A Covid-19 introduction to Morality by Design: Technology’s Challenge to Human Values

Morality By Design was published in November, 2019, about the same time as scientists in Wuhan, China, discovered a novel coronavirus that would come to be identified by the name COVID-19, and in coming months sweep the world as a pandemic. Had the book been published a few months later, this is the preface I might have written for it.

It is impossible to write about ethics in this chaotic time, without making some reference to the COVID-19 pandemic. Or to the massive social justice demonstrations that broke out in the midst of the global health crisis, provoked initially by the viral video depicting the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

What connects these two, apparently distinct, categories of concern is the fact that both have involved the undeniable, in-your-face exposure of basic failures of globalized, liberal-capitalist, democratic society. It has been a one-two gut punch to rich-country complacency.

The pandemic’s onset made us realize that we humans owe our well-being, and our greatest achievements, not to austere, self-serving, individual endeavour, as the libertarian folklore of rags-to-riches success tells us, but to convivial membership in our highly social, co-operative and empathetic human community.

To curb the spread of the coronavirus and limit its toll, what was required of us was painful self-sacrifice in the form of sudden, deliberate economic disruption and social isolation. People the world over accepted the hardship in order to, yes, protect themselves and their family and friends from infection, but also to protect the health of total strangers within and far beyond their neighbourhoods. In that context, the seemingly trite slogan, “We’re all in it together,” took on real meaning. The wearing of masks symbolized this: inconvenient and socially awkward, they protect the wearer far less than they protect others nearby from the wearer. Because it is a feature of this particular virus that none of us can know for certain from one day to next whether we’re a carrier, and thus a spreader.

People have called the pandemic “apocalyptic” in its impact, and that is exactly the right word. Because apocalypse, in its original Greek root, means an uncovering of something that had been hidden, or concealed.

When governments around the world were forced to put their national economies into an imposed state of suspended animation, they shut down all but what they deemed to be essential services, while dictating self-isolation of all but essential workers.

We learned from these draconian measures that “essential workers,” apart from front-line medical professionals and emergency responders, are typically at or near the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder. They are poorly paid, precariously employed, and unfairly treated in their working conditions. Delivery people, supermarket cashiers, warehouse clerks, long-haul truck drivers, transit drivers, slaughterhouse workers, migrant farm workers, workers in long-term care facilities for the elderly. They are disproportionately female, foreign-born, and poor; people of colour tend to be overrepresented. By remaining on the job throughout the pandemic they exposed themselves to risk and they paid an enormous price in illness and death.

It is sadly ironic that the inequities and injustices exposed by the COVID apocalypse are identical to those that have always accompanied endemic racism. They add up to an institutional blindness to the desperate circumstances of society’s most vulnerable: the poor, the old, the sick, the disabled, and the minimally educated—and a wilful ignorance of the ugly facts of white privilege, racist bigotry, and the long, ugly history of slavery and colonialism.

What both the virus and the human rights demonstrations have forced us to attend to are moral failures. And they are the result of systemic, institutional problems with the way we’ve chosen to organize the world we live in—our social and especially our economic environment. The failures can be traced to misconceived ideas about human nature that were hatched by a handful of influential European philosophers, in what historians call the Enlightenment or “early Modernism,” a time of burgeoning capitalism, and imperialism, and naïve overconfidence in the power of science to remake the world as a utopian paradise.

In retrospect, it is clear that foundational Enlightenment thinkers, especially the Classical economists, were wrong in their assumptions about the essentials of human nature , and perhaps even more seriously, about the nature of knowledge itself. The great philosophical failure of Modernism is that, at its roots, there is a misunderstanding of what constitutes reliable knowledge; facts of the kind necessary to construct an intelligible and humane world.

The result has been that a great deal of what we think we know, we only half-know. And that’s because in the Modern era we define fact exclusively as that which is “objectively” or scientifically provable. That’s in contrast to insights or intuitions we all have about reality that are related to value—to good and bad, to right and wrong—perceptions that are too easily dismissed as “subjective” and not “factual,” and therefore not to be trusted.

But on closer examination, neither body of information can be complete and reliable without due deference of the other. Fact and value are inseparably entwined.

This raises obvious questions for a twenty-first century reader: we are all taught in school how to establish scientific fact, but how are we to go about determining the validity, the veracity, of value judgements? What’s the process? Can it even be done?

Here’s a hint: moral facts are similar to objective or scientific facts in that they are, by definition, reliable and true. They can stand up to rigorous, sustained examination. But moral facts are distinctive in that they demand of the inquirer that he or she take some action: detect an injustice, for example, and you are obliged to act, to try to do something about it. That may well be the principle reason for our preference for marginalizing moral issues, assigning them to the automatic processes of institutions like the capitalist market economy, or to individual or ethnic or racial “shortcomings.” It lets us off the hook.

If we are to reform the human environment in sustainable ways, to provide fundamental justice to the most vulnerable among us, to the economically and politically disenfranchised, we need to engage deeply in moral discourse. It will be important for all of us to be speaking the same language. We will need to be fluent in the half-forgotten vocabulary of ethics, and pay attention to the neglected processes of making moral judgements that will stand the test of time.

A desire to try to contribute to that conversation in a concise and philosophically sound way is what prompted me to write Morality by Design.