What does your work reveal about technology that other academics, citizens, or engineers typically fail to appreciate?
I’ll focus on ordinary citizens, rather than academics or engineers, in answering this question. As I said in response to the previous question, ethical judgments tend to be resistant to change. Therefore our judgments often do not handle technological change well.
But there are interesting differences in the various areas I mentioned above, and it isn’t always clear why. Take new reproductive technology. Most people think that it is a good thing if couples who want to have a child are able to have one. Religious organizations, in particular, regard marriage as something to be cherished, and they see its functon as procreation. So you would think that when a new technology develops that makes it possible for infertile couples to have children, they would approve. But many of them do not. The Roman Catholic church, for example, focuses on the fact that the child was not produced by sexual intercourse, and rejects in vitro fertilization.
On the other hand, in the case of the definition of death, the same religious bodies effectively handed the decision over to the medical profession. This is curious, because it is not as if there were any new medical or scientific discovery made regarding death. All that happened was that doctors developed criteria that showed that certain patients, whose brain function had ceased, would never recover. But their hearts were still beating, their skin remained pliable, their bodies warm to the touch. In effect the doctors were saying: “Here are some human beings who are, now, considered alive. They are very severely injured and will never recover. We think it would be better if they were considered dead, so that we could cut them open, and give their organs to strangers.” And the churches and so-called “pro-life” groups said “OK,” Isn’t that amazing? In this case it seems that the life-saving benefits of the organ transplants, and the futility of using advanced medical technology to keep alive patients who would never recover consciousness, were just too clear for them to resist. But of course they didn’t say that. Instead they rationalized the decision in a variety of ways that, as I have shown in detail in a book called Rethinking Life and Death, simply do not hold up.
The technology used to produce food tends to be ignored. People focus on the product – the pork chop, the eggs – and see it as the same thing, even if the pigs and hens have lived very different lives and the implications for environmental sustainability have changed drastically. That attitude needs to be changed.
What, if any, practical and/or social-political obligations follow from studying technology from a philosophical perspective?
This is exactly what my work focuses on. The implications are vast. Thomas Aquinas has been the dominant philosophical influence on the Roman Catholic Church for the past five centuries. He’s normally thought of as a very conservative figure.
In Aquinas’s time – the thirteenth century – the Church helped the poor of each parish by collecting a tithe from the rich – ten percent of their income was supposed to go to support the poor. But now that technology has extended the reach of our ability to help the poor, even the Church fails to take seriously the views of its own greatest philosopher. Yet the gap between the rich citizens of affluent nations and the 1.2 billion people living below the poverty line set by the World Bank is so vast that it would take much less than a tenth of the income of the rich to eliminate most of the poverty in the world. Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist, has estimated that it might take as little as 0.6% - just 60 cents in every $100 we earn. Maybe it will be twice or even five times that amount, but even that would only be 3% of our income. I would argue that our obligations extend at least to that.
I also think we have an obligation to be more conscious of the difference that technology makes to the ethics of what we eat, both in regard to the treatment of animals, and in regard to sustainability. For instance, there has been a strong recent move to eat food that is locally produced, rather than imported long distances. That is itself a response to the technology of cheap transport, usually by road, which means that the average item on an American’s plate has traveled about 1500 miles to get there. That has environmental costs, of course, because it takes a lot of fossil fuel to move it those distances, and that means a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. So eating locally is normally a good thing. But not always. If you live in Connecticut and eat locally-produced tomatoes in June, they will have been grown in a greenhouse, and the oil used to heat the greenhouse could have been used to truck them up from Florida. Similarly, because rice grown in California uses a lot of energy, and transport by ship is very energy-efficient, compared to road and air transport, Californians may do better for the planet if they buy rice from Bangladesh rather than rice grown in their own state.