Ethics in an Age of TechnologyEthics in an Age of Technology
Ian Barbour

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Advances in technology are often seen as a wholly good thing, and one can't deny that technology has helped numerous people. But while technology has improved food production and health, and raised living standards, it has also created weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, biological) and caused environmental disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl meltdown. Thus it is imperative that the growth in technology always be grounded with a moral and ethical anchor. Ian Barbour takes on the task of formulating that anchor by developing an ethic that can assess and redirect technology to its proper ends in Ethics in an Age of Technology.

In the first part of the book, Barbour investigates different views about technology, ranging from technology as liberator, to technology as threat, to technology as an instrument of power. He also looks at human and environmental values and their relation to to technology (science), philosophy and religion, arguing that, in the end, the Christian ethic and worldview offers the best and most distinct answer. In the second part, Barbour focuses on three key technologies: agriculture, energy, and computers. He assesses how all three technologies can be used for the greatest good, arguing in terms of sustainability, renewability and social impact. The third part of the book focuses on the future of technology, and the incredible potential for both good and evil inherent in technological advances. He looks at environmental degradation, and how it can be slowed and reversed. He also looks at genetic engineering and nuclear weapons. His focus is on the proper control of technology, through the government, along with proper risk and cost-benefit analysis, and argues that we need to redirect technology with a view toward ethics, values and sustainability.

Barbour is a Christian and a scientist, which makes him uniquely qualified to discuss the ethics of technology. His thorough understanding of the issues, and his passion to influence those issues in an ethical manner combine to create a readable and practical book, which will shape the face of technological ethics. And his call for Christians to lead the ethical assault on technology cannot be ignored.
     

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From the preface to Ethics in an Age of Technology, by Ian Barbour.


The first volume in this series [Gifford Lectures] examined the challenges to religion presented by the methods and theories of science. This second volume deals with the challenges to ethics arising from technology and applied science. Since the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, it has been widely assumed that science-based technology would automatically lead to progress and improvement in human life. Modern technology has indeed brought increased food production, improved health, higher living standards, and better communications. But its environmental and human costs have been increasingly evident.

During the 1980s, the Challenger space shuttle explosion, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the Bhopal chemical disaster, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill remind us that large-scale systems are vulnerable to human errors and technical malfunctions with far-reaching consequences. But most of the harmful impacts of technology came from the normal operations of agricultural and industrial systems that deplete our resources and pollute our air, water, and land. Chemical-intensive agriculture has raised productivity, but it has also led to extensive water pollution. Fossil fuels put huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, threatening worldwide disruption from global warming. Toxic chemical wastes are starting to contaminate water supplies in many countries. Continued population growth is accelerating environmental damage and the depletion of resources.
The human impacts of technology are no less dramatic. Family farms are replaced by large, mechanized corporate farms. Machine-tool operators are replaced by automated machines. Efficiency and productivity are commendable goals, but they tend to crowd out consideration of meaningful work and participation in decisions on the job. Moreover, the benefits of technology fall very unevenly. Disparities between rich and poor around the world are growing. Some nations have crop surpluses, while a billion people are malnourished, more than ever before in history. According to the UNICEF report, State of the World's Children 1992, 250,000 children die every week from hunger and easily preventable diseases. Despite the end of the Cold War, a large fraction of the world's research is still devoted to military technology. The threat of nuclear war continues to hang over humanity as additional nations seek nuclear weapons.

Six themes recur throughout the volume:
  1. Impacts Distant in Space and Time. Acid rain from German factories harms Scandinavian forests; coal-burning plants in the United States damage Canadian lakes and trees. Brazil clears rain forests in order to export timber and beef to industrial countries, leading to the extinction of thousands of rare species that are an irreplaceable genetic heritage and a potential source of new medications. Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants released in any nation deplete the ozone layer, subjecting people half a world away to more solar radiation that causes skin cancer. Radioactive wastes from today's nuclear power plants will endanger anyone exposed to them ten thousand years from now. Genetic engineering of germ-line cells in plants, animals and human beings will affect generations far into the future. We are acquiring powers of life and death far beyond those of any previous generation. We face unprecedented choices for which traditional ethics give us little guidance. The evaluation of technology today must be global, anticipatory, and interdisciplinary.
  1. Inequitable Distribution of Costs and Benefits. Frequently one group benefits from a technology while other groups bear the brunt of the risks and indirect costs. A chemical plant may benefit consumers and stockholders, while its effluents, emissions, and toxic wastes put local citizens at risk. Giant tomato harvesters bring profits to food processing companies and large landowners, but smallholders lose their land and farm workers lose their jobs. Biotechnology research is directed mainly to the diseases of affluent societies, while tropical diseases affecting far larger populations are neglected. Computers and information are sources of social power, and access to them varies greatly within nations and between nations. Technology has contributed to the enormous disparities between rich and poor countries. One U.S. citizen consumes as much of the world's limited resources as fifty citizens of India.


  2. The Concentration of Economic and Political Power. Technology is both a product and an instrument of social power. It tends to reinforce existing social structures. In the Third World, the Green Revolution favored large landowners who could afford tractors and fertilizer, and this led to the further concentration of land ownership. In Western nations, absentee or corporate farm ownership is common, and food processing companies sometimes control the whole food cycle: farm inputs, crop or feedlot contracts, processing, marketing, and restaurant chains. Economic power translates into political power through lobbying and election campaign contributions. Strong lobbies have promoted policies and subsidies favorable to oil, coal, and nuclear power, while solar energy and conservation measures have received little support from industry. Large-scale capital-intensive technologies require large investments and the centralization of management, making participation by workers and regulation by legislatures more difficult.
  1. Manipulative Attitudes. A more subtle danger is the extension of technological attitudes to all of life until human beings and other creatures are treated as objects to be exploited and controlled. It is easier to seek technical fixes for social problems than to ask whether major changes in social institutions are needed. When a legitimate interest in material progress becomes an addictive consumerism, human experience is impoverished and community life and personal relationships are eroded. Humility and respect for nature are left behind in the quest for unlimited power. Genetic modification of animals can benefit humanity, but it can also lead us to view them as mere commodities for our use. Some people are already talking about going beyond the cure of genetic diseases to redesign human beings. As more intelligent computers are built, we are beginning to think of ourselves as nothing but information processors. Feminists have pointed out that technology has been a predominantly male enterprise and that in our culture men are identified with reason and mastery--to the exclusion of intuition and the nurture of relationships, which are assumed to be characteristic of women.


  2. The Redirection of Technology. Some social analysts accept technological determinism, the thesis that technology determines social change and society simply responds to its demands. I reject this view and argue that technology is always a social construction. Technological designs are not inevitable; they are the product of choices by individuals and organizations. Even though industrial corporations and government bureaucracies have great political power, citizens in a democracy can influence public policies through elected representatives, court challenges, advisory panels, and environmental and public interest groups.

    Half the world's scientists and engineers today are employed in defense-related research, and many of the remainder are working on projects that will provide luxuries for the privileged. I will urge the redirection of technology to basic human needs, especially food, health, and shelter. If a quarter of the trillion dollars spent annually on arms around the world were put into sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, reforestation, and family planning, the prospects for human welfare and the global environment would be dramatically transformed. In many situations, decentralized intermediate-scale technologies are a promising alternative to both traditional methods and centralized large-scale technologies.
  1. New Value Priorities. What kinds of technology do we really want? The answer will depend on our value priorities and our vision of the good life. The environmental and resource crises of today are a reflection of fundamental attitudes toward nature and society. The biblical tradition could make a strong contribution to an ethic of respect for all creatures and concern for future generations, since it envisages a created order that spans time and space. This tradition also points to forms of personal fulfillment that are more frugal and less resource-consumptive than prevailing patters in industrial societies. Above all, it advocates justice and more equitable access to the world's resources. Provided that population growth is curbed, global resources are sufficient for every need, but not for every greed.
The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 explores conflicting values that are relevant to the appraisal of technology. Chapter 1 presents widely divergent contemporary views of technology and asks about their underlying assumptions. Chapter 2 analyzes two groups of human values affected by technology: values most significant in individual life (food and health, meaningful work, and personal fulfillment), and those characterizing society (social justice, participatory freedom, and economic development). Chapter 3 deals with three environmental values: resource sustainability, environmental protection, and respect for all forms of life. The scientific, philosophical, and religious grounds for defending each of these values are examined. Technological policies can be discussed in the public arena in terms of such values, which people with various philosophical and religious commitments can understand and support, though I try to show that the Christian tradition offers a distinctive perspective on each of them. I will suggest that justice, participation, and sustainability are particularly important today--and often neglected--in policy choices concerning technology. These opening chapters provide the ethical framework for the discussion of specific policy decisions in subsequent chapters.
Part 2 offers case studies of three critical technologies: agriculture, energy, and computers. In agriculture (chapter 4), environmental constraints such as soil erosion and water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides must be addressed, but the human consequences of mechanization and agribusiness as they affect rural life and family farms must also be considered. In energy (chapter 5), reliance on fossil fuels poses severe problems of global justice, environmental quality, and sustainability; nuclear energy is sustainable, but expensive and vulnerable to large-scale accidents and the diversion of plutonium to nuclear weapons. Computers (chapter 6) have low environmental impacts but raise major questions about meaningful work, inequitable access to information, centralization versus decentralization in decision making, and the prospect for artificial intelligence. Most of my examples are taken from the United States, with which I am most familiar, but I have also included comparisons with Europe and Japan. Each case study includes a section on the Third World. I do not take up medical technologies such as life-prolonging equipment, organ transplants, and new reproductive techniques, because a much more extensive literature is already available on medical ethics than on ethical issues in other kinds of technology.

Part 3 looks to the future of technology. Chapter 7 deals with the unprecedented powers of recent technology: damage to global environments (including global warming and the rapid extinction of endangered species); the genetic engineering of plants, animals, and humans; and the creation of more destructive conventional weapons and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The chapter calls for international action in each of these areas. Chapter 8 maintains that citizens can participate in the democratic control of technology, despite the technical character of these policy choices and the difficulties in assessing and regulating particular technologies. Chapter 9 explores the strengths and weaknesses of the appropriate technology movement and the possibilities for more efficient technologies and more frugal life-styles in industrial nations. It closes by suggesting four sources of change: education, political action, crises that evoke new perceptions, and alternative visions of the good life.

The challenge for our generation is to redirect technology toward realizing human and environmental values on planet earth.