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Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics (excerpt)

So you think you know the difference between right and wrong? Sure about that? Juan Enriquez's Right/Wrong, excerpted here courtesy of MIT Press, might shake you loose from your convictions.

Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics
Juan Enriquez
MIT Press
October 2020

Excerpted from Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics, by Juan Enriquez (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2020 MIT Press. Excerpted by permission of MIT Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

INTRODUCTION: WHY IS ETHICS SUDDENLY WHITE-HOT, FRONT-BURNER?

Sex. It’s changing. Fast. So too are some of our core notions of what is Right and Wrong, about sex, and about so many other topics. What your grandparents thought about contraception, IVF, surrogates, and gene editing is very different from what you now take for granted. Things that they would have considered unacceptable and unethical are now commonplace. Technology often changes our beliefs and, in moving fundamental ethical goal posts, leaves many feeling discombobulated; others end up angry and scared, on the wrong side of history.

Whether you are conservative or liberal, there is so much sound and fury surrounding constant change. Perhaps that is one reason you’ve felt a touch uneasy lately? You are surrounded by so many people telling you, with absolute certainty, that you are doing x, y, or z wrong. And, at the same time, you too may feel: That is not how I was brought up, what I was taught. Why are so many doing really evil stuff?

It sometimes feels as though demons are loose everywhere, like never before. One ends up asking: Why is it so hard, for so many, to just understand and do what is RIGHT? In this Age of FEAR but also of GREAT Certainty, people take sides and barricade themselves behind positions they feel comfortable with. They declare they are tried-and-true (insert your favorite label): gay-rights activists, red-blooded conservatives, #MeToo, God-fearing X, Y, Zs, anti-vaxxers, #MAGA and so on. Many of us tend to judge an acquaintance as soon as we find out if they are R or D, for or against (insert favorite cause here).

Maybe even you feel that, unlike the rest of the surrounding, unwashed mob, you know Right from Wrong. And you loudly proclaim your absolute certainty, at school, in a stadium, on Twitter, Facebook, in bars, coffeehouses, and ballot boxes.

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Angel Wings by Zorro4 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The far right and the far left have no monopoly on concern over the future. A lot of us are scared. For better, and worse, the speed of invention and adoption of new technologies is such that we have little time to consider, less time to adapt. Pick a random young adult book or movie: most are post-apocalyptic. The delicious terrors and perils of Harry Potter morphed into far darker takes: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Matrix, Divergent, and Game of Thrones. How about videogames? Pong, Tetris, and Super Mario morphed into massive online multiplayer games where armies of millions do battle and die.

How did we get here? Why aren’t the old customs, norms, beliefs enough anymore? One thesis is: people are just so much more radical, evil, racist, deluded, and angry these days. I do not believe this. I think most people are kind, caring, and, sometimes desperately, want to do the right thing; they may hold opinions different from you or me, but outside a small coterie, on the extreme left and right, we are more connected, more aware of what should be done, of how we should treat others, than ever before. As we communicate more, we care ever more about what happens in Africa, in a ghetto, in a suburb, to those “like us,” and sometimes to those very different from us.

In a sense, as occurs with those constantly exposed to vast amounts of evil and blood—think doctors and soldiers—we end up thinking the whole world acts like this. We are so exposed and sensitized that we forget how much got so much better, and we forget, as things get better, ethics change across time. Most of us now hold ourselves, and others, to higher standards, and somehow we expect our ancestors to have lived up to our newly enlightened benchmarks.

We had better be careful because there is a powerful, longterm trend upending ethical debates: the rules change. What we consider to be Right, ethical, and normal is changing at an unprecedented speed. Many of the pillars of certainty, of faith, of what we have held to be self-evident and eternal truths have shifted—and they continue to shift rapidly. In most cases, this is a good thing.

What we consider Right and Wrong today is different from the Right and Wrong of the past. The Old Testament is not the New Testament. We don’t burn heretics. Most don’t hold slaves. Most don’t torture and behead in public squares for the masses’ entertainment. What was once broadly acceptable no longer is so.

We are used to thinking of ethics as a pristine, white marble statue:

An unmoving, eternal, static, legal totem to RIGHT.

But what if “what is ethical” fundamentally changes over time?

Right versus Wrong is a deadly serious subject, but we also have to recognize and laugh at our folly. We have made, and continue to make, many mistakes that will seem obvious and tragic in retrospect. In the highest and richest of medieval courts, marrying twelve-year-olds was natural, and chivalrous. In some spots, when there was a serious lack of calories available, cannibalism was considered a normal and natural practice well into the twentieth century. (And it reappears periodically, under extreme, circumstances, i.e., Chilean rugby team post-Andes airplane crash in 1972.) Sexual mores vary widely across societies and across time. Burning heathens at the stake is now done with Tweets instead of faggots of wood. (Oh and BTW, the use, definition, and
acceptability of single words can change over time as well, look up faggots in the dictionary if you do not know the original meaning and then look up gay, bumfiddle, cock-bell, and fuksheet).

Across civilizations and history . . .

boy, have we screwed up time and time again.

Yet we are still wedded to old notions of how to wrestle with ethical questions, starting with the most fundamental of erroneous beliefs: “ethics don’t not really change,
therefore I know Right from Wrong!” So we don’t get wildly excited when someone helpfully suggests “let’s spend the afternoon on an ethics review.” And we do get really intolerant when someone disagrees with us.

Because we think we KNOW RIGHT from WRONG, we think of ethics as BORING. Think about it . . . You arrive at a new school, a new job, and soon thereafter, with a big KA-THUNK, an ethics-HR manual lands on your desk. Usually this long document, filled with platitudes, authored by Captain Obvious, containing some of the most boring, corporate-speak ever written by a human. Truth is, if you ever show up somewhere and do not already know the stuff they “teach you” through these catechisms, then you probably should not be attending that school, taking that job, interacting with these nice, decent folks.

HR manuals remind one of the old Virgin America announcement:
“For the .001 percent of you who have never
operated a seat belt . . .”

The problem is that a society can radically alter what the majority considers ethical in a few short years. So, time and again, even though you read and followed that HR manual as well as the customs of the day, you can get caught on the wrong side of history. In an era of constant recording and posting on social media, one stupid comment or position is enough to end one’s career, to become broadly exposed, and shamed by millions. Every insult to someone on “our side” is a personal insult to us, and we pile on to fight back.

One can act reasonably, according to today’s prevailing norms, and be harshly judged in retrospect. What future generations will consider ethical or barbaric is a realm full of wild guesses and uncertainties. It is here that the field of ethics comes alive to become one of the most challenging, infuriating, rewarding human endeavors. Our grandkids will, at best, laugh at us, sometimes tut-tut at our behaviors, and sometimes judge us with justified fury. Just as we do to past generations.

One of the biggest drivers of ethical upheaval and change is technology. Technology provides alternatives that can fundamentally alter our notion of what is Right and Wrong. Forget about leaping tall buildings in a single bound. We can already do things previous generations would consider miraculous. We have unprecedented powers. We are reaching for planets, controlling evolution, and terraforming Earth.

Because we never thought we could come close to doing what we take for granted today, we have no framework to deal with changing ethical norms. In retrospect, yes, our ancestors did things that we consider barbarous. So we judge them. Harshly. With little heed to how they were educated and what alternatives they had at the time. Caring, decent, law abiding, God-fearing folks keep getting caught, time and again, on the wrong side of history. Because we ignore or forget one fundamental rule:

Technology Changes Ethics.

Do NOT assume what is acceptable today will be acceptable tomorrow.

Our ABSOLUTE beliefs are morphing, evolving, often into the opposite of what we once accepted and believed. (Think what folks were taught about being gay a few decades ago.) As technology leaps forward, we have no definitive road map nor hymnal to show us the way. These big ethical waterfalls are rarely even hinted at in corporate or academic manners manuals. It is in these tumultuous ethical rapids that individuals and societies founder, and are later burned at a historical roast.

Often, when we think of technology in the context of ethics we think of evil. (Cue Terminator music in background.) There are good reasons to fear technology, to apply tough scrutiny; in the age of synthetic biology, humanity challenging artificial intelligence, evermore powerful weaponry, massive economic interdependence, and climate change, ethical conundrums are white-hot. The choices we make today will determine the future of humanity.

Literally.

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Photo by Myfanwy Owen on Unsplash

But there is a second aspect to the technology-ethics interdependence that we usually ignore. Technology often enables more ethical behaviors and leads future generations to look back and ask, WTF were they thinking back then? How dare they have done THAT! First, the agricultural and industrial revolutions fundamentally changed what was acceptable, what we could do, how generous we could be. Without the industrial revolution, it is hard to conceive of the end of slavery, a millennial, multicultural (unjustifiable) practice. Then came the digital revolution; half the planet went online, began communicating, comparing, and questioning. Without TV and movies beaming into our living rooms, it is hard to believe many would have been exposed to funny, creative, powerful, loving human beings who happened to have a different sexual orientation. For the many, the absolute certainty that homosexuality was wrong vaporized in just a few decades.

Technology changes ethics, it challenges old beliefs, it upends institutions that do not grow and change. The “old way of doing things” is under siege as our access to communication and media exposes corruption, discrimination, and systemic abuses as never before. Yes, technology is misused, sometimes causing enormous harm, permitting massive, targeted harassment, upending elections. But, more often than not, as technology increases wealth, availability, access, it gives us opportunities and choices we never had before—to be more generous, understanding, and ethical. Perspectives change as we develop more ways to produce, consume, travel, and communicate.

Technology is a catalyst/lever that fundamentally shifts the goalposts of what is acceptable and what is not. Our deeply held beliefs can change; and they do change. Academics, CEOs, journalists, lawyers, and politicians keep getting caught unprepared because they follow the existing laws, conform with the epoch’s norms, and never consider that they may be reviled in the future because technology, and thus ethics, shifted exponentially.

We are in an age of exponentially changing technologies.

Ergo, we are in an age of exponentially changing ethics.

So why does this matter to you? As technology advances, we have more choices and degrees of freedom than past generations. Having these options, we get quite judgmental of our ancestors. And we should be, because many of the things they were doing were fundamentally wrong. But we have both hindsight and options. And we too may be vulnerable to historic shifts.

As cost curves for renewable energy drop below coal and oil, the next generations will be able to maintain their lifestyles without burning much carbon and will wonder: what the hell were they thinking, warming the planet as they did? How dare they? Didn’t they understand the consequences? But they will do so from a smug position of having cheaper, more abundant, clean energy than we did. The same will be true of eating meat. As synthetics or lab grown meat get cheaper, healthier, and safer, most will wonder why we caged and slaughtered billions of sentient beings. Future generations will judge many of our practices outdated, inefficient, and in some cases, outrageous and evil.

BTW, in places where technology does not drive costs down relentlessly, where we do not have progressively more options to act, and where there is not huge societal pressure to right wrongs, one might expect unethical practices, even if clearly identified, to linger. (See Baumol’s Disease.)

How do we have rational, if heated, debates on topics ranging from Trump to Brexit, guns and vegans, white privilege and black lives, religion, cultural appropriation, military interventions, college admissions, and a host of other issues where more than a few hold “mildly” passionate views? To begin with, we need to be a little less judgmental of our ancestors, even of our own follies decades ago. As we judge those in the past, as we hope to be judged in the future, modern ethics requires a word usually absent, on all sides, from today’s passionate debate and certainty:

Humility

The most fearful, Left and Right, are usually the most abusive.

Too often we seek status by “being better” than “them.”

One has to feel secure to be magnanimous towards others.

I am not a moral relativist: there is a clear difference between Right and Wrong. But it takes various societies and peoples time, and often new technological options, to be able to discover and exercise better judgement, to be more generous.

This is not a classic “scholarly” book. It is not a book that will provide certainty, much less “the right answer.” Likely it will provoke question after question. I do not have all the answers. Nor does anyone. So why did I write this? I want other smart people—not just over-enlightened, aggressive activists or absolutist conservatives—thinking and debating ethical dilemmas, questioning the status quo, the things we take for granted.

Many professional ethicists are likely to be seriously bothered by this book. How dare he take on such serious subjects without first regurgitating the canon of our field! Why isn’t he more serious and academic in his approach to my hallowed, erudite field? He dares to joke about matters of life and death?

But let me ask you, the nonprofessional ethicist: when is the last time you voluntarily picked up a book on ethics? As academic specialists employ increasingly abstruse language, narrow their scope, and take absolutist positions, they build moats that alienate and keep out the general reader. This short book is designed to provoke you, to encourage thought and debate; it is not an academic bastion of truth, one to be defended at all costs till tenure be granted.

If at the end you feel a little queasier about what is RIGHT, what is WRONG, how hard it is to answer that question across generations, then I have done my job.

In an era of extreme polarization and certainty, we need a touch more humility, less blame, and a certain knowledge that our descendants will consider us savages for some of the things we do today.

Judge ye today as thou would wish to be judged tomorrow.

All of which brings us to a simple, straightforward question: Should we radically redesign the human body?

* * *

Juan Enriquez is the author of As the Future Catches You, Evolving Ourselves, and other books. A frequent speaker at TED and other conferences, he has contributed to such publications as Harvard Business Review and Foreign Policy. He is a cofounder and investor in brain and synthetic biology start-ups.

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Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

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