By Lindiwe Dlamini: Founder & Managing Executive: EONIX PTY LTD.
Values and ethics should be the starting point behind the development of any new technology because they are shared and recognised human concepts, they are a significant part of our ‘Social Contract’. This paper is based on the ‘Utilitarian’ approach to ethics which supposes that conduct is right, fair, and balanced if it benefits the majority. That the greater the number of people who are happy and treated justly through an action or non-action, then conduct is right, and that should be the guiding principle behind understanding whether conduct is ethical.
The 4th Industrial Revolution threatens this order, and many other guiding principles for conduct such as values, norms, and ethics, indeed it is interesting to observe that history really does ‘repeat’ itself, because throughout the different phases of the industrial revolution the concern has always been how we can maintain our moral fabric at the levels I have mentioned above. As an example, R. Austin Freeman, wrote an article in 1923 titled, ‘Some Ethical Consequences of the Industrial Revolution’. In it he states, “The ethics of industry are in a state of progressive atrophy; and that atrophy dates from the moment when the natural conditions of industry were reversed in favour of a particular appliance. From that moment the honest service of the consumer has dwindled and given place to mere exploitation. And this ethical atrophy represents the subsidence to a lower level of essential civilization. For civilization, as we have agreed, is based upon the recognition by man of his duty towards his neighbor; of which none can be more obvious than that of honesty and fair dealing.” (R.A. Freeman, International Journal of Ethics, VOL.33, NO 4. (July 1923), pp 367-368, The University of Chicago Press.
Is Ethics the “Green” for the 4th and other Industrial Revolutions to come?
I have chosen to take the aforementioned approach and conceptualise it firstly in a series of questions followed by recommendations:
- How likely is technology of advancing or diminishing the quality of human life as we know it, and what assessment tools can be developed to understand this?
- What in the world of technology should or should not be done/encouraged in order that human life be protected?
- Values permeate our very existence, who we are, they provide us with guidance on what morality is or not, thereby providing direction on what is in our best interests. The question becomes, to what extent can technology disturb this equilibrium?
- The question on: if it is legal does it mean it is also ethical? is relevant in this context, especially in light of emerging theories around ‘ethics washing’, which is the idea that in the world of technological advancement, sometimes ethics might be used to bypass the law, and the resultant suggestions are, that maybe it would be better to legislate ethics, so that when there is a conflict. decisions can be based on clear guidelines. This of course would be in my opinion, extremely complex, because the very nature of ethics is heavily hinged on culture, hence its broad and diverse make up. Besides, once matters of morality and values become ‘rules based’ they turn into a tick box exercise and that diminishes their fabric.
- The debate on whether freedom is absolute? If technology is developed and implemented in the name of exercising ones’ freedom, are we assessing the harm or benefit it can have to others, are those others a majority or minority; and
- Are any disproportions that may be discovered examined in the context of everyone’s freedom, i.e. the vulnerable/disadvantaged and those in power and privileged?
- Does the judgement of experts in a field constitute the whole? Can these people represent all of us, in other words, would this be just and fair in the context of public/human benefit?
It seems we are placing far too much focus on being ‘less toxic’, ‘less unsafe’, ‘less unjust’, and so on. We need to rather focus on conducting ethics risk assessments that are focused on fostering and protecting a world that is diverse, safe, healthy, and fair. But how do we cut out all the noise, simplify the process, and achieve results for the whole?
Perhaps even though legislating ethics would be complex and difficult to monitor, we can still entrench responsible stewardship in our technology governance structures and guidelines, utilizing codes of good practice such as The King IV Code of Good Governance in our jurisdiction. Principle 2 of the Code deals with matters of ethics, and calls upon the appointment of a Social and Ethics Committee of the Board, I see this committee performing the duty of ‘honesty ambassadors’. In this respect, they would be charged with ensuring that technological advances are not to the detriment of many, e.g. those dealing with human life and the environment. A set of technology specific principles could be drawn up and housed under the Code.
Housing this ambassadorship under a formal framework such the King Code would empower the Social and Ethics Committee to monitor and report on the adherence of the principles.
I recommend the following principles that could underlie an assessment on the development of new technology:
- Public benefit – who will benefit or be harmed?
- Equality of opportunity- equal access to the benefits of technology.
- Distribution of power – all parties affected by a new technology should be equal participants on the debate on whether it is good for the whole.
- Norms – in the context of preserving human understanding of the individual in relation to the rest of the world, e.g. the debate on whether genetic engineering is de-sensitizing humans and the environment or helping humans reach their full potential.
- Responsible stewardship – as discussed above.