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IEET > Security > Rights > Vision > Staff > Kyle Munkittrick

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Does Technology Help Us Be More Ethical?


Kyle Munkittrick
By Kyle Munkittrick
Discover: Science Not Fiction

Posted: Oct 31, 2010

Ronald Bailey over at Reason Magazine has noticed a trend. When a new technology comes out, particularly if it impacts birth or death, people have a very powerful initial reaction: “Yuck!” However, within a few years, that “yuck” quickly shifts to “yippie!”

A perfect example is Robert Edwards accepting the Nobel Prize in Physiology for developing the first successful in-vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques with his colleague, Patrick Steptoe, in 1978. Everyone knew IVF was a huge breakthrough at the time; everyone also freaked out at the idea. The scientific community took another 30 years after the birth of Louise Joy Brown to approve of IVF enough to award Edwards and Steptoe with the prize they so clearly deserved.

In an unrelated, but completely relevant article, the Washington Post‘s Kwame Anthony Appiah triggered a debate over moral progress and history with his recent “What will future generations condemn us for?” His guesses are that our prison system, the industrial meat complex, elderly care, and environmental damage will bring the most intense “how could they do that?” from history students. Will Wilkinson adds that nation-states dividing up the world with their borders, tariffs, and limits on freedom of movement will look pretty awful to citizens of the next century. Tyler Cowen (who teaches at my alma matter) tried to figure out what we might condemn future generations for, worrying that torture, pre-emptive war, and anti-gay sentiment may make a comeback. What is going to help determine whether we’re moving towards utopia or dystopia?

I DISAPPROVE WILL ROBINSON, I DISAPPROVE

The most interesting twist on Appiah’s original idea, and a potential answer to my query, comes from conservative op-ed writer Ross Douthat at the New York Times. Douthat’s eye-grabbing point is that technology itself helps to drive our moral shifts, in that often a new technology is able to disconnect two things that were once inextricable:

“Note, though, that I’m envisioning a technological leap as the catalyst for this shift. It’s true that deterministic arguments can go too far, and that human agency matters enormously to moral change ... but it’s still the case that technological and economic trends play an enormous role in determining which moral arguments gain ground, which achieve dominance, and which slip toward eccentricity. The cotton gin launched a thousand pro-slavery polemics. The birth control pill convinced millions of people that the old moral consensus on sex and marriage was outdated and even absurd.”

Just which taboos will become tolerable in the future based on technology is, I think, grist for another post. What is worth discussing now is how technology enables these sea changes in our moral thinking. Bailey’s “yuck-to-yippie” thesis dovetails nicely with Douthat’s “tech can drive moral change” thesis. Let’s imagine a new example: designer babies. We first hear about a brand new technology and everybody from religious leaders to scientific experts to your grandmother stands up and denounces it—“Yuck!” says Grandma; “Eugenics will bring back Hitler armies!” says the politician who has no grasp of science (a redundant statement, I know); “God doesn’t approve!” says the Vatican; “all people will all be the same!” says the worried science philosopher. “The genetic engineering of people could have lots of things go wrong with it, and it’s just unnatural, so we probably shouldn’t do it,” says the general consensus.

Read the rest here


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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COMMENTS


=== “Tyler Cowen ... tried to figure out what we might condemn future generations for, worrying that torture, pre-emptive war, and anti-gay sentiment may make a comeback.” ===

Focusing only on the pre-emptive war point, I can think of an example in history where not only was it called for (though pre-emptive, it was still instigated by the other side), but for the nation that did it, it most likely saved their existence.





I’m not sure how Douthat concludes that “The birth control pill convinced millions of people that the old moral consensus on sex and marriage was outdated and even absurd.”

It seems to me that the only thing the birth control pill convinced millions of people of was that they could now (relatively) safely avoid the old moral consensus. I suspect that these millions of people had already thought the old moral consensus was outdated and even absurd. It’s just that they weren’t able to do anything about it.

Also, I hope no one sees a simple equivalence between “yippie” and “more ethical.”





Today’s technology allows us to relinquish personal growth. As soon as we are teenagers we see that everything we know is sufficient to survive the rest of our lives. Realizing this, many choose to switch to TV and videogames for the rest of their lives. When the world is full of 40-80 year old teenagers, let’s see what happens. People pushing 60 already act like teenagers.





And before TV and videogames existed, “tech or die,” many chose to switch to sports and relaxation for the rest of their lives. No?





The previous generations didn’t have it as easy, at least that’s what I’m told. They had to take responsibility, work hard and learn how to do things today’s kids need to know nothing about.

Now in the first world welfare states everything is becoming so cheap, so automated, so convenient, so Ready, that you don’t have to know practically anything to get through life. And you can take it all for granted.

The previous generations seemed to actually read books once in a while and generally acquire knowledge and skills more than today; I can’t count the number of times I’ve been as amazed at the things older folk know and are able to do as I’ve been appalled at the ignorance of today’s youth and even 30-40-somethings, despite this internet thing (and the reason you know if you see the browsing history).

Being youthful and having a flexible mind is of course a good thing regardless of biological age. It’s just that these days I see a whole lot of kids who just got biologically old (and fatter than people did in the previous decades), still acting childlike with terrible manners, short attention spans, remarkably unrefined taste in art and music, unrealistic views of their own worth, and little wisdom and humility. You can call them adults but they’re not the kind of adults I’m used to.

And I’m blaming tech (and cheap oil, socialism, lax parenting, and perhaps throw in the Elite with their Plans, for good measure. I don’t know.)

This does not of course apply to everyone (or even the majority, or perhaps it does).

Or perhaps it’s always been like this and this is just the latest version.

It seems that while Tech is 2.0, Humanity, however, is -2.0.





@ Tech or Die.

You’re blaming entirely the wrong cause for all of that ToD.

You want to find why kids “take things for granted” look to the parents who couldn’t be bothered to raise them, but let the TV be the nanny, and their wallets be the babysitter. Look to the parent who chose to allow their child to learn about sex and drugs and life by osmosis from their fellow teens in High School rather than have an “embarrassing talk” with them. Look to parents who treated their kids like they were 3 years old when they way past puberty, who chose to stay ignorant of what their children did so that they could fool themselves into thinking that their child wouldn’t possibly do anything, even if they did when they were that age.

You don’t like who the current generation turned out? It’s not the tech’s fault.  It’s the parents who couldn’t be bothered to actually BE PARENTS but tried to “make the world safe” so that they wouldn’t have to bother paying attention to their kids.

And yes, I DO HAVE ISSUES with people who want to let others raise their kids because it’s too much of a bother to do it themselves.

It’s not, and NEVER HAS BEEN because of the technology. Institutionalized neglect of our children is a cultural social phenomena, not a side effect of technology.





You’re quite right. The preponderance of blame must be pinned on the parents. But you have to acknowledge the enabling effect of technology. Clearly it must have been a factor, and not a minor one, in the development of the previous past generations. It gave the parents “parenting” choices the previous generations simply didn’t have.

We just haven’t made good use of the technology or used it properly (yet - and perhaps won’t ever). Obviously no tech, unless properly utilized, however fantastic and enabling, is going to necessarily solve all the problems it was developed to solve; it can cause new problems due to unforeseen side effects. I’m arguing that it has had complex, unforeseen societal side effects, by having been introduced without proper controls and guidance, not that it is the root of all evil.

When introducing new technologies, in an unregulated market time-to-market is everything, thinking things through, especially long-term, is often nothing; “let the market and the society deal with the consequences, it’s their problem anyway, we just provide the goods.”

Technology doesn’t by itself automatically always advance anything, and it can easily do the opposite. If people remain unguided and misguided in the application of technology, you can build fancy brain computer interfaces and augmented and virtual realities (or just internets, it seems) all you want but you will still end up with just a bunch of jacked-in clueless, disturbed, maladjusted kids.





That technology changes people’s concept of morality is clear, or it at least enables such changes. IVF gets invented. People react “Yuck.” Then people accept it. Now it is seen as ok.

Whether the technology-driven concepts of right and wrong have a clearer understanding of right and wrong is another question, raised by the title of this article but not answered. The perspective of the article seems to accept a priori that things people initially react negatively to are inherently ethical, and that technology merely provides the occasion for seeing the inherent goodness of the things. The argument, though, is one of ethics being defined by popularity and honors.

However, the general acceptance of a technology does not make it good or right. The putative good goals and even proven results do not justify the means to attain them, as there may be other means if scientists are clever enough to find them. Awarding of honors to the inventors and ridiculing the naysayers do not make a thing to be ethical. The reduction of human life to a utilitarian manufacturing process, the reduction of human offspring to the ethical equivalent of picking options on a car, will always be intrinsically unethical. It may become widely acceptable. It may eliminate this or that disease, even if another disease doesn’t result or emerge. The pioneers of these technologies may win Nobel Prizes. People of the future may laugh at people like me for making these points. But these things can’t make something to be ethical that isn’t ethical.





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