Morality and Technology

Some kinds of problems can be solved in two ways: a moral solution and/or a technological solution.

Take global warming.  If we wanted to reduce global warming we could either change our technology – which is very carbon intensive – or change our behavior – which is very carbon intensive.

For example, cars only burn gasoline and make CO2 if we drive them. Our light bulbs only use coal-fed power if we turn them on. Rainforests only release their stored CO2 if we burn them down.

Those are all behaviors which we could control if we wanted to.  But self-control is hard. So the much easier solution is the technological one.

Hydropower dams! Wind farms!  Solar cells, geothermal, fusion power! Electric cars, electric buses, electric trains. And on and on. All good technologies, and we need them to replace the older carbon-intensive techs that we need to retire.

But in this quest to save the world from climate change, technology is only one component of the solution. If we continue to solve all our problems via technology, what will happen to our behavior? We will grow weak-willed. We will think that whenever there is a problem we could solve it if only we had an engineer to come and save us. Thus we forget the fact that we also have a say in this as individuals, in how we act. What about ourselves?

One of the greatest challenges posed when I taught an ethics of engineering course last year was from a student who said we should all just get off the grid. We had been talking about cooperation in evil and he took the teaching to heart – he wanted no part of cooperating in climate change. We could end CO2 production now if people all just stopped using CO2 intensive power sources. And of course he was right – but that is a really hard thing to do. Our social institutional structures are not set up to let us out of the grip of CO2. To name just one, the entire interstate highway system is against us. And he was only one voice in a class of 3o.

But the challenge is real. To many problems, there are moral or technical solutions (bioethics seems particularly full of them). The technical solutions are often easier and so we run to them to save us so that we don’t have to actually change our behavior or make hard moral choices.

The philosopher Hans Jonas warned of going down this route where technological power saves us instead of morality. He warned that as we grow in power, we can begin to lose a sense of how it ought to be used. As our power grows, our ethics diminish. And soon we have nuclear weapons, a massive extinction of species , and global warming and we wonder what to do – because we’ve forgotten how we are supposed to act and who we are supposed to be.

So while the technical solutions are tempting, we must not succumb to letting only them save us.  We need our self-control too. We need to know why we are living and what we are here for, and how to act based on who we are.  And in contemporary culture, those are hard questions to ask, much less answer.

(H/T to my engineering and social justice class at SCU and to Thomas at God and the Machine for making me think about this stuff)


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