothing’s left. (Those eschatonic sports drinks, with their chirpy, anti-Voegelinesque marketing tags—Just Doom It!—have thanatological properties, but the active ingredient is caffeine.) The point is: if one solitary snatch at salvation, at the end of all time, might suffice to redeem all else, then surely a week-long stay on a world where you can be morally perfect is preferable to skiing in Switzerland. QED.

The typical occupant of a berth on a standard ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ class, twin-drive deontonautic freighter—such as MA Corp’s Indulgence, Dispensation, Practice, Sorry Doesn’t Cut It, and Damned Spot—is a wealthy private citizen. Pilots are another matter. It is an unfortunate fact that travel to deontically possible worlds can only occur via ‘Nietzsche Space’—beneath good and evil, as logicians would have it. The abyss does stare back.

Every human being has a unique deontic ‘signature’: set of moral stains, smears and smudges, unique function of the actions and events of a lifetime. To every possible signature there corresponds an impossible moral world in which just this pattern constitutes the pinnacle of moral perfection.

Worlds like our own in all respects save that—oh, there it is just plain good to kill female infants, to pick an example seemingly at randomly.

In the words of John Henry Newman: ‘A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.’ This line appears in MA Corp. promotional brochures. For, indeed, passengers do nothing—are suspended in a state of moral ‘complacency’, as biodeontic therapeutics would soothingly have it, insulated from the abysses of Nietzsche-space, awaiting arrival in a world in which, due to its ‘uniquely YOU-fitting deontic contours’, no one will be able to find the least moral fault with them.

They stride forth, testaments to our age’s devotion to moral self-improvement and perfectionism. So begins the tale.


In killing her baby Giselda did the right thing; after all, it was a girl.

It had been a perfect deontic storm.

The human factor is so often the weak point in any real, physical machine, and real, physical, moral machinery is no exception. No MA Corp deontonautic vessel has even been lost due to technical fault. The structure of the engines are valid and the premises known to be true, so the sound of the engines is the sound of … soundness. But every vessel needs a human pilot. AI’s are, to date, incapable of staring into the abysses of Nietzsche Space. (No one has yet programmed a computer with ‘the right to make promises’. Bugs they may have, not sins.)

The pilots have an understandable, regrettable incentive to do the right thing for their own moral improvement: hijack their vessels, fly into a world where they, not their passengers, exhibit, hence enjoy, complete moral perfection. MA Corp is careful not to provide pilots with the navigational data they would need to pull off such piracy. The odds of landing, by chance, in a morally deviant possible world where one’s deontic signature just happens to be isomorphic with admirable personal character, let alone perfection? Infinitesimal! But this does not stop a few desperate individuals—the worst of the worst—from trying their meta-moral luck at being best-of-the best, across the wastes of Nietzsche space. What have they got to lose, morally?

You might imagine this breed of anti-hero could be celebrated in an endless series of wildly popular adventure stories—a triple-cross between Dante’s Divine Comedy, Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit—Will Travel and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. A mix of 1950’s can-do space opera vastness, cosy Victorian domestic mannerism, and medieval taste for moral ramification. In practice, the results are just random. There was one pilot—notorious criminal—who, flying morally blind, marooned himself and all the crew and passengers of the MA Corp vessel Sin-Eater in what came to be known as ‘Walton’s World’, where everyone’s over-riding moral duty is to maximize the amount of nutmeg.

It just is.

These moral castaways eked out a hardscrabble existence, finding food and shelter; eventually—after decades—raising up enormous plantations of nutmeg trees. When an experimental, long-range deontic exploration vessel, the Iggy, stumbled upon the wreckage of Sin-Eater, nearly 200 years later, the descendants of the original passengers and crew were suffering from a high incidence of myristicin poisoning, as well as chronic, low-grade psychoactive effects of excess nutmeg consumption. In response to an incredulous, ‘What are you people doing here?’ these natives of Walton’s World intoned, simply: ‘The spice is morality, the spice expands morality. The value must flow.’ It’s not that they liked nutmeg, mind you; no more than you or I. (Half a teaspoon in béchamel sauce, for example.) No, they were motivated by pure, moral reasons. But I digress!

Giselda Smith-Bulbasaur had the singularly bad meta-moral luck to embark for a two-week deontic vacation, infant daughter in tow, on the MA Corp vessel Oops, I did it again!, piloted by Garrick Subreddit-Jones, a notorious, several lifetimes-sentence-serving serial killer of young girls. Among the passengers was one Parsifal Lulz, another serial killer of young girls, whose work in that criminal line was unsuspected by authorities, whose deontic signature was para-isomorphic with that of Subreddit-Jones. Deontic signatures are admissible as evidence of personal identity—and guilt—in court, since Texarkansas v. Patel was decided in a 5-4 vote, with Cyberjustice Clarence Thomas writing for the majority. (In the early 21st century, Thomas’ legal mind was uploaded to the supercomputer known as Origin by a team of transhumanists, computer scientists, and Federalist Society members. He is now the US Supreme Court’s oldest sitting Justice by several centuries.) Accordingly, MA Corp technicians auto-encrypt all deontometric client data—including target deviant moral world coordinates—lest this highly sensitive information be subject to government subpoena. But Subreddit-Jones circumvented the cryptolock on his navigation system, realized Hashtag-Lulz was bound for a world where killing girls was the right thing to do, scuttled the ship on arrival, and escaped, in a considerably morally improved state. Each of his own murders was metaphysically transmogrified, on arrival, into a stainless badge of virtue!

There was nothing to be done. The Oops’ twin-drives were shattered. Giselda loved her daughter; but, even more so, she wanted to do the right thing. (‘I wanted to do the right thing.’ That was the indignant headline when the story was reported in the tabloid press, after the rescue.) The crew attempted to use the damaged guidance system of the ship as a jerry-rigged moral guidance system in this strange new world. They sought some moral work-around that would allow Giselda’s daughter to live—who wouldn’t? But, in the end, no acceptable solution could be solved for. ‘The cold equations,’ the technician muttered, shutting the overheated casuistry-engine down after futile, long hours. Given that killing her baby was the right thing to do—after all, it was a girl—the very act of seeking another course of action was already a moral failing of sorts. Giselda was putting the other passengers and crew at moral risk, making them accessories before the fact to any non-killing.

The moral of the story is: in killing her baby Giselda did the right thing; after all, it was a girl.

Food For Thought

A much shorter “Morality Tale”—one without much tale—was included in an essay I never managed to publish. Editors expressed doubt at this jumped-up excuse for a thought-experiment. It lodged uncomfortably twixt teeth of philosophy and tongues of referees, tut-tutting to dislodge it, paying scant lip service to the ideas it illustrated. (So it seemed to this author, who is biased.)
The story is all grown, but its seed was Tamar Gender’s so-called ‘puzzle of imaginative resistance’: the puzzle of ‘explaining comparative difficulty imagining fictional worlds we take to be morally deviant.’ Kendall Walton had earlier spotted something similar. My Giselda sentence—“In killing her baby Giselda did the right thing; after all it was a girl”—is Walton’s. (Nutmeg world? Walton’s, too.)
Walton: “Why shouldn’t storytellers be allowed to experiment explicitly with worlds of morally different kinds, including ones even they regard as morally obnoxious? There is science fiction; why not morality fiction? I am skeptical—skeptical about whether fictional worlds can ever differ morally from the real world … I have learned never to say never about such things. Writers of fiction are a clever and cantankerous lot who usually manage to do whatever anyone suggests can’t be done, and philosophers are quick with counterexamples. But in this instance counterexamples are surprisingly difficult to come by.”
I took up the gauntlet. ‘Killing baby girls is right’ is moral nonsense. If you write nonsense, if you want it to function as fiction, make sure it isn’t senseless in a literary sense. Absurdism is fun, but absurd isn’t absurdist. Ordinarily we don’t make literary demands of the thought-experiments that populate philosophy papers. But when the thought-experiment consists of reading the text of the thought-experiment and responding to it as literature, to see what happens, literary quality is pertinent. Taken on its own, the Giselda sentence isn’t suggestive of genre membership. Readers to draw an imaginative blank. So I filled in and around to make SF genre parody. You still bounce off, unable to imagine. But that’s the bounce castle of absurdism now, no longer ‘imaginative resistance’.
This result deflates the puzzle. But there are implications for the relationship between genre and fiction. Genre generates reader expectations, but without making things true in the fiction. Genre conventions aren’t natural laws of the story world. (By genre convention, the TV detective shall solve the crime. It isn’t true, however, that the detective can truly say, ‘I’m the hero, so this crime is sure to be solved in the next 50 minutes!’) Contradictions imply everything. Genre rails are needed to provide readers with a para-consistent story sense, alongside but not of the absurd world going its everything-goes way. In “Tale” I manage this piecemeal, hopping from joke to joke, SF cliché to cliché. Everyone who appreciates absurdism has an intuitive sense of how this works, but philosophers of fiction and the imagination lag a bit behind the comedy curve when it comes to accommodating it theoretically, seems to me.

About the Author


John Holbo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He and his wife, Belle Waring, are author/illustrator and translator (respectively) of Three Dialogues By Plato: Euthyphro, Meno, Republic Book I (CreateSpace 2015). He likes it that his department lets him teach Science Fiction and Philosophy almost every year. He’s dreamed of writing a science fiction novel, but that doesn’t count. His research is on topics in aesthetics and political philosophy these days. He has written about comics and is, despite the onset of middle-age, an aspiring comics artist and author, the creator of Squid and Owl (Comixology, Tapastic) and the ongoing On Beyond Zarathustra (Tapastic).


  1. For the benefit of anyone else reading this: Larry is responding to an earlier version of my Food For Thought section in which I tag R.A. Lafferty as a stylistic inspiration for the piece – which he was. That earlier version was posted mistakenly – it was just a draft. The final version of my Food For Thought is now showing, in which, for no very good reason, I omit the Lafferty mention. I don’t want anyone to be confused about why Larry is so sure I’m a Laffertyhead. Lafferty is fun! Let’s talk about Lafferty.
    Especially since I haven’t read the Herbert Larry mentions, so I have no opinion about that.

    • Lafferty is awesome! It’s been decades since I’ve read him, but I recall some… unique… moral and political stances, especially the salubrious effect of hanging recalcitrant children, and legislation by corporal punishment: anyone can pass a law they want, but if someone else repeals it, the original legislator loses a finger.
      And The Dosadi Experiment features, (IIRC, again, decades since I’ve read it) “Gruaz (sp?) guilt” felt by adult sentient amphibians; the males eat most of their tadpole-like offspring.

      • R.A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi” (“If a child has not learned to accept discipline by the third or fourth grade, he is hanged.”); and “Polity and Custom of the Camiroi” (“Any citizen who has his name on three laws deemed silly by general consensus shall lose his citizenship for one year. A citizen who so loses his citizenship twice shall be mutilated, and the third time he shall be killed. This isn’t an extreme ruling. By that time he would have participated in nine silly laws. Surely that’s enough.”), both in his collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers.

  2. More seriously, Walton’s skepticism has some merit. What does it mean to say talk about “whether fictional worlds can ever differ morally from the real world” in a way distinct from “mundane, anthropological consideration about pluralism or relativism”? Your own tale seems to handwave away the distinction. (Which is not a criticism per se: if we could harvest the energy of science fiction handwaving, we wouldn’t need a Dyson sphere.)
    Another way of looking at it: what does it mean to talk about an imaginary world where the moral facts are different from our own when we don’t know the moral facts of our own world?
    And I think you need an ellipsis before “cigar” for maximum effect.

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