Most people have a strong sense of right and wrong, and many of us are not reluctant to argue with someone who disagrees. But when we take an unyielding stand on something we regard as an eternal truth, we forget that ethics evolve over time. What was once broadly acceptable is now completely unacceptable. For example, burning heretics is no longer considered a just punishment. Child marriage is not applauded as a family value. Many shifts in the right vs. wrong pendulum are affected by advances in technology. In Right/Wrong, Juan Enriquez reflects on the evolution of ethics in a technological age.
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Whether you are conservative or liberal, there is so much sound and fury surrounding constant change. Perhaps that is one reason you’ve felt a touch uneasy lately? You are surrounded by so many people telling you, with absolute certainty, that you are doing x, y, or z wrong. And, at the same time, you too may feel: That is not how I was brought up, what I was taught. Why are so many doing really evil stuff?
It sometimes feels as though demons are loose everywhere, like never before. One ends up asking: Why is it so hard, for so many, to just understand and do what is RIGHT? In this Age of FEAR but also of GREAT Certainty, people take sides and barricade themselves behind positions they feel comfortable with. They declare they are tried-and-true (insert your favorite label): gay-rights activists, red-blooded conservatives, #MeToo, God-fearing X, Y, Zs, anti-vaxxers, #MAGA and so on. Many of us tend to judge an acquaintance as soon as we find out if they are R or D, for or against (insert favorite cause here).
Maybe even you feel that, unlike the rest of the surrounding, unwashed mob, you know Right from Wrong. And you loudly proclaim your absolute certainty, at school, in a stadium, on Twitter, Facebook, in bars, coffeehouses, and ballot boxes.
The far right and the far left have no monopoly on concern over the future. A lot of us are scared. For better, and worse, the speed of invention and adoption of new technologies is such that we have little time to consider, less time to adapt. Pick a random young adult book or movie: most are post-apocalyptic. The delicious terrors and perils of Harry Potter morphed into far darker takes: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Matrix, Divergent, and Game of Thrones. How about videogames? Pong, Tetris, and Super Mario morphed into massive online multiplayer games where armies of millions do battle and die.
How did we get here? Why aren’t the old customs, norms, beliefs enough anymore? One thesis is: people are just so much more radical, evil, racist, deluded, and angry these days. I do not believe this. I think most people are kind, caring, and, sometimes desperately, want to do the right thing; they may hold opinions different from you or me, but outside a small coterie, on the extreme left and right, we are more connected, more aware of what should be done, of how we should treat others, than ever before. As we communicate more, we care ever more about what happens in Africa, in a ghetto, in a suburb, to those “like us,” and sometimes to those very different from us.
In a sense, as occurs with those constantly exposed to vast amounts of evil and blood—think doctors and soldiers—we end up thinking the whole world acts like this. We are so exposed and sensitized that we forget how much got so much better, and we forget, as things get better, ethics change across time. Most of us now hold ourselves, and others, to higher standards, and somehow we expect our ancestors to have lived up to our newly enlightened benchmarks.
We had better be careful because there is a powerful, longterm trend upending ethical debates: the rules change. What we consider to be Right, ethical, and normal is changing at an unprecedented speed. Many of the pillars of certainty, of faith, of what we have held to be self-evident and eternal truths have shifted—and they continue to shift rapidly. In most cases, this is a good thing.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Why is Ethics Suddenly White-Hot, Front-Burner? 1
1 Redesigning Humans 13
The Ethics of New Sex 13
Radically Redesigning Humans 30
Renovating Our Brains? 42
Pathologically Sick … and Imprisoned 48
2 Exponential Technologies: Today's Ethical Quicksand 57
So … You Warmed Up the Planet Just a Touch? 57
Renewing Capitalism's License? 65
You Used Do WHAT to Animals?! 79
Deliberate Extinctions: Gene Drives 84
Technology, Truthiness, and the Demise of Institutions 89
3 Caught on the Wrong Side of History 99
Just Who Is Supposed to Teach Us RIGHT and WRONG? 100
More Recent Ethical Quicksand: LGBTQIA 118
Endangered and Extinct Religions 125
4 The Immortality of Today's Mistakes 139
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Are Electronic Tattoos 139
And Then There Are Dating Sites … 151
5 Why Don't We Fix It? 159
Baumol's Cost Disease 160
Mass Incarceration 174
Everything's Disposable … 180
6 Dead Wrong: We Still Do It; We Will Be Judged 185
Papers, Borders, and Ethics 185
War Profiteering 194
Can Being Precautionary Kill? 199
7 Conclusion? 209
Ethics 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 … 209
Postscript: Game Changers 223
Universal Ethics? China … 223
Artificial Intelligence 227
Pandemics Have a Way of Focusing Your Ethics, Don't They? 234
SETI: First Contact 242