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Book Reviews of Morality by Design

Morality By Design by Wade Rowland
Morality By Design by Wade Rowland

Review by Literary Review of Canada:

“Wade Rowland’s Morality by Design is also a cri de coeur, a kind of twenty-first-century Ten Commandments. Human morality ought to inform technological design, Rowland ­contends, so that it has known and knowable limits. There should be instinctual oversight of digital endeavours — by virtue of virtue itself.

The book is beautifully written, with sparingly few platitudes. And Rowland, a communications scholar from York University, has put his finger on the type of response that almost always surfaces when technological achievement outpaces our sense of how best to apply new techniques and methodologies. Think of recombinant DNA technologies and the genomic revolution: because we could, we did things (and still do) that, whether by design or not, delimited a new sense of what it means to be human. We’re still working out the consequences of the Crick-Watson-­Franklin-­Wilkins discovery of DNA structure a lifetime ago. We’re simply incapable of digesting such advances overnight. They require massive adaptive resources and time — gobs of it.

Right now in Silicon Valley, managers of the big tech companies are striking committees to address, in part, what Rowland is rightly demanding: an ethical framework for ­engineering design, as if human beings truly matter. Rowland might well approve of these attempts at self-­reflection in the digital heartland: he cogently argues that we all need to undertake ethical decisions out of our own right reason — our innate moral infrastructure, to borrow from Bruder.

His approach is eerily close to the thinking of the Yale University atheist and ethicist Martin Häggland, who also reasons that a moral approach to designing a life can be derived from first principles. Häggland’s central notion is that if there’s no afterlife, we’re actually in a better position — under a greater imperative — to treat one another as we ourselves would like to be treated. The approaches dovetail; Rowland’s chapter on the “alchemy of capitalism,” in particular, is a stellar exegesis on why human failings need not lead — linearly, if at all — to human failure in how we collectively create value.

We can reason our way to a better solution, less noxious, more humane. The question, for Rowland, is whether we have the effort and discipline required: an amalgam of reason and passion, of political acumen and empathy.”

Bristol: Intellect, 120 pp.,
ISBN 978-1-78938-1-238, p/bk, $24
Reviewed by Lynne Heller, Adjunct Professor, OCAD University

Author Wade Rowland, a professor emeritus from York University, Toronto, Canada titled this book of eleven short essays Morality by Design. However, it was the subtitle – Technology’s Challenge to Human Values – that intrigued me and prompted this review. It is impossible not to wonder about morality and who we are as human beings in the face of overwhelming hype/fear/enchantment with artificial intelligence and technology. This ramp up Rowland claims has brought us to ‘an alarming moral ethos’ (2).

Interestingly, the text does not discuss technology nearly as much as one would imagine given the subtitle. It is a book about the history of science and religion and more specifically about the religiosity of science.

The book’s subject matter is weighty – the author takes us on a historical tour of philosophy, economics, law, sociology, amongst other disciplines – but the treatment is bite-sized. He structures the book by linked essays that are then further broken down into numbered sections. The writing is accessible even for someone, such as myself, who only has a passing familiarity with the moral philosophy that underpins the text. Rowland was, before becoming an academic, a journalist and perhaps this accounts for his ability to distill complex arguments. This skill makes what could be a tough slough through moral philosophy quite digestible. Given a distracted schedule, I could easily pick up the book for short bits of time and still stay tuned to his arguments.

Rowland’s approach is to investigate the trajectory that has led to technological dominance through a canon of thinkers such as Plato,  Socrates, St. Augustine, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Charles Darwin, Baruch Spinoza, René Descartes and Adam Smith. His latter day references include Michael Polanyi and John Rawls. This book takes up questions that Rowland has pondered before in titles such as Galileo’s Mistake where he argued, as he does in this book, that science cannot provide ‘truth’ but rather only models for reality. He contends that science itself was shaped in the image of religion.

The writing reinforced some knowledge I had previously, the history of the industrial revolution, the rise of liberalism and individualism, is well trod ground, but it gave me pause to consider how fundamental the ‘belief’ in science has become. I resisted his suggestion that the ‘[…] great defect of science […] is its refusal to accept that the knowledge it provides is incomplete’ (104). I don’t believe that scientists would claim any such thing. I believe most scientists are humbled by their lack of knowledge. But the operative word in those last two sentences is ‘believe’. Am I so much a product of the scientific revolution that it is the prism that makes all things scientific, and technological, look brilliant? I do resist his suggestion that ‘old-fashioned religious morality with its quaint notions of justice and equity, vice and virtue’ (103) has something to offer us. To be fair, I did take this snippet out of context but it still stands that religion might have been the dominant means historically for humanity to regulate the morality we need to exist together, but there are always new inventions, technologically and morally. Perhaps it is not a case of either/or, only religion or science.

Rowland tackles the crux of the matter of morality within a capitalistic system throughout, but most succinctly in the chapter, ‘The tragedy of the commons’. He considers capitalism to be the driver for technological advancement, a claim that is obvious but also does not address the larger question of human development and continuity. Our fascination with making work and labour easier long predates the enlightenment. Nonetheless, he addresses a central conceit of capitalism, which is that financial well-being can be aligned with virtue. Ultimately, his answer is no, though he does suggest that ‘fake virtue is better than nothing’ (70), but only to illustrate the point that corporations have all the societal benefits of individuals but none of the responsibility.

This was a good read, helpful and provoking. Though I remain unconvinced of Rowland’s central tenet that critical moral realism can ‘[…] reunite moral and scientific knowledge’ (104), I quite enjoyed contemplating morality rather than fetishizing technology for a change.