One of the more puzzling aspects of technology discourse that I encounter with some frequency is the tendency to oppose legal, political, and economic analysis of technology to ethical analysis. Maybe I’m the weird outlier on this matter, but I just don’t see how it is helpful or even ultimately tenable to oppose these two areas of analysis to one another. (Granted, I have my own reservations about “tech ethics” discourse, but they’re of a different sort.)
I think I understand where the impulse to oppose law, politics, and economics to ethics comes from. In its simplest form the idea is that ethics without legal, political, or economic action is, at best, basically a toothless parlor game. More likely, it’s a clever public relations scheme to put up a presentable front that shields a company’s depredations from public view.
This is fine, I get that. But the answer to this very real possibility is not to deprecate ethical reflection regarding technology as such. The answer, it seems to me, is to move on all fronts.
What exactly do we think we’re aiming to accomplish with law, regulation, and economic policy anyway if not acting to address some decidedly ethical concern regarding technology? Law, regulation, and policy is grounded in some understanding of what is right, what is ethical, what is humane—in short, what ought to be. It’s not clear to me how such determinations would not be improved by serious and sustained reflection on the ethical consequences of technological change. If you set aside serious reflection on the ethics of technology, it’s not as if you get to now properly focus on the more serious work of law and policy apart from ethics; you simply get to work on law and policy from a more naive, uninformed, and unacknowledged ethical foundation.
(As an example of the sort of work that does this well, consider Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann’s Reengineering Humanity. Their book blends ethical/philosophical and legal/political analysis in a way that recognizes the irreducible interrelations among these fields of human experience.)
Moreover, most of us would agree that law and public policy do not and decidedly should not entirely encompass the whole scope of a society’s moral and ethical concerns. There is an indispensable role to be played by norms and institutions that exist outside the scope of law and government. It is unclear to me how exactly these norms and institutions are to evolve so as to more effectively promote the health of civil society and private life if they are not informed by the work of scholars, journalists, educators, and writers who deliberately pursue a better understanding of technology’s ethical and moral consequences. Technology’s moral and ethical consequences far exceed the scope of law and public policy; are we to limit our thinking about these matters to what can be addressed by law and policy? Might it not be that possible that it is precisely these morally formative aspects of contemporary technology that have already compromised our society’s capacity to enact legal and political remedies?
Perhaps the very best thing we can do now is to focus on the hard, deliberate work of educating and building with a view not to our own immediate future but to the forthcoming generations. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in another age, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating.”
(For a good discussion of Bonhoeffer’s view explicitly applied to our technological predicament, see Alan Jacobs’s reflections here.)
Lastly, while we wait for better policies, better regulations, better laws to address the worst excesses of the technology sector, what exactly are individuals supposed to do about what they may experience as the disordering and disorienting impact of technology upon their daily lives? Wait patiently and do nothing? Remain uninformed and passive? Better, I say, to empower individuals with legal protections and knowledge. Encourage action and reflection: better yet, action grounded in reflection.
Yes, by all means let us also resist the cheap instrumentalization of ethics and the capture of ethical reflection by the very interests that ought to be the objects of ethical critique and, where appropriate, legal action. But please, let’s dispense with the rhetorical trope that opposes ethical reflection as such to the putatively serious work of law and policy.