Does Technology Evolve More Quickly Than Ethical and Legal Norms?

It is frequently observed that developments in technology run ahead of law and ethics, which never quite catch up. This may be true, but not in the way it is usually imagined. What follows is a series of loosely related considerations that might help us see the matter more clearly.

When people claim that technology outstrips law and ethics, they are usually thinking more about the rapid advance of technology than they are about the structures of law and ethics. If we were to unpack the claim, it would run something like this: new technologies which empower us in novel ways and introduce unprecedented capacities and risks emerge so quickly that existing laws and ethical principles, both of which are relatively static, cannot adapt fast enough to keep up.

Thought of in this way, the real pressure point is missed. It is not merely the case that new technologies emerge for which we have no existing moral principles or laws to guide and constrain their use; this is only part of the picture. Rather, it is also the case that modern* technologies, arising in tandem with modern political and economic structures, have undermined the plausibility of ethical claims and legal constraints, weakened the communities that sustained and implemented such claims and constraints, and challenged the understanding of human nature upon which they depended.

To put the matter somewhat more succinctly, contemporary technologies emerge in a social context that is ideal for their unchecked and unconstrained development and deployment. In other words, technology appears to outstrip ethics and law only because of a prior hollowing out of our relevant moral infrastructure.

Social and technological forces have untethered and deracinated the human person, construing her primarily and perhaps even exclusively as an individual. However, valuable this construal may be, it leaves us ill equipped to cope with technologies that  necessarily involve us in social realities.

From the ethics side of the ledger, it is also the case that modern ethics (think Kant, for example) also construed ethics chiefly as a matter of the individual will. A project undertaken by autonomous and rational actors without regard for moral and political communities. Political philosophy (Locke, et al) and economic theory (Smith, etc.) follow similar trajectories.

So, in theory (political, philosophical, and economic) the individual emerges as the basic unit of thought and action. At the center of this modern theoretical picture is a novel view of freedom as individual autonomy. The individual no longer bends their will to the shape of a moral and communal order; they now bend the world to the shape of their will.

In practice, material conditions, including new technologies, sustain and reinforce this theoretical picture. Indeed, the material/technological conditions likely preceded the theory. Moreover, technology evolves as a tool of empowerment that makes the new understanding of freedom plausible and seemingly attainable. Technology is thus not apprehended as an object of moral critique; it is perceived, in fact, as the very thing that will make possible the realization of the new vision of the good life, one in which the world is the field of our own self-realization.

While certain social and material realities were isolating and untethering the individual, by the mid-19th century technologies arose that were, paradoxically, embedding her in ever more complex technical systems and social configurations.

Paradoxically, then, the more we took for granted our own agency and assumed that technology was a neutral tool of the individual autonomous will, the more our will and agency was being compromised and distributed by new technologies.

Shortest version of the preceding: Material conditions untether the individual. Modern theoretical accounts frame this as a benign and desirable development. Under these circumstances, technology is unbridled and evolves to a scale that renders individual ethical action relatively inconsequential.

Moreover, the scale of these new technologies eclipsed the scale of local communities and traditional institutions. The new institutions that arose to deal with the new scale of operation were bureaucracies, that is to say that they themselves embodied the principles and values implicit in the emerging technological milieu.

It may be better, then, to say that it is the scale of new technologies that transcends the institutions and communities which are the proper sites for ethical reflection about technology. The governing instinct is to scale up our institutions and communities to meet the challenge, but this inevitably involves a reliance on the same technologies that generate the problems. It never occurs to us that the answer may lie in a refusal to operate at a scale that is inhospitable to the human person.

Something other than individual choices and laws are necessary. Something more akin to a renewal of cultural givens about what it means to be a human being and how the human relates to the non-human, givens which inform ethical choices and laws but cannot be reduced to either, and the emergence of institutions that embody and sustain individual lives ordered by these givens. It is hard, however, to see how these emerge under present circumstances.


*Throughout the post I use “modern” to refer to Western modernity emerging c. 1600 or so (which date is certainly subject to a great deal of debate).

3 thoughts on “Does Technology Evolve More Quickly Than Ethical and Legal Norms?

  1. Yes, the prior hollowing out of the relevant moral infrastructure. But your picture of what constitutes this hollowing out is problematic. At the center of the misconception as seen from the political left is the role of the individual in the development of technology. Your idea that “the individual no longer bends their [sic] will to the shape of a moral and communal order, they now bend the world to the shape of their will” does apply to the movers and shakers of technology from James Watt onward but this is an individualism that is itself hollowed out. Of course I am speaking of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It’s an individual that stands behind our current technological nightmare but an individual that has become imbued with what Nygren calls the spirit of agape. “Not I, but Christ lives in me.” This individual on the way to its self-realization has taken a detour from Dante’s noble project of banishing the group identity of the individual medieval mind and passed it through Luther’s repudiation of concupiscence. What is left? An instrumental man, a mere mold that takes its life-force from without and has no feeling for life as it is lived for itself. The embedding in ever more complex systems and social configurations embeds the individual in a collective ethos. Michael, look at Franklin Foer’s new book “World Without Mind” on how the hippie movement was commandeered by Stuart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalogue phenomenon;Foer demonstrates convincingly that the “community ethos” was the driving force in his initiation of this new technolgical phase now embodied in Facebook and Chartbeat.
    A renewal of cultural givens about what is means to be a human being must begin at the level of the individual–not Kant’s individual, to be sure. We are forever beyond any appeal to the old verities involving a fixed moral standard; moral reckoning without God as the standard is like dead reckoning, a reckoning without the fixed stars that formerly guided us. That ship foundered over a hundred years ago, and unless God is revived, there is no recalling this state of affairs. God cannot be revived. Reliance on Marx’s “Gattungswesen”, a latter-day attempt to reconstitute God, will only renew the awful dictum so deplored by Alcuin over a thousand years ago: “Vox populi est vox Dei.”

  2. I think your points here have a lot in common with the communitarian arguments put forward in recent years by Michael Sandel, Matthew Crawford and others (though Sandel aims at the market rather than tech, usually). In the U.S., tech, like space and the market before it, has become a means of avoiding our differences in order satisfy our individual inclinations (Go West young man – make your F U money). When I’m at my most cynical, I wonder whether democracy at this scale wouldn’t have come to crisis sooner without them.

    But I’d also want to note that, while certain perspectives in the ethics of technology have become harder to communicate, it’s also the case that many communities or groups for whom eithical issues are front and center have been bolstered or outright formed by the web. The fact that tech criticism has become a feature in so many mainstream publications is, I think, not only an indication of the increasing severity of our problems, but also the fact that many people concerned with social justice are finally seeing clearly the intersection between technology and their core concerns. That is to say, since social is as much the current paradigm for many political movements as it is for the big networks, it’s hard to imagine that some kind of compromise won’t eventually emerge (hopefully not just a semantic one).

    For instance, there are a lot of people making noise right now about discriminatory algorithms and manipulative design (seen this? https://jb-rubinovitz.ghost.io/dark-ux-and-health-insurance/). I’m confident some kind of regulation with evolve there, even if that doesn’t happen as soon as we’d wish.

    But as I think you’re homing in on here, it’s more difficult to communicate an ethical case surrounding the material and aesthetic conditions that shape our different values and visions of the good. Friedrich Kittler once used the phrase “symbolic bottleneck” to describe the way writing filtered orality. Similarly, I find it amazing how the current modes of communication leave so much of private experience inexpressible, unable to be argued for. How ironic that AI labored for decades under the faulty presumption that creating a general intelligence required programming in explicit rules, and yet it’s now human consciousness that must produce explicit proof of the existence and value of its own ways being-in-the-world in order not to have them overwritten or confiscated by automation?

    It’s easy for me to imagine a not-so-distant future where oppression is construed as being denied the latest line of post-human enhancements; indeed, it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t play out as a new kind of inequality. But at that point, won’t the marketing and the prevailing ideology have become synonymous: individual freedom as equality in integration (of or by) the next roll out?

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