06 September 2011

Ethics in an Age of Technology

Another review from Science & Christian Belief (Vol. 6, No. 2, October 1994):

Ethics in an Age of Technology: The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991
by Ian Barbour

This eagerly awaited sequel to Religion in an Age of Science possesses all the characteristics that one has come to expect of Ian Barbour’s writing. It is a lucid, comprehensive and balanced account of ethical issues as they relate to the world of modern technology.

The book is divided into three main sections: Conflicting Values, Critical Technologies and Technology and the Future.

Under the heading of Conflicting Values, Barbour explores contemporary attitudes to technology, human values (both individual and social) and environmental values. He examines the scientific, philosophical and religious arguments used to justify the competing value systems he describes. In the course of this examination, he sketches in what he takes to be a Christian perspective. Three themes emerge as particularly important for contemporary policy decisions involving technology: justice, participation and sustainability.

Turning to Critical Technologies, he offers as case studies agriculture, energy and computers. The ethical dimension of agricultural technology allows him to explore the impact of technology on traditional human communities as well as environmental questions. Energy raises questions of global justice, environmental quality and sustainability. His chapter on computers looks at their impact on working practices as well as on their effect on access to information.

In the concluding section, he addresses the unprecedented powers afforded to a few by recent technological developments. Specifically he examines the threat posed by further environmental depredations, genetic engineering and the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons. He argues that international action is necessary to deal responsibly with each of these issues. In the penultimate chapter, he maintains that democratic control of technology is still feasible in spite of the difficulties of assessment and regulation. Finally he makes suggestions about possible new directions, assessing the appropriate technology movement and exploring the possibilities of more efficient technologies and simpler lifestyles.

There is an inevitable weakness in seeking to be comprehensive. Every one of the issues raised is worthy of an entire book in itself. It is impossible to avoid oversimplification when the attempt is made to cram such a broad subject into three hundred pages and, moreover, do it without recourse to the kind of technical jargon which would render it impenetrable to the intelligent lay person.

Then there is the question of balance. I couldn’t help feeling that he was too balanced at times. In part, this is a result of oversimplification. For example, he divides the world up into technological optimists, pessimists, and those who maintain a critical via media. But in his haste to expound the virtues of the via media, he fails to do justice to some of those he criticizes. Thus technological pessimism is caricatured in a way that completely fails to register the real point of many of the pessimists’ complaints: they are not opposed to the artefacts of technology so much as to the mindset which has produced our society; their complaint is not against technology as such but rather against the dominance of technical reason (or functional rationality) over other forms of reason.

However, his defence of a via media is not just a matter of oversimplification. In the concluding chapters, Barbour offers us a catalogue of antidemocratic tendencies within contemporary technocracy – a catalogue worthy of any technological pessimist! But he does not seem unduly worried by his own assessment. Instead he reasserts his faith in the capacity of Western democracy to overcome these tendencies. It might have been helpful to the more pessimistic and cynical of his readers if he had presented a more developed case for his faith in democracy!

Another quibble I have about the book is the way his entire lecture series was structured. Volume 1: religion and science; Volume 2: ethics and technology. It is neat but hardly does justice to the complexity of the relationships between these four subject areas. Does it perhaps also reflect the traditional Western tendency to elevate theoria above praxis?

Finally there is the question of the relationship of the Christian tradition to ethics and what, if anything, Christians might have to contribute to these debates. Barbour allows Christianity to be one of the players in the development of an appropriate ethic. However, it should be noted that his preferred form of Christianity is much attenuated.

But these are only quibbles. The book does not pretend to be the definitive statement on technological ethics. Rather, it is an extremely valuable introduction to the subject. I suspect that like several of its predecessors from the same pen, it is destined to become a standard undergraduate textbook.

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