Morality by Design: technology’s challenge to human values

The introduction:

How do you build a utopia? What does it take to construct the best of all possible worlds? Thomas More chose the name Utopia (in Greek, it means no-place) for the ideal society he described in his Renaissance masterpiece of 1516, written as a young man long before he served as Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII (and was beheaded for his trouble). The book was a visionary critique of fractious English society which More described as a “conspiracy of the rich,” in which the “greedy, unscrupulous and useless” lived off the labour of others. In Utopia, he sketched a form of radical socialism as the solution to the inequities he saw around him. In his imaginary island society, communal farms shared their surpluses, and hours of work were kept to a minimum in order to allow plenty of time for leisure and education. Human dignity took precedence over money and prestige, and laws were so simple that there was no need for lawyers.

A hundred years later, a new era had dawned in Europe, bringing with it radical new ways of thinking about truth and meaning, and a very different utopia was envisioned by a new breed of the political and economic thinkers. It would be based on revolutionary new rationalist, scientific ideals as opposed to the “outdated” philosophies of Greece and Rome that had inspired More and his Renaissance peers. Like today’s Silicon Valley idealists, these Enlightenment theorists hoped to create a more perfect world through the power of pure reason unencumbered by irrational religious belief and speculative moral theory, a power made concrete and activated through science and technology.

The Enlightenment world-view would eventually lead us to our current reality, justly celebrated for stupendous material wealth and astounding scientific and technical progress on all fronts. But accompanying these achievements, entwined with them, are monumental environmental catastrophes, and a disturbing moral ethos in which human beings are reduced to the status of “consumers,” “human resources,” and “human capital.”


In trying to create a more perfect world, a handful of brilliant, well-intentioned economic and political thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries set in motion dynamics that have led to a global economy ruled over by gargantuan, machine-like business corporations, which treat humanity as a renewable natural resource, a means to material ends.

In the “more perfect” world that has evolved out of these early rationalist ideas, the processes of automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence are pushing more and more people into precarious, part-time work, while most of the wealth generated by the resultant efficiencies goes to a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority.

The system has begun to feed on those it was created to serve. Having despoiled much of the planet through reckless economic expansion and ruthless exploitation of natural resources, it is now turning to humans themselves to supply the raw material of continued growth. Technology has invaded social relations, inserting itself between the flesh-and-blood people of communities and mediating their communication for profit. The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil—it’s data:data about all sorts of things and processes, but mostly about people, our tastes and interests, our likes and dislikes, our entertainment preferences and shopping habits, our online activities. [1] That data is collected from our phones and computers, our wristwatches and our cars and even from our robotic vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. Much of it is proffered by us voluntarily, as we take advantage of “free” social media platforms to communicate with one another.

In this context, the term “human resources,” a 20th century coinage, takes on new and ominous meaning: each of us has a new kind of commodity-value that is wrapped up in the data trail we produce as we go about our lives within the information ecosystem, using our ever-smarter digital devices. As that ecosystem expands continuously to occupy more and more life-space, the tyranny of convenience ensures that we relinquish more and more privacy and autonomy as we generate the raw resource that is the lifeblood of the new digital economy.[2] The digital economy is becoming a vast dairy farm, in which humans are the profit-generating livestock.

In the information economy, we ourselves—our bodies, our genes, our amusements, our relationships, and most of all, our attention—are the golden fleece out of which capital is spun. At the same time on-the-job conditions for workers are steadily deteriorating, with longer and longer hours, precarious employment, just-in-time scheduling, low pay, and relentless electronic surveillance causing an epidemic of stress-related mental and physical illness.[3] As we become justifiably alarmed at the depletion, exhaustion, and pollution of the natural resources that fueled the genesis of market capitalism, we might well ask: does the same fate await us, as human resources? Do information theory and computer-based technologies, operating in a market-capitalist environment, threaten human sustainability? Was there a fatal flaw built into ideas of those early economists and political thinkers who bequeathed to us ‘scientific’ market capitalism and its ideological justifications?


These issues are raised afresh in today’s excited talk of “the singularity,” that epoch-making moment in human history, coming sometime in mid-century according to futurist Ray Kurzweil and others, when machine super-intelligence outstrips human capacities and starts running things—a dystopic, and in my view preposterous, vision in which humanity is reduced to serfdom in the service of technological systems to which they ceded control. Alternatively, what are we to make of the ‘optimistic’ proselytizers of trans-humanism, the genetic engineers who ardently advocate a technologically-perfected human race, super-brainy, disease-free, perfectly socialized?

As we struggle to cope with the terrible toll our economic successes have taken on the natural environment, we are now forced to deal with another, unexpected set of issues. The question facing us is: what is it about being human that we want to preserve, to protect from the seductions of technology and the market? What, exactly is at risk when we deploy engineering strategies to “improve” humanity and its social environment? What might a “perfected” human being be like? What limits should be imposed on the infiltration and manipulation of human activity by machine intelligence?

As is the case with more traditional environmental issues, these are moral questions, difficult and time-consuming to wrestle with. They demand both philosophical scrutiny and extended political debate. Unfortunately, we have all but lost the vocabulary of moral discourse, and consequently have little confidence in our ability to make sound moral judgments, for reasons these essays explore. Meanwhile, the trans-humanists, for their part, are offering up a shining path to a near-future in which people are stronger, healthier, more perfectly formed, more intelligent, perhaps even immortal. A future in which perceived human frailties and shortcomings have been transcended and utopia is finally realized. All we have to do is carry on with the status quo, standing aside to allow instrumental reason to continue to work the mechanical magic we have learned to call “progress.” It’s a lopsided contest.

The purpose of this volume is to provide, in an informal way, some of the relevant context for this necessary debate, and some of the language and tools of contemporary moral philosophy that can help make sense of the issues. In particular, it provides an introduction to an approach to moral reflection and discourse called critical moral realism, that is both as old as philosophy and as relevant as the latest speculations in quantum physics. Along the way, it will exhume and dust off some remarkably persistent ideas that have been deposited in the sediments of conventional wisdom across four hundred years of Western history. Although these ideas continue to animate (one might say, infect) the liberal capitalist democracies of today, the moral and historical contexts that spawned them are seldom examined. That needs to change. If we are to avoid being railroaded into a future in which what is best in humanity is sacrificed on the altar of an irresponsible, thoughtless pursuit of the technologically possible, which we mistakenly call progress.

[1]  The Economist, May 26, 2017.

[2] That economy is dominated just five corporations: Alphabet, Google’s parent company, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft—the most valuable publicly-traded companies in the world.

[3] Jeffrey Pfeiffer, Dying for a Paycheck (Harper Collins, 2018)

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