The irreducible tension between technology and morality

My university has just announced the launch of a new Centre for Technomoral Futures.  The announcement lays out an agenda boldly.  The new centre

… focuses on integration of the technological and ethical … as a groundbreaking initiative to design more sustainable, just and ethical models of innovation. … that unifies technical and moral expertise.

The Centre’s unique mission is driven by the insight that effective design and governance of today’s increasingly complex social systems demands a fuller integration of technical and moral knowledge than is possible in traditional academic structures, where these typically develop in isolation from one another.”

However… as I was saying to a large class of first year students only a few months ago, when studying social change, the relationship between technology (and science) and morality, raises some vexing questions.  It may take more than fusing them together in the word ‘technomoral’ to really grapple with the abiding tensions between them.  But attention to those tensions may provide some insight into the actual scope of human knowledge, and the reasons that different traditions of human inquiry follow different paths.

When discussing processes of social change in the modern world, it is almost a truism that advances in technology and their impacts on human productivity and social organisation take pride of place in any explanation.  While Karl Marx’s narrative of inevitable transcendence of class conflict has taken a drubbing, his techno-economic determinism has become widespread common sense, whether one is inspired or dismayed by the fact.  Many idealists still hope for social transformation through a renovation of values, but the more sober among us worry that the march of technology sets an irresistible and amoral drumbeat.  Hence the anxious call for ‘moral expertise’ to ‘keep up’ with ‘technical expertise’.

But what if it just doesn’t work like that?  What if this construction is naïve?

Anyone observing the patterns of development and institutional memory of the various fields of practice and academic disciplines that make up modern universities will be struck by a conspicuous contrast. 

The progress of knowledge that closely serves the development of ‘hard’ science and technological intervention in the material world, has a shallow memory.  While in reflective moments the deep history of science is contemplated (look how far we’ve come!), in practice, innovation is produced by scrutinising the status quo of any science or technology, looking for ways to turn it into the status quo ante.  The aim is to render previous knowledge defunct.  Those studying a science focus on getting beyond ‘the state of the art’. 

By contrast, disciplines such as moral and political philosophy, endlessly recur to the insights of thinkers who lived hundreds, even thousands of years ago.  Whatever innovations in moral theory come along, they seemingly fail to make fundamental progress.  If science forgets its past, or remembers only dimly, moral thought remembers with a vengeance.  It wanders afar only to keep ending up back where it started. 

This is neither praise for science and technology, nor condemnation of morality.  It is an observation.  We can visualise the contrast like this, with time advancing along two diverging axes:

What’s more, we can usefully imagine other academic disciplines as evolving somewhere between these two diverging paths. Thus, the discipline of economics tends to be highly sensitive to the effects of techno-scientific innovation and driven in its methods by new mathematical and computational techniques; while the discipline of law stays closer to the perennial problems of morality, as it concerns the state’s need to impose a unified moral order:

And other social sciences and humanities, such as sociology, might be viewed as variously caught in the middle-path between these two, trying to make sense of both the undeniable march of material change, and the endless recursion to unchanging human universals:

My point is that some aspects of the human condition change with increasing rapidity, and others at a snail’s pace, if at all.  Regardless of how much we might want morality to keep pace with technology, it probably can’t.  But a multi-speed world is a much more interesting world, as well as being more realistic.

The path of human social evolution, of growing scale and complexity of social relations, is fundamentally caught in this tension.  100,000 years ago anatomically modern humans lived a remarkably constant way of life, both technologically and morally, in very small, face-to-face groups of highly interdependent individuals.  But about 10,000 years ago we started domesticating plants and animals, about 5,000 years ago we began forming early states, and in the last 500 years industrialisation, capitalism and bureaucracy have transformed global society.  The tension I am discussing only became an issue in the last 5% of our specie’s history, precisely because something sent technologies and their attendant forms of knowledge on an accelerating journey.   But human morality was formed in that initial state, and remains bound to it.  As the evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello[1] and colleagues have argued, we are designed by nature to recognise the autonomous individual consciousness of others so we can cooperate and communicate with them in survival tasks.  And as members of small societies that must also survive together, we developed morality, a sensitivity to the evaluation of our peers, to keep each other in line, and cooperating. 

Fundamentally, morality is not an invention or a discovery, or a developing body of expertise, it is part of our genetic endowment, built into our social natures.  But it was originally ‘designed’ for a small-scale society, that has increasingly been subsumed into ever larger forms of society, made possible by new technologies.  Technology driven growth in social scale has posed a permanent challenge for moral order, which we must respect, reflect on, and work with, because it cannot be solved.


[1] Tomasello, M. (2016) A Natural History of Human Morality, Cambridge, MA and London: University of Harvard Press.  Note that this perspective was anticipated by the theories of sympathy and moral sentiment pioneered in the Scottish Enlightenment by David Hume and Adam Smith.

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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