Ethics, technology and the future of humanity

August 2018

The widely-renowned Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer, is at the forefront of thinking on the social impact and ethical implications of new technologies. In June 2018, Professor Singer gave a public lecture on ethics and technology at WIPO. A summary of his lecture follows.

* Summary by Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Ethics defined

Professor Peter Singer raises a number of
thought-provoking questions on ethics, technology
and the future of humanity (photo: Alletta Vaandering).

When we reflect on the judgments we make, we should be able to agree on some basic principles of ethics or disagree on particular applications of those principles in different circumstances. For example, from an ethical viewpoint, we ought to be able to accept that the interests of all people are equal. My interests don't count for more than those of others elsewhere, provided similar interests are at stake. If we assume a given disease causes similar suffering in humans everywhere, then I think we can agree we should give equal weight to each patient suffering from it, irrespective of other differences.

That idea is reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants. Ethics is not a matter of taste; it is a self-evident truth akin to the reasoning of mathematics or logic. Therefore, ethics is a matter on which there are objectively right and wrong answers.

But, of course, within that idea of equal consideration of interests, there is room for different ethical views about what we ought to do and how we are to live. There are two fundamental philosophical approaches to this. 

One view says that the right thing to do – insofar as everyone's interests have equal weight – is to try to maximize the interests of everybody, to promote well-being and reduce suffering. This is the utilitarian view associated with the 18th and early 19th century English philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and it is still held by various contemporary philosophers, including me.

The other view, associated with the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is the idea that certain things are inviolable; they are contrary to human dignity and must never be done.

We shouldn’t assume that evolution is guided by some kind of providence to reach the best ethical outcomes. We could imagine better outcomes: more intelligent, altruistic and compassionate humans, for example. Maybe that's what we need to do to protect the future of humanity.

Peter Singer

The utilitarian view doesn't mean that human dignity is not important. Such rights are important because they lay a foundation for a society that promotes the well-being of everyone. But that view doesn't mean that you could never act against particular human rights.

Take the scenario of a runaway train heading toward a tunnel where it will kill five workers. If you divert the train it will kill only one. As a utilitarian, I think one should be prepared to sacrifice one life to save five.

Ethics and intellectual property rights

When it comes to intellectual property (IP) rights, the utilitarian perspective encourages innovation and creation for the benefit of all. There is, however, an alternative view that says property rights, including IP rights, are inherently natural rights, and that it is wrong to deprive people holding those rights of the things that they have a right to, independent of the consequences. Less well known, however, is that within the natural law tradition, there are limits to those natural rights with respect to property. For example, if somebody, of necessity – because they are starving – takes something from someone who has abundance – a loaf of bread, for example – that is not theft because that natural law theory of property rights states that these rights exist in order to enable us to satisfy our needs. When those rights interfere with meeting our basic needs, they no longer hold.

Now, when we apply that to the use of IP in relation to the medicines needed to treat people who cannot afford them, for example, that could result in a doctrine that justifies the production of generic versions of patent-protected drugs for these patients in poor countries. There are, in accordance with this view, provisions in international agreements like the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) that allow governments to give permission to produce generic versions of patented drugs (under what is known as a compulsory license) in specific situations. Such an approach can be defended, both from a utilitarian perspective and a natural law defense of property rights.

The utilitarian perspective, which takes a long-term view, gives more importance to the right to patent protection, whereas the natural law view focuses on the immediate needs of the person who will die without the drug. The natural law view says nothing about the future generations who will benefit from the development of new drugs that we don't yet have, and which may only be developed if pharmaceutical companies believe they have sufficient financial incentives to develop them.

When tackling global health challenges, we need to take that long-term view, while also recognizing we need to find ways to make life-saving drugs available to those who need them. And we need to avoid situations where effective drugs are available in affluent countries but are unaffordable for developing nations.

The more difficult question, however, is how do we create incentives for pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs for markets that are unlikely to yield financial returns?

Today, a patient in an affluent country can benefit from very expensive drugs costing up to USD 500,000 per year of treatment. In contrast, in developing countries, the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets can save one life in malaria-prone regions for around USD 3,400 per year. That gap is too great. Changing this situation probably means saving more lives cheaply in the developing world and capping the amount we spend on saving lives in affluent countries.

Professor Singer notes that the new technological future of artificial intelligence and super intelligent machines that are much smarter than humans raises many questions that require careful reflection (photo: majaiva / iStock / Getty Images Plus).

Technology and bioethics

Let me now turn to the complex interplay between technology and ethics.

In the 1950s, the invention of the respirator made it possible to keep patients alive who were unable to breathe unaided. It continues to save lives of patients who, after a short time, recover completely. That's wonderful. But what about patients that never recover consciousness or the ability to breathe unaided? That posed an ethical problem; one that became even more acute in the 1960s, when Dr. Christiaan Barnard demonstrated the life-saving potential of transplanting a heart from one patient to another. What should we do with patients on respirators who show no brain response and will never recover consciousness? Do we keep them on the respirator for the rest of their natural lives or do we turn it off and allow them to die?

Our response was to change how we define death. Up to that point, a person was legally dead when their heart, respiration and pulse stopped. We simply added irreversible cessation of all brain function to that definition. That made it possible to declare some of the patients on respirators legally dead. But more importantly, it meant we could remove the organs of patients on life-support while their heart was still beating and use them to save other lives. If these patients were living, that would be directly contrary to the Kantian idea that we should never use a human to serve the ends of others. We avoided that by changing the definition of death. That change in definition was not the outcome of any scientific discovery. It was a policy choice. But it is extraordinary that there was so little opposition to it at the time, even if it remains a topic of discussion.

My hope is that we will use technology to bring about a better life for all in a more egalitarian way that helps those who are worst off. That is where we can do the greatest amount of good.

Peter Singer

Then, in the 1970s, in vitro fertilization was developed. In vitro fertilization has been successful in helping infertile couples have children. It also made it possible to produce a viable embryo outside the human body and to transfer it to a woman with no genetic link to that embryo. It meant that a woman who wanted a child but was unable to produce any eggs could now have one. It also meant that a woman could offer her womb for hire as a paid surrogate. There is already a certain level of international business in this area, and that is ethically questionable. But perhaps the more important issue for the future of humanity is what we can do with viable embryos produced outside the body in terms of genetic screening and modification.

Pre-natal genetic screening and selection to detect certain diseases that may result in terminating a pregnancy is commonplace. Another method of achieving the same outcome is for women at high risk of having a child with a genetic abnormality to undergo in vitro fertilization. After taking drugs to produce multiple eggs, which are then fertilized, the resulting embryos are screened and a healthy embryo is transferred to the woman, eliminating any risk of termination and enabling her to bear a child free from disease.

That, in itself, is not particularly controversial. But as our knowledge of genetics advances we are also going to find better-than-average genes, and it is not difficult to imagine couples will want to screen embryos for a child with the characteristics they want. What sort of future might this lead to? One could imagine the emergence of a genetic class structure, a genetic aristocracy and proletariat, where individuals – and indeed countries – use genetics for improved intelligence, for example, to secure a competitive advantage in the world. Do we want to move away from the rather limited but still significant mobility that exists between classes today? And if we decide not to prohibit the use of genetic technology in this way, how should it be made accessible and regulated? We need to think about these things.

Moreover, in the next decade, it is quite possible that with CRISPR gene-editing technology, we will be able to modify embryos. If that proves safe and reliable – which is still in doubt – it is likely to lead to a modified kind of human nature. I don't regard that as intrinsically wrong. Human nature and our genetic make-up have evolved to help us survive. We shouldn't assume that evolution is guided by some kind of providence to reach the best ethical outcomes. We could imagine better outcomes: more intelligent, altruistic and compassionate humans, for example. Maybe that's what we need to do to protect the future of humanity.

Artificial intelligence and the future of humanity

The development of artificial intelligence (AI) is another important area requiring careful reflection. Increasingly, AI is being used to do work that humans can already do. In manufacturing, for example, robots are taking on the repetitive tasks formerly undertaken by workers on the factory floor. We can anticipate that the use of AI will take on these tasks in many other areas. That means we have to think about how to develop a society where there is much less need for human work, but which captures and transfers productivity gains to people – through some kind of universal basic income scheme perhaps – in a way that meets their need for a sense of purpose. This will be a very difficult challenge.

Some commentators believe the development of super intelligent machines that are significantly smarter than humans are imminent. What will that mean for the future of humanity? Will super intelligent machines decide they are better off without us? That alarming prospect could be a tragedy of unimaginable proportions ending billions of years of existence on the planet and the lost potential of all future generations of humans. Should we, then, focus on reducing, as far as possible, the risk of human extinction? Or would these super intelligent machines themselves – if they were conscious beings – have intrinsic value, equivalent to, or even superior to, our own? Most people will reject that suggestion; but perhaps we have an inherent bias in favor of our own species. We certainly need to think more about this prospect.

There are many questions facing us as we march toward this new technological future. And there are many uncertainties. My hope is that we will use technology to bring about a better life for all in a more egalitarian way that helps those who are worst off. That is where we can do the greatest amount of good. 

Thank you.

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