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Morality by Design – Book 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.”

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