Dereks Time Travel Note Books: V The Trolley Problem and Metanarrative.

Derek liked to go down the Pub. Drink Beer. Smoke fags. Talk shite.

In 2020, when he first entered that Caravan in Wales, Derek spent quite a while considering the ethical problems of Blockchains and Time Travel. One of his favourite problems was that of the Blockchain Fork. Which, invariably, he presented as being the same as the Trolley Problem of Ethics.

On a Blockchain growing with regular transactions being added, the progress will be linear. You can see that there will be five future transactions that, if they are committed to the blockchain, will cause the death of the five wallet holders connected to those transactions. The Blockchain is heading towards those transactions. You can see an alternative growth of the Blockchain in which a single transaction takes place with one wallet holder connected to that transaction dying. You realise that you can add a transaction into the Ledger that will switch from the existing fork with the five transactions to a new fork which will only contain the single transaction.

You have exactly two options, and no others:

Do nothing: the blockchain will not fork and five people will be killed.
Commit your transaction: the blockchain will fork and one person will be killed.

Put simply: what is the ethically correct thing to do?

For Time Travellers, it is a bit like the Grandparent Problem. Switching from one track to the other affects one Block or many Blocks. It is also a bit like the Prisoners' Dilemma. You could recast the whole thing into the consequences of lives lost instead of years imprisoned. You could link, quite clearly, all the Ethical questions to specific resources embodied in the Blockchain. But also, there is a lot of consideration about losing the value of those five transactions.

Blockchain Ledgers are not supposed to be ethical problems. Derek was clear about that. Blockchain Ledgers are just a simple technical device to allow exchange without trust in a digital context. Yet, that leads away from technology and directly to Ethics. The question, what if there is no trust, rapidly becomes a huge number of questions. Not simple questions. That escalation of ethical enquiry interested Derek.

Casting a Blockchain Ledger developing over time in terms of the outcomes of each transaction, outside the digitial world, highlights that there are differences between viewing a Blockchain Ledger as a Deontological Blockchain or a Consequentialist Blockchain. The central question of this kind of trolley problem dilemma is the question: is it ethical to actively inhibit the utility of an individual if, by doing so, greater utility results for other individuals and how do we explain this?

Blockchains, it can be objected, do not result in causing deaths or saving lives. They are ethically neutral. Besides which, the obvious answer is that 'the consensus mechanism' is a technical requirement of a Blockchain and so you would be obliged to save the five transactions at the expense of the one transaction. Which seems reasonable. Until the counter argument that transaction obtain consensus in any case. The single transaction would, in fact, obtain consensus more rapidly than the sequence of five transactions which would be four blocks behind the single block in obtaining consensus. Derek, in drinking beer, liked to wheel out the Many Worlds style interpretations that forked blockchains afford.

The outcome of potential death from a Blockchain Ledger might seem remote, but not if it is recast in terms of the mechanisms ncessary for the insurance of autonomous vehicles. When autonomous vehicles are considered the five transactions could be the outcome of five pay outs by an insurer. The entire scenario becomes, rapidly, an undergrowth of ethical debate and inquiries into avarice. The Ethical role of the Blockchain becomes even more important when you consider the possibilities of Time Travel.

A central concern of the scenario is a distinction between 'rules and outcomes'. In a rule based system, a deontological approach, the ethical judgement of 'right or wrong' hinges on the rules in play at the time. The rules of processing of a Blockchain Ledger would be a Deontological Blockchain. A naive approach to Bitcoin would be such a Ledger. The Deontological Ledger is, in this respect, following Kant's Maxim, the Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." The consensus mechanism ensures that this is enforced atuomatically, in code, without any opportunity, theoretically, for external intervention. In an outcome based system, a Consequentialist Blockchain, the eithical judgement of 'right or wrong' hinges on the outcomes from the acts. The Consequentialist Ledger is, in that respect, following the Mohist Maxim: "It is the business of the benevolent man to seek to promote what is beneficial to the world and to eliminate what is harmful." All, of which, become critically important ideas once you introduce the notion of Time into any Cryptocurrency.

The Ethics of Blockchains is, or was, or will be, a much underconsidered aspect of Cryptocurrencies. Claims Derek. He may not be wrong.

The outcomes of Blockchains, according to Derek, ought to aspire to the condition of DOGE: "the fun and friendly internet currency". It seemed frivolous, but Derek was deadly serious: the outcomes of Blockchains should aspire to both the condition of Mohist Maxim and the Kantian Maxim. Somehow, Derek was seeking to maximise the beneficial, eliminate the harmful and make it a universal law without that becoming a paradox. Which can so easily happen to Time Travellers.

Which returns to the Blockchain Forking Problem being potentially the same as the Trolley Problem. The Condition of DOGE being, according to Derek, a much underconsidered Ethical Principle. To act as though the fun and friendly internet currency principle should become a universal law seems an oddly idealistic aspiration.


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Hubert Huzzah
Hubert Huzzah

An ongoing manifestation of Thee Surrealerpool Collage of Alchymical, Flâneurial and ’Pataphysical Studies. An Institutuion with membership by invitation, coercion and accident only. Hawkers, Traders and Carlists not welcome except by exception.

Derek has given up Time Travel.
Derek has given up Time Travel.

Derek has given up Time Travels for reasons of practical expedience and to devote more time to a particularly important project. Episode #1 of an intermittent series on Surrealism, Technology, and Science.

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