Free Will and the Anthropogenic Earth: Part III
We may begin by rejecting the common approach of simply projecting individual ethical responsibility to the scale of emergent behaviors of ESEM systems. It is simply untenable to make individual scientists or engineers responsible for the behavior of systems to which they may have contributed, but which in many cases are self-organizing and demonstrate behaviors which are unpredictable and become apparent only over significant time periods. The designer of a chip which goes into a router which goes into the Internet cannot be held personally ethically responsible for how the Net may affect social structures thirty years from now; nor can she, using new 65-nanometer chip technology, be held responsible for the “social effects of nanotechnology.” The complete inability to predict what such effects may be; the multitude of events and decisions between the chip design and eventual social and cultural responses; the tenuous connection between specific individual design decisions and overall system responses . . . all operate to reduce the causal linkages between individual choice and outcome upon which ethical responsibility rests.
Pushed to its limit, such an ethical posture, similar to the strong construction of the Precautionary Principle, is simply a mechanism to attempt to freeze technological evolution -- and, indeed, that position is advocated by some based on such an analysis. The pragmatic response is that history provides few examples where technologies have been successfully halted (as opposed to modified, regulated, or controlled, which has happened frequently); where it has occurred, it has almost always merely fallen to another culture to develop and exploit the technology. Moreover, taking the extremist view that technology should be stopped by imposing on individuals the ethical duty not to participate, while ideologically satisfying, tends to remove an important source of potential constructive criticism from the social dialog.
But the individual scientist, engineer or environmentalist can, it seems to me, be charged with a fundamental responsibility to ensure that a process is established by which technical communities, and society at large, can dialog with complex technological systems, and earth systems engineering and management communities can dialog with earth systems such as the Everglades, the climate cycle, or New York City. The nature of such a dialog, which must be highly multidisciplinary and multicultural, is itself a reason why individuals cannot carry such a burden in a substantive sense, for no single individual has the requisite knowledge, and very few have the ability to suspend their own ontologies, as such a dialog requires. Individuals of all kinds, from engineers to scientists to environmentalists, can, however, certainly be charged with ethical responsibility for supporting the procedural process. The dialog itself will have to rest with an institutional host -- one that combines technical knowledge, with a broad, transparent and open process, and that is sensitive to its own agendas and ontologies, and can be explict about them without imposing them on the dialog. Moreover, such dialogs should be, and should be seen to be, relatively safe from capture by a particular religious or political agenda, a problem that some have noted with regard to stem cell research in the United States, for example.
Thus, we would charge our engineer with the ethical responsibility to push her professional organizations -- such as the IEEE, the National Academy of Engineering, the AAAS, or perhaps in some circumstances an academic institution or a National Laboratory -- to create an institutional framework within which an on-going macroethical capability is established. In so doing, we begin to move towards a framework that remains based on individual free will and ethical responsibility, but that reflects the increasing complexity of the problems, options, and constraints that characterize the anthropogenic earth.
Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T’s vice president of environment, health, and safety.
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