Dr Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics make me wonder about Laws for Humans. CW: harm, war, abortion, Gaza, Ukraine, Oppenheimer. And compassion.

This is a bit of a ramble. No, it’s a hell of a ramble. By the conclusion, I have not solved the world’s problems. I’m sorry. I can barely solve a few programming problems. But I can think about the problems, and I hope you will as well.

Dr Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics1 are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws were built into the “positronic brain” of every robot and were, supposedly inviolable.

I was thinking the other day about those laws and what laws we might want for humans. The obvious transcription, I think, does not work:

  1. A human may not injure another human being or, through inaction, allow another human being to come to harm.

  2. A human must obey the law, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A human must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

This, I think, won’t do, because it requires an individual to sacrifice their own life for another, unconditionally. Might be a better world, but few would sign up.

I am reminded here, suddenly, of the currently popular trolley car ethical problems. What if a human is on the tracks and has a switch that will divert the trolley from hitting him, but the diverted trolley will then hit another person? More people? The president? The currently incarnated god? A puppy?

These problems are in themselves interesting, and different people disagree over some of them. Wikipedia is pretty good on trolley problems as well.

Let me try a rule-set that I would respond to better than I do the one above. In priority order:

  1. A human may protect their own existence.
  2. A human must not harm another human or, through inaction, allow another human to come to harm.
  3. A human must obey the law.

This is better, for me, in the small. If a human is attacked by another human, their self-protection takes priority. Seems good, doesn’t it?

What if a group of humans, say a small country, is attacked by another group of humans, say a terrorist organization from another country? Is the first country now justified in razing the other country to the ground? After all, the second law doesn’t specify exactly who can be harmed if the first law is threatened.

What if one human is told that they will be shot unless they press the button that will kill three children and a kitten in the next room?

What if Hitler is in the other room? What if it’s Hitler as a child? What if it’s Hitler with a kitten?

I have come to believe something like this:

Human behavior cannot be specified to our satisfaction with any finite set of rules.

I have come to be somewhat fond of the Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do as thou wilt”, which I am sure I first encountered in some science fiction or fantasy novel, probably six or seven decades ago. However, it doesn’t quite do the job when others are suffering. I am not a student of Wicca, but I know that they do consider a number of virtues, which I think includes compassion.

“Compassion”. Interesting …

That might be a good place to start. I start, also, from an assumption of “plenty”, a confidence that human ingenuity and ability means that we are far from any concern over running out of resources. This is not a zero-sum game, in my opinion. If it were … I think the rules get a lot more difficult. But go with me here, if we have the ability to produce what we need …

Every human should have truly decent housing, truly healthy food, real access to education and information, and, yes, real access to the niceties of human life, including phones, music, art, and decent coffee.

By what means, and in what order? I do not know. I think that a quite substantial Universal Basic Income might be a good start, and I think that so long as people think of it as a “give-away”, looking down on those living on UBI, we’d have issues. We’ll always have issues, I guess: we’re only human, after all.

People say “but if there was UBI, people wouldn’t want to work”. Right on! If the only reason people work is to try to live in a house and eat decent food and such, we’re doing it wrong. There is work that is worth doing. Caring for the sick is worth doing. Caring for sick kittens is worth doing. Is picking up the trash worth doing? Well, if we had some robots, non-sentient robots mind you, to do it, would we still think that humans should do it? Probably not.

Perhaps people really should do only things that they want to do, so long as those things don’t hurt anyone else. If someone on UBI wants to draw silly comics and put them on the web, and nothing else, why not? I write silly articles and put them on the web. No one objects very much, not least because very few people know I’m doing it, and anyway, I’m retired and running on my own savings and investments.

Why should someone have to wait until they’re 80 to retire, as I did? Why not retire at age 0, and develop interests and skills and do as they wish, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else? In a very real sense, because of having particularly good parents, because of being born white, because of incredible privilege and good luck, I have always been able to do nearly what I wanted to do. And I hope that I have harmed few, and grant that I have probably harmed some, for which I am truly sorry. And I turned out reasonably OK, and have done some good in the world, and tried to do more good than I’ve been able to accomplish.

I think that, presented with opportunities to learn, presented with valuable things for people to do, most people would start trying to do valuable things. And if some flake off … that’s not a knock against UBI, it’s a call for better opportunities, better education, better outreach to bring light to the darkness.

But there is evil afoot …

Large and small, there are things in the world that I think are evil. They fall easily into violations of “an it harm none”, in lack of compassion. I will use the word evil. Recognize that it means “by my lights”, and that I think my lights are pretty darn good.

We have leaders in some southern states who are treating refugees like pawns in a game, instead of like human beings. They send these literally barefoot refugees to the cold of Chicago and other cities, instead of caring for these humans as they deserve, solely because they are humans.

We have leaders in the world who oppress their own people, even killing them. We have leaders who attack other countries, killing innocent people, sometimes for a misguided notion of “self defense”, sometimes without even that feeble excuse. It is not OK to kill innocents even if we’re trying to defend ourself against some group.

We have leaders who, in the past, devastated cities, bringing impossibly powerful weapons into the world, with the avowed intention of preventing the deaths of even more than they killed2.

We have people today working on robots that, so far, mostly do not carry weapons and kill humans, but whose developing capabilities make that possible, and in my view, likely. Do you really believe that no one is going to mount a gun on one of those cute dancing Boston Dynamics robots? Trust me, they will. And believe me, people you don’t trust will have them, not just whatever good guys you dream of.

We have leaders today who are trying to erase the bad parts of our country’s history, and the world’s history. Why? I’m honestly not sure. I suspect it’s because of zero-sum thinking, and because of ongoing racism.

We have leaders today who are trying to limit people’s access to health care, including abortion. I can understand why people would think abortion is inherently evil: I nearly agree. But withholding it isn’t the answer. Making it unnecessary is the answer.

We have leaders today who are arrogating power to themselves. Right now, they’re recruiting most “straight white people” to vote them that power, although, oddly enough to my thinking, some people of color, some queer people, and other people who should know better seem to support them. But will they stop when they have power over people of color and LGBTQetc people? Of course not. They’ll come for whoever is left.

There are people in the country who have more than one million times as much wealth as the national average. No, really. The US national average net worth is under $200,000. It’s less than $100,000 world-wide. There are individuals with over $100,000,000,000.

I’m all for people doing well, but that … that’s not just unfair. It’s obscene.

I’m not enough of an economist to understand just how it all works, but it’s pretty clear that that wealth is not trickling down to the people in Flint, Michigan, much less to those in Mexico … Africa … look anywhere.


I have no solution. I think that compassion is a big part of what we lack. I think that a simple rule like “An it harm none, do as thou wilt” would serve us better than whatever we’re doing now.

And I think we need to vote for people who have compassion, we need to change things so that money does not buy votes so easily, and we need to work toward equality, equity, fairness … and, again, compassion. I don’t think we can do it with rules. Maybe we can do it with compassion.

So mote it be.

  1. The Wikipedia article on the laws is interesting, and includes some details and extensions that I did not recall. Of course, I read most of Asimov’s work before I turned 18, and much of it, not since then. The article also describes other proposed laws. Makes me want to do some more reading. 

  2. In my 20s, I worked at Strategic Air Command, the command responsible for delivering nuclear attacks on our country’s enemies. I know exactly what a nuclear weapon will do, and what a nuclear war would do. I know that the people in the command were not evil, were very cognizant of the horror, and I believe that Mutually Assured Destruction, a literally dreadful strategy, probably worked to keep us, so far, from that horrible end. Perhaps someday we’ll have a positive use for a nuclear explosion. So far, there have only been negative, evil ones. The movie Oppenheimer, quite excellent, brought this great evil forward in my mind. 

  3. Though I say it who shouldn’t, you might enjoy some of my other articles under the Social heading.