“Nothing in this world is indifferent to us:” Technology and Ethics through the Words of the Pope


20-09-2015 Incontro Giovani

With the visit of Pope Francis to the United States, I thought it might be interesting and pertinent to explore emerging technologies in the context of the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. I self-describe my religion on Facebook as Zen Pagan Catholic (which makes for some interesting conversations from time to time), and primarily practice as a Catholic, but I have a deep fondness for many other faiths as well (Quaker! Judaism! More!) and like to look at ideas and concepts in a broad ethical framework. This is just a small ‘deep dive’ into an area where a global leader in ethics touches on the impacts and ethics surrounding emerging and existing technologies. There are many such, and many ways to explore this.

I thought the image opening this post was a real treasure illustrating how current technologies, services, and memes (selfies? Instagram?) are being adopted by or associated with even institutions as ancient as the Catholic Church. This image, and most of the images used in this post, are from the Flickr stream of the Vatican itself. That says something right there about the adoption and use of social media and new communication technologies by the Vatican and the Papacy.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis released his encyclical Laudato Si’, subtitled “On Care for our Common Home.” It made a lot of buzz, and you’ve probably already heard about it. I immediately started scanning the Italian version, and as soon as I could find the English translation on the Vatican website, I downloaded the PDF. Very quickly I realized that throughout the document there are an enormous number of mentions of technology, its strengths and weaknesses. I was, shall we say, surprised? I wanted to blog about it then, but I think this is actually a better time.

Pope Francis begins Laudato Si’ with establishing the context for it in earlier works of church doctrine, specifically referencing a presentation to the FAO by Pope Paul VI back in 1970 and another from the the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in 2012. Back in 1970, Pope Paul had adopted use of television and the existing technology structure of the times for carrying the message. I was surprised again to learn how many videos are in Youtube of his travels that year: departing from Rome, Hong Kong, Philippines, Syndney (Australia), and more. So, this image from the Vatican of Pope Francis in front of film cameras might be very similar to views that would have existed of Pope Paul VI.

24-09-2015 Visita al Congresso degli Stati Uniti d'America

Pope Francis cites one specific portion of Pope Paul’s words on the risks and importance of technology, but there are some great nuggets in the rest of the speech as well.

VISIT OF POPE PAUL VI TO THE FAO ON THE 25th ANNIVERSARY OF ITS INSTITUTION; Monday, 16 November 1970

“But the carrying out of these technical possibilities at an accelerated pace is not accomplished without dangerous repercussions on the balance of our natural surroundings. The progressive deterioration of that which has generally come to be called the environment, risks provoking a veritable ecological catastrophe. Already we see the pollution of the air we breathe, the water we drink. We see the pollution of rivers, lakes, even oceans – to the point of inspiring fear of a true «biological death» in the near future, if energetic measures are not immediately and courageously taken and rigorously put into practice. It is a formidable prospect which you must diligently explore in order to save from destruction the fruit of millions of years of natural and human selection. In brief, everything is bound up together.”

“Will the prodigious progressive mastery of plant, animal and human life and the discovery of even the secrets of matter lead to anti-matter and to the explosion of death? In this decisive moment of its history, humanity hesitates, uncertain before fear and hope. Who still does not see this? The most extraordinary scientific progress, the most astounding technical feats and the most amazing economic growth, unless accompanied by authentic moral and social progress, will in the long run go against man.”

“We must repeat this today: the Church, on her part, in every domain of human action encourages scientific and technical progress, but always claiming respect for the inviolable rights of the human person whose primary guarantors are the public authorities.”

“One of the best assured invariable principles of your action is that the finest technical achievements and the greatest economic progress cannot effect by themselves the development of a people. However necessary they may be, planning and money are not enough. Their indispensable contribution, like that of the technology which they sponsor, would be sterile were it not made fruitful by men’s confidence and their progressive conviction that they can little by little get away from their miserable condition through work made possible with means at their disposal.”

The words and thoughts are so powerful and so relevant today, that I find it almost hard to believe they were spoken roughly 45 years ago. The really critical part is “unless accompanied by authentic moral and social progress.” I don’t care what religion you are, or aren’t, that much should seem like common sense: that technological discovery unbounded by ethics is a risk to all. Isn’t that the story behind an overwhelming number of science fiction stories and novels? Take a technology, just one, and see how it could go wrong. Then try taking two, or three. And then just imagine everything we are discovering now, all of it. It is frankly astonishing that we persist, and it speaks well of us that we do. That we haven’t destroyed ourselves yet, despite so many close calls, is hopeful. How long can we ride this rollercoaster and keep from flinging ourselves off?

That’s the introduction. Now, what does Pope Francis say to expand on these earlier thoughts from Pope Paul VI? He mentions technology at least 95 times in the encyclical. NINETY-FIVE TIMES in six chapters, with the preponderance of them in Chapter Three: “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis”, for which the first section is titled, “Technology: Creativity and Power.” Whoa. Frankly, technology, while a significant presence in the document, is only a small part of it. Here is a visualization of the major themes in Laudato Si’. You can find “technology” at the tip of the far left lobe of the leaf.

Laudato Si 2

When he does mention technology, sometimes it is to point out technologies of concern, or philosophies of concern, and other times it is to point out technologies that are desperately needed, or which need to be more widely available. This document is the opposite of a Luddite point of view, instead carefully and judiciously framing the conversation around technology in the context of where is it helpful for the world and humanity, as compared to when is it simply being developed out of curiosity, laziness, or for its own sake. Obviously, Pope Francis argues clearly and strongly for a sane, humane philosophy of technological development and access, within the overarching vision of stewardship and responsibility. Because the document as a whole focuses on ecology, it is often assumed that this is all that’s in it. Pope Francis takes it farther, talking about technology in the service of equity and social justice, medicine, transportation, artistry, welfare, and others, attempting to show through that diversity how a single challenge connects throughout the entirety of human life and how we touch and connect throughout the entirety of the context in which we exist, the world.

At least, that’s the way I’m reading the document. I’ve selected just a few examples (24), a few snippets, phrases and sentences that seem illustrative to me. There is much that was relevant to the questions and concerns raised, written in beautiful language, that is perhaps not explicitly focused on technology. Much of what he says on other topics echoes strongly the debates in healthcare from the empowered patient movement, the flipped clinic conversations, and other initiatives designed on making healthcare more responsive and patient-centric. Where he talks about economics and lifestyle choices, it echoes the need for patient choice, and placing clinical guidelines and recommendations within the context of the patient’s goals and priorities for their own life. Pope Francis places a strong emphasis on collaborative and shared decisionmaking. I have made a conscious effort to not select the non-technological quotes for this post, but I sincerely hope that these few tidbits below might inspire you to look more deeply into this exceptionally lovely, deeply thoughtful, and eloquent essay.

Festival of families in Philadelphia Festival of families in Philadelphia

ENCYCLICAL LETTER LAUDATO SI’ OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS ON CARE FOR OUR COMMON HOME

1.

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. … Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. … All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”

2.

“Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.”

3.

“[T]heir disappearance will have to be compensated for by yet other techniques which may well prove harmful.”

4.

“We must be grateful for the praiseworthy efforts being made by scientists and engineers dedicated to finding solutions to man-made problems. But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

5.

“The social dimensions of global change include the effects of technological innovations on employment, social exclusion, an inequitable distribution and consumption of energy and other services, social breakdown, increased violence and a rise in new forms of social aggression, drug trafficking, growing drug use by young people, and the loss of identity.”

6.

“Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches.”

7.

“Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences.”

8.

“It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. … The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.”

9.

“In some countries, there are positive examples of environmental improvement: rivers, polluted for decades, have been cleaned up; native woodlands have been restored; landscapes have been beautified thanks to environmental renewal projects; beautiful buildings have been erected; advances have been made in the production of non-polluting energy and in the improvement of public transportation.”

10.

“Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes, since there is no one path to a solution.”

11.

“The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm.”

12.

“We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

13.

“A science which would offer solutions to the great issues would necessarily have to take into account the data generated by other fields of knowledge, including philosophy and social ethics; but this is a difficult habit to acquire today. Nor are there genuine ethical horizons to which one can appeal. Life gradually becomes a surrender to situations conditioned by technology, itself viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.”

14.

“Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Or indeed when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it. An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door. Will the promise last, in spite of everything, with all that is authentic rising up in stubborn resistance?”

15.

“There is also the fact that people no longer seem to believe in a happy future; they no longer have blind trust in a better tomorrow based on the present state of the world and our technical abilities. … This is not to reject the possibilities which technology continues to offer us. But humanity has changed profoundly, and the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality which pulls us in one direction. It becomes difficult to pause and recover depth in life.”

16.

“We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment.”

17.

“It is difficult to make a general judgement about genetic modification (GM), whether vegetable or animal, medical or agricultural, since these vary greatly among themselves and call for specific considerations. The risks involved are not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application.”

18.

“Ecology, then, also involves protecting the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense. More specifically, it calls for greater attention to local cultures when studying environmental problems, favouring a dialogue between scientific-technical language and the language of the people. Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment.”

19.

“Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community.”

20.

“Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems. There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture. Nor can the notion of the quality of life be imposed from without, for quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group.”

21.

“Taking advantage of abundant solar energy will require the establishment of mechanisms and subsidies which allow developing countries access to technology transfer, technical assistance and financial resources, but in a way which respects their concrete situations, since ‘the compatibility of [infrastructures] with the context for which they have been designed is not always adequately assessed’.”

22.

“This does not mean being opposed to any technological innovations which can bring about an improvement in the quality of life. But it does mean that profit cannot be the sole criterion to be taken into account, and that, when significant new information comes to light, a reassessment should be made, with the involvement of all interested parties. The outcome may be a decision not to proceed with a given project, to modify it or to consider alternative proposals.”

23.

“Compulsive consumerism is one example of how the techno-economic paradigm affects individuals.”

24.

“By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism. If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple. If we want to bring about deep change, we need to realize that certain mindsets really do influence our behaviour. Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance, with the help of the media and the highly effective workings of the market.”

2 responses to ““Nothing in this world is indifferent to us:” Technology and Ethics through the Words of the Pope

  1. Reblogged this on Using IT and commented:
    A lovely post: one to keep! I’m even reblogging it.

    Like

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