The Commited MAY 2015 - Page 5

Building An Ethical Framework for the 22 nd Century With the rapid development of technology in the domains of artificial intelligence, chemistry and biology, we are confronted by an increasingly diverse and bewildering range of ethical dilemmas. Indeed, some of these dilemmas are so novel that all of our existing notions of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ will be severely upturned and may even be judged completely irrelevant when we attempt to apply them to new scientific knowledge. Most of us (hopefully) have a well-developed code of individual ethics which is practical, consistent, and helps to guide us towards good personal conduct in our daily lives. We would generally know, for example, how to behave/react if we, as teachers, were offered a bribe to change a grade in an exam. However, while we would not need to think about how to respond in this particular situation, there are a large number of emerging ethical dilemmas which might leave us confused and uncertain as to what is the ‘right’ course of action to take. To cite just a few of these: • Is it right to use facial recognition technology to monitor the public? • Is it right to geoengineer the planet to offset the threat from climate change? • Is it right to create a ‘robot army’ for national defence? • Is it right to afford robots ‘human’ rights? • Is it right to edit our future children’s genes (‘designer babies’)? • Is it right to bring extinct species back to life (‘de-extinction’)? even be outraged that we are not permitted to walk in the street without being monitored for reasons unknown. It is likely that our objections would be framed in an Orwellian language of totalitarian surveillance states dragging us down into a dystopian nightmare… But then we might, after a few minutes’ sober reflection, welcome the prospect of living in a society where crime, both minor and serious, is (almost) completely eradicated. What then should be our ethical stance and who is to guide us? Another real-world illustration of this is provided by the case of Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui who was imprisoned in January 2020 having created the world’s first known gene-edited embryos. This episode gives rise to a number of interesting ethical questions: Did the researcher know that what he was doing was ‘wrong’? Was it really ‘wrong’ anyway? If so, why exactly was it ‘wrong’? By what ethical standard could we interpret his action as ‘wrong’? When answering these questions, we can feel the sand shifting beneath our feet, there is no certainty or solidity in our responses. In this year’s edition of ComitTED, we asked our students to act as latter-day moral philosophers to examine some of the ethical challenges which will shape their lives and the society in which they will live. While technology is advancing at a breakneck speed, the ethical framework needed to guide our attitudes and behaviour towards scientific developments is lagging behind… From the Editorial Board With questions such as these, there is no real precedent, societal consensus or shared experience to help anchor our ethical beliefs. Apart from an instinctual ‘gut reaction’, how do we decide what is the ‘right’ and proper ethical response to a completely sui generis application of science? We may, for example, instinctively feel that facial recognition technology is an unacceptable violation of our right to privacy. We may All this makes for an especially interesting edition of CommitTED. Because many of the questions under discussion have not yet been treated systematically, there is no consensus over what we should consider to be the ‘correct’ ethical response to these technologies. As such, all opinions are equally valid and each deserves serious consideration.