Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Misguided perfectionism in R.U.R.

I'm most of the way through Capek's R.U.R., the play that coined the word "Robot." My favorite part, so far (and by far) is the long comic prologue, which occurs ten years before the main action of the play.

Among other things, it's a funny and vivid illustration of one kind of worry about perfectionist moral theories-- that is, theories that hold that we have a moral obligation to develop or perfect our human natures. A lot turns on understanding what our natures are, and the implications of perfectionist theories, if we're off target in our sketch of human perfection, can be menacing. Thus the following conversation, which conflates "ideal human" and "ideal worker" to funny and terrifying effect (p 17-18 in my Penguin Classics edition). Helena Glory is a visitor at the robot factory. Everyone else supervises some aspect of the factory's work.
HELENA: Why do you make [robots] then?
BUSMAN: Hahaha, that's a good one! Why do we make Robots!
FABRY: For work, Miss. One Robot can do the work of two-and-a-half human laborers. The human machine, Miss Glory, was hopelessly imperfect. It needed to be done away with once and for all.
BUSMAN: It was too costly.
FABRY: It was less than efficient. It couldn't keep up with modern technology. And in the second place it's great progress that... pardon.
HELENA: What?
FABRY: Forgive me. It's great progress to give birth by machine. It's faster and more convenient. Any acceleration constitutes progress, Miss Glory. Nature had no understanding of the modern rate of work. From a technical standpoint the whole of childhood is pure nonsense. Simply wasted time. An untenable waste of time. And in the third place--
HELENA: Oh, stop!
I just love the line, "From a technical standpoint, the whole of childhood is pure nonsense." So true.

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