How Might Technology Shift Our Morality?

16:52 minutes

What is right, and what is wrong? Today’s debates range from the ethics of eating meat, to abortion rights. Conversely, some questions are much less contentious than they once were: we no longer debate whether abducting and enslaving human beings is wrong—it is. And we no longer question technologies like in vitro fertilization. 

Author Juan Enriquez says we can thank technological changes for modern shifts in ethical rights and wrongs, from energy technologies that reduce the value of manual labor to social media that boosts the visibility of LGBTQ people. Enriquez writes that technology changes over history have—and will continue to—change the nature of what we consider right and wrong.

As he writes in Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Ethics, published in 2020, scientific advances in genetic engineering and neuroscience are bound to shift our ethical conversations even further. Think about CRISPR-edited genomes, or the potential privacy violations posed by being able to interpret brain activity. Climate change, and how to combat it, also raises important ethical questions.

Enriquez talks to Ira about his work, and what he predicts our future ethical quandaries might look like.

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Segment Guests

Juan Enriquez

Juan Enriquez is the author of Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Ethics (The MIT Press, 2020) and a managing director of Excel Venture Management in Boston, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Think of a hot-button political issue right now and there’s probably an ethical question at the heart of it. For example, the Supreme Court, in its fall session, has agreed to rule on Roe versus Wade and might limit abortion rights.

How about is it right to allow people to buy and carry assault weapons in public spaces? There are other questions much less contentious than they once were. For example, we no longer debate whether abducting and enslaving human beings is wrong. We no longer question technologies like in vitro fertilization.

My next guest says that technology changes over history have, and will, change the nature of what we consider right and wrong. And as he writes in a new book, “As science advances in genetic engineering and neuroscience, the things we are technologically capable of are bound to shift our ethical conversations further.” Think about CRISPR edited genomes or the potential privacy violations that can come with being able to interpret brain activity.

Juan Enriquez is an academic and Managing Director of Excel Venture Management, a venture capital firm that invests in synthetic biology and brain research. His latest book is called Right/Wrong– How Technology Transforms Our Ethics. Welcome to Science Friday, Juan.

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: Well, thank you so much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go right to that title. How does technology change ethics?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So in this very polarized time, everybody’s certain they’re right, and anybody who disagrees with them is wrong. The thing that people don’t understand is how often what we consider ethical flips 180 degrees. So take the example of CRISPR babies.

There’s been justified outrage over how those babies were edited in China, the lack of transparency on it. But you could easily see a conversation with our kids or grandkids saying, my parents were so primitive back then that they didn’t edit out the KRAS p53 BRCA genes, and I now have cancer. And you could see how editing babies becomes not only acceptable, but mainstream.

IRA FLATOW: And you think that’s where we’re headed?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: I think a whole lot of technologies have flipped the logic 180 degrees. When you talk about one of the hottest-button issues of the time, which is oppressing other human beings, enslaving them, putting them in serfdom, the question is, why did this happen for tens of thousands of years in every civilization? It happened in China, in Greece, in India, the Incas, the Mayans, the Africans. And so why did people tolerate it for so long?

And just as important, over a few short decades most countries did away with it in legal terms. I understand slavery still happens today. But in legal terms, most countries said enough. And it may not be a complete coincidence that that happened just as you started using oil and energy, because a single barrel of oil contains 5 to 10 years of a human being’s labor.

And when you tie that to thousands of horsepower, then all of a sudden you have the equivalent of 320,000 of those rowers that used to sit in the Viking ships rowing while the guy drummed in the front. Well, that’s basically what’s powering you across the nation on two jet engines when you go from New York to California.

IRA FLATOW: Are we really saying, then, that technology is the cause of being more humane and not just a natural evolution of our ethical frameworks?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So people often think of technology in terminator terms, this awful technology is going to do X, Y, or Z. But on the whole, I think technology allows us to be more ethical. There used to be long periods of time when we couldn’t generate enough food for the planet, and you had massive starvation.

We now have more than enough calories to feed everybody, in fact, to overfeed everybody. And the issue of capitalism and the economy being the allocation of scarcity is no longer the fig leaf you can use to justify why you keep too much. Now you have more than enough to feed everybody. And then it’s an issue of distribution, it’s not an issue of availability, and that changes the ethical debate.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And talking about the ethics of new sex, as you refer to it in your book, what we now take for granted, you say, would seem like witchcraft to earlier generations. Please explain what that means.

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So remember that wonderful time machine in Back to the Future? Imagine you use that time machine, and you bring back dear old grandpa and grandma. You’re sitting at the table. You’re talking about the birds and the bees. But if you told them you can consistently have sex and not have a child, that separates the act from the consequence. And yes, they did have early birth control, but it wasn’t terribly effective. And now it is.

And then you talk about IVF, and you explain to your dear old grandparents, oh, by the way, two people never have to physically touch each other, they don’t have to be in the same room, they don’t have to be in the same city, or even the same country to conceive a child. And they would look at you like you were crazy, because they used to call that kind of miracle the immaculate conception.

And then you talk to them about freezing embryos. And imagine freezing two twins, having a surrogate mother, and having embryos born decades apart. So just take these three things that we now take for granted. You separate the actual consequence. You separate the act from physical contact. And you’ve separated conception from time.

And if you’d ask them, do you think these things are ethical, they would have said absolutely not. Now try the experiment going forward. Now imagine your grandkids bringing you back. Do you think sex is going to look anything like what it looks like today in 20 years, 30 years?

IRA FLATOW: Well, tell me what you think looking forward. What are the new technologies that are really likely to shift our ethics even further? What will I consider to be a grandpa about?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: There were a couple of articles in Nature magazine about bringing calves to term or mice to term in the equivalent of Ziploc bags. So you’ve created an artificial uterus. You can work from conception through birth without the animal ever being inside a mother’s placenta.

What you could easily see a debate in 20 or 30 years of grandma was so primitive that she used to carry the baby around when she went mountain biking. She used to carry the baby around when she was exposed to diseases. She used to carry the baby around even though it was enormously polluted.

So the notion of exposing a baby instead of leaving a baby in a nice protected environment and the notion of not editing the genes in that baby to take out the cancer-causing genes, all of that stuff will seem really backward. And by the way, this also fundamentally changes debates about issues like abortion and viability. You may see flip-flops of 180 degrees on these topics as time goes over.

IRA FLATOW: But will something remain constant, and that is the inequality, the people who can afford to have an artificial womb or transfer their baby to that womb and people who can’t afford it?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So that issue you’re pointing out, Ira, of who has and who hasn’t is, I think, one of the absolutely fundamental ethical issues of our time. Because you used to be able to say there wasn’t enough for everybody, and you could justify having more than somebody else because there just wasn’t enough to go around. But when there is more than enough to go around, when we have more than enough bicycles, and computers, and phones, and medicines, and everything else, it becomes harder and harder to justify why you keep it all and you don’t give others a minimum.

And that’s especially important because technology is displacing jobs at an incredibly rapid rate. And it’s also concentrating wealth. It’s giving us the ability to generate these unicorn companies with 30 kids. So on the one hand, that gives us degrees of freedom to give others and to provide a universal basic income. On the other hand, as you point out, it enormously generates wealth and power very quickly in a few spots.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to something that I find absolutely interesting, and I know you know a lot about, and that’s neuroscience and our eventual ability to manipulate the brain. A lot of ethical questions there.

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: Yeah, it’s really interesting. If you think of timelines, the brain is about where genetics was in the 1990s. So you don’t have the rapid mapping machines for the brain. You don’t have the first map of a full human brain, much less thousands of human brains.

But you’re getting there, and you’re going to have those maps. And they’re going to be standard, and they’re going to be measurable across time. And then you’re also beginning to generate instruments that allow us to grow little tiny brains in dishes to study how people get Alzheimer’s, how you stop it, how people come down with Parkinson’s, how you stop it.

You’re beginning to get an idea of which parts of the brain fire when you come down with PTSD. And if you put some electricity in a targeted way or some light in a targeted way, can you stop those memories? Can you erase those memories?

And boy, does that have a few ethical implications, because as soon as you begin mapping memories, maybe you can share them. Maybe you can alter them. Maybe you can insert them. Maybe you can delete them. And that’s going to be a period that’s going to be fraught with opportunities and perils, and that’s why discussing and putting an ethical context into science at this point is so incredibly important.

IRA FLATOW: Your questions are all about should we do this? Should we change the genetic makeup of people? Is it ethical to make people better people before they’re born? Or what is the actual measurement of what better means? And yet on the other hand, you turn it around, and I think in an interesting way, looking forward to our next generations, again, asking backwards, why didn’t you take that opportunity to relieve suffering and pain when you could have?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: Exactly that context you’re putting in there, Ira, is just so important, because the rules are going to continue to change. The things we take for granted, the things we do, those may be seen as 180 degrees wrong in the future. Let me give you one example. This 4th of July, a lot of us are going to be very happy out there grilling and having a gathering with people we haven’t seen for a long time.

And that could be really, really controversial in 20 years, because a synthetic hamburger costs about $320,000 in 2013, and $30 in 2015, and $7 last week. And in the measure the synthetic meats are faster, better, cheaper, the notion that we systematically slaughtered over 6 billion animals a year is going to look very different. Walking into the fanciest steakhouse in town and seeing these racks of rotting meat, which we called aged steaks, that may be a photograph that looks very different in 20 years.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s interesting that you bring that up, because in your book, you call climate change, quote, “the ultimate ethical existential challenge.” And you note that many, many people have not changed their habits around flying or energy consumption, also part of an ethical decision that people are making.

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: You always have these early adopters that are incredibly brave and ahead of the rest of us. But what’s going to happen, I think, on climate change is the cost curves. The price of energy from wind, from solar is dropping so fast that it’s already crossed the price of coal. And it’s going to cross the price of oil. In fact, there’s a report out by the International Energy Council this week that’s talking about how it doesn’t make sense to develop any other oil fields, ever, because these price curves are coming down so quickly.

Once you have faster, better, cheaper, once you have an alternative, once you can power your house and your car without having to burn hydrocarbons, then you can become very judgmental about what people did in the past. How dare they have warmed the planet? How dare they have burned this stuff? But you’re doing so from a position of I have faster, better, cheaper energy, and it becomes a lot easier to judge and to act in a different way. That doesn’t justify what we did, but it puts a context on what we do that is a context we don’t often recognize today.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Juan Enriquez, author of Right/Wrong– How Technology Transforms Our Ethics. Do corporations have ethics? We can see from statistics about corporations responsible for over 70% of global carbon emissions. Can we look at corporations or institutional ethics with the same lens that we do individual ethics?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So I think one of the most damaging recent rulings by the Supreme Court was where they started saying that corporations have some more rights to those of people. There was a wonderful meme out there by some smart character who said, I’ll believe that corporations are human the day Texas executes a corporation. You can’t mix these two things.

Human beings have rights in and of themselves as human rights. And they shouldn’t have the same rights that a human being has. It’s confusing corporate law and human rights law. And those few things should not be conflated.

IRA FLATOW: You work at a venture capital firm that invests in synthetic biology and brain research. Do businesses that you invest in take ethics into account when they develop or use these new technologies to create products or services?

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: So I’ve been on this journey for a few decades of discovering genomics in the early 1990s, and then moving from academia into investment and still writing and trying to teach some about this world that I find so fascinating. And the more I learned about it, the more I thought, hmm, I should really start thinking carefully about the uses and abuses and ethics of some of the instruments we’re creating, because they fundamentally change life, they fundamentally change humanity, they fundamentally change thoughts, and I better be clear on what I’m going to do.

This is not a book that ends with a chapter that says if only you follow these 10 ethical precepts, you’ll be fine. This is a book that says the rules keep changing. Keep questioning yourself. Listen to people who disagree with you. Understand how it changes over time, and be a little bit more humble and a little bit more forgiving in your judgments.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today. And thank you for the book. It really gives you something to think about.

JUAN ENRIQUEZ: Well, it’s been a great pleasure. Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Juan Enriquez is Managing Director of Excel Venture Management, a venture capital firm that invests in synthetic biology and brain research. His latest book is called Right/Wrong– How Technology Transforms Our Ethics.

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