‘But it will happen anyway’

When the ethical implication of some scientific or technological advance are debated, it is common for someone to remark that it’s a waste of time to debate whether this technology should be pursued—it will be developed anyway, won’t it, and if we want to spend our time fruitfully, we should ask, not whether this technology should be developed or used, but how it might be best used. I have occasionally been tempted by this line of thought myself, but on reflection, it’s rather puzzling. I’d like to try to get a bit clearer about it.

One idea might be that progress in science and technology is not really shaped by moral forces—it advances inexorably whether or not some moralists approve. This is an empirical claim, and it’s clearly not true without qualification. Various forms of eugenics, or the gruesome experiments conducted by Nazi doctors, were widely denounced, and no one thinks that, just because such scientific experiments are conceivable, they will inevitable take place. Perhaps a better example is abortion. Those who oppose abortion have certain succeeded in keeping the debate alive, and it does not seem entirely impossible that, at least in the US, they will succeed in overturning some of the legislation that has made it widely practiced. Still, it is also true that in numerous cases, strong initial resistance to a technological innovation faded fairly quickly, and that what seemed morally wrong to some became, over time, widely accepted as entirely innocent. As a matter of simple induction from past experience, it seems that if some advance seems attractive and beneficial to enough people, and does not evoke profound and lasting moral repugnance in large sections of the population, then it is likely to be developed, widely used, and eventually accepted as morally acceptable.

Nevertheless, if I find some new practice morally unacceptable or abhorrent, why should I care about such predictions? If it’s wrong, then I should insist that it’s wrong even if there is no immediate prospect of stopping it. That people are likely to get to accept the practice as morally acceptable might just be due to a corruption of their moral sensibilities. Things don’t stop being wrong just because many people accept them.

It might be thought that such an approach risks making things worse. It invests our moral efforts in what is likely to be a futile campaign, when we should invest them in mitigating the harmful effects of some problematic technology. This might, in some cases, be a better political strategy. It might make sense if we think that using the problematic technology is moderately wrong. By focusing too much on preventing a moderate wrong one might lead to far worse wrongs. But if we take it to be deeply wrong, then such a pragmatic approach might itself be morally compromising (even if in some tragic situations it might be necessary).

But perhaps the thought here isn’t that we should accept what we take to be deeply wrong, but that we should be less confident that we know it’s wrong. The induction isn’t simply that most people will come to accept the development as morally acceptable, but that they will come to correctly recognise it as such. It’s really a point about consistency: we now see no problem with a vast number of practices that, at the time, were seen as morally repugnant. If we think these past people were wrong, we should suspect we might be too. (If we are confident that we are not mistaken, then we should reconsider our moral views on these numerous widely accepted practices—an implication many would find absurd.) Now the fact the people were often mistaken in the past hardly conclusively establish we are wrong now. But it might be enough to temper our confidence, and allow us to take the more pragmatic approach I described above.

This seems to me the best interpretation of this line of thought. But I would to end by mentioning yet another interpretation. Morality is important, but sometimes it is not the most important thing. In some cases to focus exclusively on what ought to be done, it to miss what’s really happening. Someone who, hearing about the development of the television or internet, concerned himself only with weighing their moral pros and cons, would be missing the significance of the dramatic changes to human life brought about by these technologies. Excessive moralizing is, sometimes, itself a moral vice.

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