Wednesday 25 March 2015

A long-lost essay

In 2003, when I first got sick, I was at the beginning of a PhD in Green Chemistry at Carnegie Melon University in the US.  As part of this, I had to write an essay responding to a book arguing that humanity needed new ethics to deal with the new challenges posed by modern scientific developments.  I had long regretted that I didn't have a copy of this essay, so I was delighted to find it when we were clearing out our upstairs desk a few weeks ago.  I've reproduced it below, followed by a few comments.

Celebrating the goodness of God’s bounty: A Christian vision for the use of technology in the modern world

Les grandes personnes... ne vous questionnent jamais sur l’essentiel.

Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In the opening chapter of The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age Hans Jonas presents a case for the need to develop new ethics in order to deal with the new challenges presented by recent advances in technological capability.  However, whilst I agree that recent technological advances have had unforeseen consequences that have necessitated the posing of searching questions, I do not agree that all of the old ethical systems are inadequate to the task. I will thus present a summary of Jonas’ central arguments, followed by a brief discussion of these arguments from within the ethical framework of the Christian religious tradition.

Jonas begins his argument by analyzing the ethical systems of past eras. He sees in them a common theme of the constancy of nature: we can pit ourselves against nature and win temporary victories, or we can build for ourselves enclaves from nature in the form of cities, but these activities are played out against a backdrop of frail humanity contending with changeless nature. Nature is beyond our power to injure her, so our ethics need only consider intrahuman relationships, not our relationship to the natural world.

Secondly, the sphere of human influence in former times was narrowly circumscribed in time and space. This meant that it was possible to fully know the consequences of one’s actions and hence to accurately assess their morality. The merit of an action was assessed based on its immediate consequences. Even when people were making plans on behalf of future generations, the assumption remained that what was good for today would be good for tomorrow, and no one considered the possibility that the present could profoundly alter, let alone destroy, the future.

These points are illustrated by examples drawn primarily from Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment, with the assumption that they are common to all known ethical systems.

Finally, Jonas contends that the world has now changed. We can no longer assert that nature is constant – our sphere of influence extends to the whole world, nature is clearly vulnerable to our actions, and even the future is no longer safe from us. Moreover, as seen in advances in the fields of genetics, psychoactive medication and medicine in general, we now have an unprecedented ability to alter our own nature, yet no guiding principles by which to assess how this new power should be used.

Jonas concludes with the observations that these changes have given rise to a need for new ethics and new politics, and hints that the questions are metaphysical in nature and can possibly only be answered by religion.

I would strongly agree that the metaphysical nature of the questions raised should lead one to turn to religion, and I contend that the Christian religion can rise to this challenge.  Greek philosophy, which so profoundly influenced the western Enlightenment, looks only to humanity for answers and hence is by its very nature anthropocentric and strictly bounded in time and space, yet the Judeo-Christian tradition is wholistic and long-sighted.  What is needed in this post-modem, technology-rich age is not a new ethical system, but rather a fresh look at a centuries-old tradition of universal relevance.

Let us begin with a brief consideration of the central commandments of the Christian tradition, as recorded in Mark 12:29-31:
“The most important one... is this: . .. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Elsewhere, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), Jesus made it clear that the term ‘neighbour’ encompassed people who lived geographically distant, with whom one would normally have no contact and whom one despised. It did not merely refer to those who lived next door. It would seem logical in our current context to consider those in distant countries and those yet unborn as our neighbours in this Biblical sense.

Jesus commands his followers to treat all people with love: and Christian love, as is illustrated throughout the Bible, is primarily defined as seeking others’ highest good.  This is a principle adequate to the task of guiding the development of current and future technologies. Active areas of research should be chosen on what is most likely to lead to the greater good of all humanity, not on their intellectual curiosity value alone.

Of course, a researcher can never know in advance the results of their research, or to which unexpected applications their findings may be put. However, as Dürrenmatt famously explored in his play Die Physiker, to respond by assuming that we can work in a moral vacuum is madness. At the very least, we must continuously assess whether we are seeking to answer important questions, as defined within the paradigm of loving our neighbours as ourselves.

This leads to another important requirement for us as scientists:
What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

As scientists, we must be aware of our limitations. We have great power, but not ultimate power. We cannot create something from nothing, so we must be cautious of irreversibly altering our world.  Justice will lead us to consider the needs of all of humanity in our developments. Mercy will lead us in the West to consider the problems of Third World food security as we make advances in the agricultural sciences; the continuing epidemics of malaria in the tropics and polio and even bubonic plague in South America as we make advances in the pharmaceutical sciences and so on. And in all this we must also understand that we cannot fully know the consequences of our actions and hence neglect humility at our peril.

So far this discussion has centered on the way in which we use technology to treat our neighbours. Yet the Biblical tradition also guides our understanding of the natural world.  The key to that understanding is to be found in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.  Here it is affirmed that all of nature, including ourselves, is God’s creation. We are part of the same system as the animals and the trees and even the air and the water. The Christian tradition does not support Aristotle’s dichotomy between the baseness of nature and the superiority of man, and hence cannot see oil reserves or the genetic code of a cotton plant merely as resources at our disposal. Nature, in the Christian tradition, is to be treated with respect. St. Francis of Assisi captured this eloquently when he spoke of the birds as our ‘brothers’.

Yet Christianity does not concur with the Gaia mentality that contends that all is one and there is no distinction between us and the world around us. We have been placed above the rest of the natural order, to steward it and guide it, and to use its bounty for our good.  Thus Christianity affirms the use of technology.  It is not without significance that, whilst the Biblical story begins in a garden, it concludes with a vision of the kingdom of heaven as a city and speaks of the renewing of Jerusalem, the central city in the Biblical histories.  A city, as Jonas points out frequently in his book, is a human construct – the product of technology.  The pinnacle of human achievement is thus seen in human creativity – not merely in returning to a nineteenth century romanticized conception of nature.

Thus we are free to use the bounty of the natural world to create the products that we need, but we are not free to use this bounty wastefully or for ignoble ends, and we must not forget that nature itself has intrinsic worth. With this in mind, it seems wrong to burn highly precious non-renewable oil for transport when the sun provides us with ample energy, yet it seems entirely appropriate to use this same oil conservatively in closed-1oop systems where its unique properties are required. The “Cradle to Cradle” approach expounded by McDonough and Braungart explores this concept in some detail.

Yet Christianity also calls us beyond the narrow questions of whether an action is morally appropriate to larger questions of purpose and attitude. Beyond the question of “How can we sustain our current lifestyle without destroying the world for future generations?” to questions of “What kind of a world do we want to live in?” The Christian faith sees people as individuals within communities, and hence would call us to favour technological developments that support this reality. The assumption that a bigger house is a better house, for example, runs counter to the principle of fostering community, so finding ways to enable us all to live in big houses is inappropriate. We need to find new and creative ways to live, and technology has a key role to play in making this possible.

In all things we need to seek to make a positive difference: to move beyond the Hippocratic principle of ‘first do no harm’ to an affirming ‘first seek to do good’. Pushing the boundaries of the possible, in and of itself, is not adequate justification for doing something. Yet a realistic hope that a line of enquiry will lead to the possibility of a richer life, a more respectful use of natural resources, or a lessening of the distance between people either now or in the year 2500 should be justification enough.

We must not merely ask, with Jonas, what force shall represent the future in the present, but rather celebrate the goodness of the world that God has given to us and seek to live responsibly, lovingly and joyously in it: for our own sake, for the sake of the natural world, and for the sake of the generations yet unborn.

I'm pleased to have found it again!

They say that you develop most of your core values in your twenties.  I was a bit chagrined to find that this may well hold true for me.  I wrote this aged 26.  I'm 38 now and, while I'm living out these values in a different sphere these days, and while I probably have a better appreciation of the difficulty of getting this perspective widely accepted, on the whole, what I wrote then is what I think now...  In some ways that consistency is pleasing, but in other ways it'd be nice to think I'd learned more in the intervening years!

It was startling to see myself writing in such academic terms.  I was clearly heading towards being an 'intellectual' back then, with academic-style arguments and wide-ranging references.  It's sad to think that I don't have the mental acuity to write like that any more, or the mental energy to continue gathering such broad knowledge.  I'm not unhappy with who I am these days, but it's a bit sad to consider who I could have become if I hadn't got sick.

Part of the comment my lecturer, himself a Christian, made in his response to my essay was:
Unfortunately, the Christian institutions seem inadequate for steering even devout Christians effectively towards the questions you raise.  I agree with you that the case is there for the Judeo-Christian platform to support a redirecting of our civilisation's posture toward sustainability.  But the case must be analysed deeply and laid out convincingly, illuminating in the process at least as many of the challenges as Jonas' secular reasoning has highlighted.  And then it must prevail against the common prejudices of modern Christian institutions against all new thought – the veto of Clericism.
I see working towards that to be one of the main things I give my energy to these days: arguing and demonstrating that a concern for sustainability comes out of the Christian gospel, and persuading members of the church that we must live differently in order to truly love our neighbours.

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