Ethics in the Age of Technology
Unprecedented in its speed and scope, scientific and technological progress is one of the most obvious realities of the modern time. Technology enormously increases the productivity of social labor, expanding the scale of production. It has achieved incomparable results in mastering the forces of nature. Moreover, technology has become the basis of the complex mechanism of the modern development. A country that fails to provide a sufficiently high rate of scientific and technological progress and incorporate its results in various areas of public life is condemned to be a underdeveloped and dependent state with a subordinate position in the world (Tavani, 2011).
In the recent past, it was common to praise the scientific and technological progress wildly as the sole source of the overall progress of the humankind. It is the view of the scientism, especially the natural sciences, as a superior and absolute social value. However, the rapid development of science and technology has given rise to many new issues and alternatives. Therefore, it is possible to say that people are not to do all they can in the terms of technology; they rather must learn what they can and should do. The need for connection between the ethics and technological activity has been evident since the time of Archimedes, who hid some of his findings from the people because of the danger of their technical implementation. However, it is necessary to identify the efficient ways of such connection; without them, it will be impossible to determine how to control the technology, which has become a powerful planetary force (Poel & Royakkers, 2011). Therefore, the following essay is dedicated to the understanding of various ethical theories that can be applied to technology, description of new ethical and moral issues that have emerged due to technological progress and theories, and definition of the ethical theory that is the most suitable for dealing with them.
One of the primary ethical theories to be applied to technology is humanism, which claims that the society has to express the need for a spiritual, moral, and physical development of its members, create the necessary opportunities to achieve prosperity and happiness, and determine the need for respect and personal dignity (Sandler, 2013). Nowadays, humanism is interpreted as recognition of the person’s identity value and his/her right to the free development and self-expression. Humanism provides a good, attentive, and sympathetic attitude to each person. However, recently, habitat was also included in this concept. The ideas of humanism require the person to live and evolve in an environment that is not harmful to him/her in any way. Therefore, this ethical theory also includes the respect for the environment together with good and caring attitude towards all living beings. According to the principles of the humanistic theory, each person must develop, obtain a set of relevant knowledge and skills (which are to be returned to society through professional and social activities) comply with legal and moral norms of society, respect basic social values, preserve the environment, and care for the nature (Tavani, 2011).
However, nowadays, many reject the humanistic orientation of the scientific and technological development. A belief that the goals and aspirations of technology and society today are separated and that they have come to a contradiction is widespread. Moreover, the ethical standards of the modern science are opposite to the universal socio-ethical and humanistic norms and principles; moreover, the scientific research has long gone out of control. Finally, the Socratic postulate of knowledge and virtue being inseparable was sent to historical archives long ago (Tavani, 2011).
The humanistic theory appeals to quite concrete experiences of modernity, presenting a variety of ethical problems that have emerged in the recent decades. For example, it is impossible to talk about the social and moral role of technology when it is used to create monstrous weapons of mass destruction while many people die of hunger each year. It is also difficult to talk about the morality of the scientist, when he penetrates deeper into the mysteries of nature, and the more honest he is about his activities, the greater threat to humanity are the results of his research (Sandler, 2013). Moreover, the benefits of technology to humanity are rather shallow, as its achievements are often used to create the tools that lead to alienation, suppression, befuddling of the person, and destruction of the natural habitat of a person. The scientific and technological progress not only exacerbates many of the existing contradictions of the modern social development but also creates the new ones. Moreover, its negative manifestations can lead to disastrous consequences for the fate of all humankind (Tavani, 2011).
However, there are ethical theories that consider technological progress a positive phenomenon. Among them, utilitarianism and pragmatism are the most significant ones. At the first glance, utilitarianism is a fairly nondescript theory, which lacks the moral high ground; however, this impression is deceptive. The main appeal of utilitarianism is to maximize the total amount of utility (happiness). The appearance of the maximization criterion is extremely important, because it suggests a quantitative calculation of utility (Winston & Edelbach, 2014). Therefore, utilitarianism is directly connected to science and technology. According to it, the main value of the industrial civilization is the technological progress, which, together with science can provide welfare to humanity. Benefits, welfare, and comfort are the landmarks of the sensual culture that currently dominates the public consciousness. However, the perception of technological progress as the defining feature of civilization inevitably lead to the opposition of the advanced Western society and the underdeveloped civilizations of other countries, creating the ethical problem. Moreover, utilitarianism does not consider itself to be bound by the requirements of the humanistic theory. As a result, very often, the progress is made at the cost of freedom and happiness of particular individuals (Winston & Edelbach, 2014).
The pragmatic ethics is also relevant nowadays. By being an action-oriented ethical theory, pragmatism is scientifically wealthier than utilitarianism. According to it, social life is based on practical technological problems, the solution of which includes collective communication skills, creativity, and education of the people adapted to life. However, the technological revolution resulted in the ideas of pragmatism outliving their usefulness since there were no needs that were more urgent for people with solid knowledge and principles. As a result of the modernization of the classical pragmatism ideas, neo-pragmatism has emerged; it was complemented with the new principles and understanding the process of education as a process of socialization (Winston & Edelbach, 2014).
Another ethical theory that can be applied to technology is the universal prescriptivism. In general, it shares the methodological principles of linguistic philosophy, but its main task in terms of ethics is the theoretical analysis of the language of morality – the study of the moral values of the words. According to it, the language of morality is prescriptive; it does not describe the facts, but suggests specific actions. Moreover, it is not a psychological but rather a moral and logical property of the language. Therefore, because the rules of logic, being derived from the mind, are mandatory, the moral precepts are objective (in the sense that they are not orders, but the necessary requirements of the mind). In spite of the essential differences between the moral principles adopted by different cultures, they are cast into a single logical form that is the same for all cultures and facilitates the moral dialogue between them (Kizza, 2013).
However, the changes in the technical and social properties through the prism of the universal prescriptivism can be seen as the expansion in the range of possible behaviors. An example of such situation can be the spread of various means of communication and computer tools in the last decades, together with information spurt. This topic is of particular interest as a model because of the swiftness, with which the human being has changed, at least in some areas. Currently, many new private and serious ethical issues have emerged due to the rapid development of the communication technologies (for example, the ethics of the mobile phone call). Some of them are perceived as the qualitatively new and unsolvable problems. The expansion of the potential circle of friends to the global scale, coupled with the anonymity on the Internet allows a person to insult the other people and make something absolutely unthinkable in the traditional personal communication. One can talk about a qualitatively new state of a person in the virtual environment and design the new system of prescribed moral laws, which is fundamentally different from the age-old traditional rules of interpersonal relations. However, the impunity for the insult, which has no analogues in the non-virtual world, still remains a major ethical problem (Kizza, 2013).
Finally, the last ethical theory to be applied to technology is the theory of responsibility, which is the youngest one out of all the above-mentioned theories. Its age has been usually counted since 1979, when the book by Hans Jonas The Imperative of Responsibility was been published. The author has convincingly shown that, in the era of technology, people have to take responsibility for their actions in order to avoid global disasters (Sandler, 2013). Currently, the humanity owes the emergence of global social problems to the technical progress. Of course, technology cannot be blamed for all issues (for example, the problems of food and population are not directly associated with it), but many important socio-political problems are ultimately sharpened (war and peace) or even generated (energy shortages, environmental pollution) by technology. Therefore, today, the humankind requires ethical responsibility and reasonable measures in dealing with technology and the environment more than ever. The responsibility for the consequences of the technological progress, together with the development of protective measures to prevent technological disasters open the way for the survival of the humanity in the face of the global technological crisis (Tavani, 2011).
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From the abovementioned facts, it is possible to conclude that in any case, people must not allow the technology to deprive them of the status of a person. However, the answer to the question of the meaning of being a human in a technical civilization is yet to be given. However, the most realistic option is the requirement to be a highly moral person. At the end of the XX century, morality intertwined with responsibility. Therefore, the ethics of responsibility is the key to the resolution of various crises associated with the uncontrolled development of technology. Today, a person can do more than he/she has the moral right to. In this regard, there is a need for a special ethics that is focused on the technical content of the human activity. However, the ethics of responsibility requires a careful interpretation of the moral decisions and actions taken by people. It is the original focus on the good dialogue with the others, in which everyone must take the rightful place. Technology is the mean to achieve the goodness, the nature of which is determined in interpretations. Strictly speaking, there cannot be a final decision, except striving for the maximum responsibility. However, as evidenced by the numerous declarations, the conferences of scientists and experts in the field of technology, and meetings of technical workers, many moral values (honesty, justice, happiness, and freedom) have acquired the character of stable moral norms in technology. Usually, it is noted that the private or local interests cannot take precedence over the universal demands of the people and their desire for justice, happiness, freedom, safety, environmental excellence, and health. As a result, no aspect of technology is morally neutral. It is unacceptable to make human an appendage of the machine. Therefore, each technical innovation must be tested for whether it contributes to the development of a human being as a creative and responsible person or not.
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