A friend recently tweeted that she believes ethics to be an impossibility. As she unpacked what she meant, I realized this attitude toward ethics is shared by many, especially in our digital age. With the rise of sophisticated modern technologies—such as artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition, bioengineering, and social media—our society will increasingly question what’s moral or immoral, as well as how we might pursue an ethical life. Yet these definitions are often based on what seems right in the moment, not on an ethical framework.
Between Google’s AI principles, the U.S. Department of Defense‘s recently adopted guidelines regarding military use of technology, and the European Union’s proposal for an ethical framework for technology, our world is longing for direction in addressing complicated and life-altering technologies in a way that’s good, fair, applicable, and ethical.
Ethical principles often focus on fairness as a major objective. Fairness, however, is a vague concept, one that can be misused and abused to prize one group over another, even to silence positions outside the mainstream of our society.
Our world is longing for direction in addressing complicated and life-altering technologies in a way that’s good, fair, applicable, and ethical.
In our digital age, society trades conviction and a grounded ethic for what I call “fashion ethics”: ethics defined by what is popular or what might impress others. We take ethical stances based on what will put us in the “in crowd.” We claim one form of injustice is wrong, but another is ok because “they” are the wrong type of people. We proclaim our enemies are on the “wrong side of history” as we scramble to curry favor from a particular voting bloc. Such ethical formations are marked by a desire for notoriety and influence, rather than distinguishing right from wrong.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek alludes to fashion ethics when he speaks of “green capitalism” and the choices businesses make to go green in order to be seen as ethical. He argues we often assuage guilt over environmental issues by purchasing these green products, since we want to be seen as environmentally conscious. Businesses know this and change their models to entice us to shop there.
This is similar to how businesses across the world reacted after the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage. Knowing it would help their brand if they were seen as supportive of same-sex marriage, many businesses changed their social avatars to rainbows. This fashion ethic was based less on conviction or transcendent truth than on the fashionable moods of the day.
[Fashion ethics] is defined more by gaining notoriety and influence, rather than truly distinguishing right from wrong.
Because we’ve abandoned a transcendent ethic, our society defines the “good” based on what others think of us. This isn’t just true of our consumerist habits, though. It’s true with the technologies that drive our day and soon might drive us around.
Influenced by the rise of postmodernism, our society has become relativistic when it comes to ethics and religion in particular. We’re open to people having their own views regarding ethics and morality. What’s good is what we ultimately want in life. If it feels good, it must be true. If we think it’s true, it must be good.
There’s a subtle irony in this relativism when we consider modern empirical research and science. Our society isn’t postmodern when it comes to technology and the sciences. We pursue hard facts with the scientific method. We believe in unchanging truth regarding how the world works. But this objectivity doesn’t invade our ethics and moral understandings of the world.
We’re at an interesting turning point regarding technology and ethics, since our technological developments are based in a modern framework while our ethics is based in a postmodern framework. I believe this is why there’s so much confusion about ethics in our digital age. We’ve become so enamored with what others think and with individualistic versions of truth that we struggle to address technological developments (lest we offend someone with an air of settled, objective truth).
We’ve become so enamored with what other people think . . . that we struggle to address technological developments (lest we offend someone with an air of settled, objective truth).
As technology continues to affect every part of our lives, we can’t depend on vague generalities to make our ethical decisions. Our dignity, and that of our neighbors’, is at stake.
Take, for example. the first of Google’s recent AI principles: “Be socially beneficial.” This sounds like a laudable goal, but if you take a closer look, it’s fairly ambiguous. What does it mean to be beneficial? What if my definition of beneficial differs from yours? Who’s going to benefit—the majority or the minority? Who decides? Who decides who decides?
As you read their explanation, it becomes clear a form of utilitarianism is framing their ethics:
As we consider potential development and uses of AI technologies, we will take into account a broad range of social and economic factors, and will proceed where we believe that the overall likely benefits substantially exceed the foreseeable risks and downsides. (emphasis added)
It’s clear that Google is seeking what brings about the most “good” in society based on a certain segment of people or the company itself. But, as we all know, every person exhibits bias or discrimination in some way due to sinfulness and pride. While Google has every right to pursue this course of action as they develop this powerful AI technology, the public also has the right to push back on vague utilitarian arguments.
We can’t depend on vague generalities to make ethical decisions. Our dignity, and that of our neighbors’, is at stake.
These AI principles were released on the heels of the infamous Project Maven debacle, in which Google was working on a military AI project that helped comb through countless hours of drone-captured video data. The AI system was being trained to identify targets and automatically label objects. Google pulled out of the project amid uproar from employees who thought Google shouldn’t be involved in war, and that these tools should be employed in a fair and socially beneficial way.
The irony is this type of partnership between technology firms and the military allowed them the right to protest, since we live in a democratically free society protected by our military’s technology. But their protest raises many questions: What is good, right, and moral in these situations? How does fairness in this context line up with the safety of our brothers and sisters on the battlefield? What is fair and socially beneficial about terrorists and rogue nations having an advantage on the battlefield?
Without clarity on the details ethical principles, it will become increasingly difficult for our society to think wisely about the role and power of technology. As technology gets folded into nearly every aspect of life, it’s nearly impossible to avoid these conflicts between what is true and what we want to be true.
What if the Christian church had a better way forward, one that brought light to the darkness and clarity to the murkiness of ethical decisions?
As Christians, our ethical decision-making can’t be tied to the prevailing attitudes of certain elites, the in-crowd, or the “right side of history.” Not only does the idea of fashion ethics render our belief in God moot, it also reveals what we really care about: ourselves. Underneath the calls for fairness are selfishness and pride. Do we care more about what people will say about us in this life, or what God will say about us in the next? God summons us to something greater than ourselves: love of him and neighbor. Regardless of what others may think of us or our beliefs, Christian truth and ethical formation can be developed and deployed in ways that help us honor these two greatest commands (Matt. 22:37–39).
In this technological age, God reminds us that we’re more than our utilitarian value to society. From the baby in the womb to the woman on her deathbed, human dignity belongs to everyone—even those who want to marginalize our beliefs in the name of fashion ethics.
So as we debate the merits and dangers of emerging technologies—like the costs of facial-recognition surveillance, how algorithmic biases can disparage minorities, and how AI-based weapons systems are being deployed on the battlefield—we must remember we’re called to apply this framework of human dignity to every area of our decision-making.
Loving our neighbor means recognizing the value, dignity, and worth of every human as an image bearer of a holy and transcendent God.
The Christian moral tradition is based on this concept of human exceptionalism, which runs counter to the materialism so prevalent in the fields of science and technology. That’s why we must keep human dignity at the core of our ethical framework.
Who are we to claim that God—the Creator of the cosmos who knitted us together in our mother’s womb—doesn’t understand what’s good for us and what will ultimately lead to his glory? We’re called to love our neighbors as we stand up for their rights in an ever-changing and complex world. As technology’s influence increases and becomes ubiquitous, our guiding ethic mustn’t be what’s popular or fashionable, but what is proper and full of God-honoring life.