New Technology, New Ethics - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Technology (General)

New Technology, New Ethics

The Problem

Our fast-changing technology continues to present society with new ethical challenges. Every new technological advance calls into question the old morality. Old moral codes are increasingly irrelevant in a high-tech society. At the very least, new technologies create new ethical dilemmas that are not addressed by traditional morality.

Umm ... really?

I hear statements like that first paragraph a lot. But the examples offered are almost always very strained.

Like all good lies, this statement has an element of truth. It you want to say that our laws often fail to cope with new technologies, I heartily agree. Laws written by politicians and bureaucrats are often mired in technicalities and specifics that render them obsolete when a new technology comes along. But when it comes to real ethics and morality, I'm hard pressed to think of cases where technology has made "traditional morality" obsolete.

The Internet and Copyright

For example, I read an article recently that said that the Internet creates new dilemmas in copyright. It is generally agreed, the writer said, that it is wrong to copy someone else's book without permission and sell it for your own profit. But is it wrong to copy an article on the Internet? He presented this as a difficult and baffling question.

Umm, that's not really that hard. The answer is, Yes, it's wrong. Stealing someone else's writing is wrong whether that writing is on paper or on a computer screen. I wonder if when paper was first invented someone thought it was a difficult and baffling question whether it was wrong to steal someone else's writing when it was written on paper rather than on the traditional clay tablets.

(Okay, I'll concede, the Internet does raise a technical problem with copyright law. To view a document from the Internet, you must download it to your own computer's memory. That is, you must make a (temporary) copy. Copyright law puts restrictions on making unauthorized copies. But surely any dilemma here is a technicality. It is perfectly acceptable ethically to make a temporary copy while you read it. It is not acceptable to make a copy and post it on your own web site, or to make a copy and print it in a book. In practice, I have never heard of anyone bringing a lawsuit over this. Probably because they are smart enough to realize that on the Internet, you must make a copy to read the article at all, and they don't want to sue people for reading their articles. If you don't want people to read it, you wouldn't post it on the Internet to begin with.)

Cloning and Human Rights

Many people talk about the baffling ethical problems posed by new genetic technologies. Like, what happens if and when it becomes possible to successfully clone a human being?

So exactly what baffling new ethical problems would this present? If a human being was cloned, the result would be a new human being. Surely such a person would be entitled to the same human rights that everyone else has. Yes, it would be possible to clone someone just to use him as a source for spare parts for the donor of the original genetic material. And that would be wrong. Just as it would be wrong to kidnap and kill any human being just so you could use him as a source for spare parts. This one shouldn't even be hard. A clone would not raise any new moral issues that the existence of twins has not already created. I have never heard anyone seriously propose that because someone is a twin that this calls into question what human rights he should be entitled to.

Our government, of course, once again rises to the challenge by coming up with a truly bizarre solution. A bill in Congress in 2003, the "Greenwood Amendment", would have made "reproductive cloning" illegal while allowing "therapeutic cloning". By "reproductive cloning" they meant cloning to produce a live baby. By "therapeutic cloning" they meant cloning to produce an embryo or baby for research or medical applications, that is, to be killed and harvested for parts. That is, a number of people in the U.S. Congress believed that cloning is not morally acceptable if the resultant human being is allowed to be born, grow up, and live a normal life. It is only morally acceptable if the resultant human being is tortured and murdered. The moral reasoning behind this position escapes me.


It is true -- I would think pretty obviously true -- that new technologies can make it easier for evil people to commit a crime or take advantage of another person. The invention of chloroform made it easier to kidnap people. The invention of the telescope made it easier to spy on people. Etc.

Of course other technologies make it easier for the innocent to protect themselves or for the police to catch criminals. The invention of locks made stealing more difficult. The invention of fingerprinting made all sorts of crimes more difficult to get away with.

Identity Theft

You hear a lot today about "identify theft". People talk about this like it's a new crime that was made possible by computers and the Internet.

But identify theft has been around for thousands of years. We used to call it "forgery". Identify theft simply means pretending to be someone else to get access to their bank account or their credit rating or otherwise take advantage of their good reputation. People have been forging checks for hundreds of years. People have been impersonating other people for thousands of years.

So yes, the combination of institutions that routinely deal with large numbers of people so that their employees cannot be expected to know customers personally, plus computerized records that can be duplicated and modified fairly easily by people with the right skills, has made forgery easier that it used to be. Thus there is more forgery -- "identity theft" if you prefer -- than there used to be. Perhaps further technological advances will be made that will make forgery more difficult. Perhaps we will ultimately make social or procedural changes to combat forgery. Like, it has become obvious that the reports of a "credit bureau" on a person's reputation are not as reliable as people used to believe. Perhaps credit bureaus will become less important and people will turn to other sources of information before giving out a loan or renting an apartment. Perhaps the criminals will win and we will all learn to live with a long-term higher level of forgery. Perhaps it will get so bad that our entire credit system will collapse. (Not likely, but I'm trying to list a range of possibilities.) But whatever happens, forgery is not a new crime. Surely no one would seriously say that forgery is okay as long as you do it electronically. The mechanics have changed. The ethics have not.

Real Issues

I am hard pressed to think of any new technology that has truly created new ethical issues or forced us to rethink traditional morality. I don't rule out the possibility, but I just can't think of one.

I'd be interested if any reader out there can offer an example. But here's the key ground rule: It can't just be a new tool to commit an old crime. You can spread vicious libel by email, but before email people spread vicious libel on paper. That's not new. You have to bring up a technological change where someone trying to apply the same basic moral and ethical standards that have been around for thousands of years would either say, "Wow, this is totally outside anything I have ever considered", or at least, "It's difficult to see how to apply traditional morals to this situation."


Yes, the objects change. But surely it takes no great moral insight to say, "Under the old laws, it was illegal to steal a horse. Now that the automobile has been invented, maybe it should be illegal to steal an automobile, too."

The mechanics change. But surely it takes no great moral insight to say, "Under the old laws, it was illegal to stab an innocent man to death. So now that the gun has been invented, maybe it should be illegal to shoot an innocent man to death, too."

The underlying principles do not change. It is wrong to steal. It is wrong to murder. It is wrong to spread malicious lies. None of these things are changed by new technologies.

© 2010 by Jay Johansen


Web Surfer Apr 26, 2014

I want to take something away from this article, but it is so poorly written that I can't take it seriously.

Jay Johansen Apr 29, 2014

Thanks for that very helpful and insightful comment! That really added a lot to the conversation.

Jahli Oct 3, 2015

I think it's still linear (though I'm not cetiarn that any account of ethics is free of circular reasoning). The point is that far from science making the dangerous and subjective domain of ethics safe and objective, it's more accurate to say that ethics remains (philosophically speaking) richly subjective, and science makes its subjectivity more complicated and/or rich. Indeed, testing worldview against worldview is an interesting exercise I happen to think worldviews fall into three VERY broad categories: pantheistic types, dualistic types somewhere in between, a kind of integrated/relational type. I think things like Ockham's razor can help when evaluating worldviews. A worldview, like a theory, is stronger a) the more it can account for, and b) the simpler and more elegant it is.Of course, the foundational discipline of any worldview is its ontology which includes basic assumptions of value. A purely scientific' ontology cannot produce any notions of good' or evil'. (it cannot have any teleology either, so no goals out of which to work out ethical considerations) Dale

Anonymous Jul 5, 2016

I agree with Web Surfer about the style, but I do like the content in the article. Saying "umm" a lot in a formal paper is not very good writing. You can ask rhetorical questions, but do so intelligibly.

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