[Air-l] e-ethics? Origins and perspectives

Massimo Torre (TEI) Massimo.Torre at tei.ericsson.se
Fri Jul 19 05:25:30 PDT 2002

For anyone that could be interested in, I forward you my report from the symposium "Ethics and Technology (the 'Technoethics')", Sant' Anna School of University Studies and Doctoral Research, Pisa, March 16th 2002 (www.sssup.it/www/index_eng.html).

The word "technoethics" is a neologism which can't be found in dictionaries yet. However, because of the growing importance of the theme, we won't have to wait for a long before it enter the everyday terminology, as already it is for the term "bioethics". The need for this new word is due to the necessity of extending the sphere of the ethics influence not only to biotechnologies, but to all innovative technologies which, whether we like it or not, belong to the everyday social life.

It's fundamental to recall that the word ethics derives from the Greek term 'ethos' which means "tradition", "habit".  And the same is for the word 'morale' derived from the Latin term 'mos', 'mores' which again means "custom", "habit".

Morale indicates the distinction between what is good and what is evil in the everyday life, whilst ethics is rather the philosophical study of the principles at the basis of morale. In any case, the etymology of the two words speaks one's mind: both ethics and morale are not "by-products" of some absolute and immutable divine law, but the result of the society's evolution towards "standard" behaviours.

The matter could seem, at a first glance, quite embarrassing, but if we pay attention to the whole human history, we find that which was allowed and "ethical" in the ancient Greece or the ancient Rome, like for example to push down handicapped children - thus unfit for the military life - from the Taigetus mountain or the Rupe Tarpea, would now be considered an immoral action and punished by the society.

But, from a practical point of view, what most of all has contributed to make moral laws change with respect to this action? Maybe the coming of Christianity, but surely, more than anything, the technique ability of creating right tools for improving crops, for example; more food, more mouths that could be fed, more possibility of life even for those who were not able to directly participate in the "productive process".

And regarding the theme - moreover still "hot" - of the "woman's freedom"?
Popper, one of the major science philosopher of the 20th century, believed that the invention of the washing machine had contributed to this cause more than a lot of sermons and demonstrations!

Certainly technology has also created the atomic bomb, and with difficulty we could ever assert that its "application" to Hiroshima has been "ethical"!

Now, the fair way to solve the "technoethics dilemma" is not to put pros and cons on the balance, but if we really wanted to do it, I think we could still find margins for a "positive thought" about the future.

Another important item that maintains the idea of an ethics evolution is the so called "PAC knowledge". How do we know anything? Finally, at the end of the last millennium, scientists have recognized that unchanging trues will never exist. Everything is discovered is subject to be furtherly elaborated and sooner or later substituted by some other theory. "PAC knowledge" means exactly this: PAC stands for "Probably Approximately Correct" and "PAC learning" is a model introduced by Prof. Valiant of Harvard University specifically in the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence. But PAC is also as humans learn in all field of knowledge, even included "ethics"!

When dealing with ethics and technology it must be considered also two modern paradigms, the so called 'high-tech/high-touch' and 'high-tech/high-cost': the first one is well known in the sphere of medicine, where technology discoveries deal with items deeply rooted in the human consciousness (e.g. genetics); the second one is well known in the field of engineering, where high tech systems, like those of telecommunications, inevitably involve high costs from developers and users and therefore all society. If "high-touch" and "high-cost" are drawbacks of "high-tech", on the other side we must take into account that high-tech medicine and engineering can bring great relief to the human being, like an heart transplant for a heart suffering man otherwise destined to certain death or, in the field of engineering, a telecommunication system that can spread out the "voice of hunger" from the last corner of the world (...).

An outstanding way towards a muldidisciplinary approach of different knowledge fields, including ethics and technology, can be found in "The Arts Lab Philosophy" picture (www-arts.sssup.it/intro/default.htm) by the "ARTS Lab" (Advanced Robotics Technology and System Laboratory), one of the most international advanced research centres on robotics, being part of the S. Anna School.

"The philosophy of the ARTS Lab can be visualised as a tree in which basic disciplines and basic research studies stand as 'roots', whose results are integrated in the 'trunk' and exploited in different application fields, standing as final 'leaves' of the tree. 'Fruits' of the ARTS Lab tree are prototypes of components and integrated systems".

Don José Galván, theologian at the "Pontificial University of the Holy Cross", Rome (www.asc.urbe.it) has concluded the symposium by asserting something strong but uncommon from the clergy voice. "Nowadays - as all we know - speed is all. Therefore we must solve the ethics-technology dilemma not by slowing down the technology development, rather by speeding up ethics" in some form of a deeper sense of responsibility inside all human beings.
"The first great 'theory of ethics' was born only in the 16th century, during the Vatican Council of Trent, Italy. Even in Saint Thomas Aquinas [13th century, by many considered the most famous Catholic philosopher] we don't find anything about ethics in a proper way. This big delay of ethics with respect to other Christian spiritual matters [just one and a half millennium after Christ birth!] clearly means that even all the clergy had understood that ethics is something that must come out only after many other issues had been settled". Again a question of habits that have been developed since the beginning of Christianity through prayer, meditation, practice, blood and, above all, the most important of the three Christian virtues: charity!

Massimo Torre
Electronic Engineer
Economics & Management Ph.D.

Senior Project Manager
External Relationships Coordinator

Ericsson Telecomunicazioni SpA
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massimo.torre at tei.ericsson.se

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