Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ethical questions and frivolous consciences

Our Futurisms colleague Charlie Rubin had a smart, short piece over on the Huffington Post a couple weeks ago called "We Need To Do More Than Just Point to Ethical Questions About Artificial Intelligence." Responding to the recent (and much ballyhooed) "open letter" about artificial intelligence published by the Future of Life Institute, Professor Rubin writes:

One might think that such vagueness is just the result of a desire to draft a letter that a large number of people might be willing to sign on to. Yet in fact, the combination of gesturing towards what are usually called "important ethical issues," while steadfastly putting off serious discussion of them, is pretty typical in our technology debates. We do not live in a time that gives much real thought to ethics, despite the many challenges you might think would call for it. We are hamstrung by a certain pervasive moral relativism, a sense that when you get right down to it, our "values" are purely subjective and, as such, really beyond any kind of rational discourse. Like "religion," they are better left un-discussed in polite company....

No one doubts that the world is changing and changing rapidly. Organizations that want to work towards making change happen for the better will need to do much more than point piously at "important ethical questions."

This is an excellent point. I can't count how many bioethics talks I have heard over the years that just raise questions without attempting to answer them. It seems like some folks in bioethics have made their whole careers out of such chin-scratching.

And not only is raising ethical questions easier than answering them, but (as Professor Rubin notes) it can also be a potent rhetorical tactic, serving as a substitute for real ethical debate. When an ethically dubious activity attracts attention from critics, people who support that activity sometimes allude to the need for a debate about ethics and policy, and then act as though calling for an ethical debate is itself an ethical debate. It's a way of treating ethical problems as obstacles to progress that need to be gotten around rather than as legitimate reasons not to do the ethically dubious thing.

Professor Rubin's sharp critique of the "questioning" pose reminds me of a line from Paul Ramsey, the great bioethicist:

We need to raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a frivolous conscience. A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must urgently consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethics that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of new actions and interventions science will have made possible. In contrast, a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do. [from pages 122–123 of Ramsey's 1970 book Fabricated Man]

How many of the signers of the Future of Life Institute open letter, I wonder, are men and women of frivolous conscience?

(Hat-tip to our colleague Brendan P. Foht, who brought the Ramsey passage to our attention in the office.)


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