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How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
This book is a lone cry in the wilderness. In a sense it is a little like the not-so-nice medicine we have to take at times to cure an illness. The illness we are talking about is uncontrolled, rampant technological growth, driven by unregulated, irresponsible capitalism. The End of Ethics in a Technological Society presents a compelling case for the urgent formulation and implementation of a post-liberal ethical approach that may save the human race from extinction and the planet from becoming an uninhabitable waste land.
The main feature of such a new ethics is that certain possibilities open to the domain of science ought not to be pursued, it clearly, “...rejects the ideology of progressivism, supports caution, and accepts limitation”. As Somerville correctly notes, “The principle thesis -- that contemporary moral relativism can lead to moral nihilism -- is a very important insight that has been largely over-looked to date, but an idea that needs to be understood and broadly debated in society as a whole” (back cover).
The book has an Introduction, nine chapters, an excellent Index and an extensive Bibliography. Most of the controversial, technological hot- potatoes are discussed -- human cloning, nuclear power, eugenics, high-tech weapons and warfare, sustainable practices in all areas, genetic manipulation and so on. Some sections read a little like a doomsday manual, however, the future probabilities discussed are not exaggerated. This is the bitter medicine we all must swallow if we have a chance of a decent future. Since publication (early 2008) the global environmental crisis has worsened considerably and we are in the grip of a major economic recession, bordering on a global depression. This adds considerable support to Schmidt and Marratto’s thesis, and adds an urgency to the rather onerous task of taking mindful responsibility for what we are doing guided by such a new ethics.
Throughout the book the authors move easily between pre-Enlightenment ethics, Aristotelian virtues and the modern liberal condition. These short excursions into the history of ethics gives a good grounding in how our present situation has come about. Readers without a background in philosophy or ethics will find this approach very helpful and informative. This aspect of the book together with the authors’ excellent writing style makes the book accessible to pretty much all readers.
The thrust of the book is that technology is the main culprit in our more-or-less ethical-less society. The authors argue that various institutions are technological in themselves. “We have argued that the institutions arising within the era of development, neo-colonialism and globalization -- e.g., the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, the IMF) and the multinational corporations -- are essentially technical phenomena. As such they are, in a sense, post-ethical”. (pp. 37-38)
Utilitarianism is discussed frequently throughout the book, and I found the section discussing Daly’s take on utilitarianism to be an arguably incorrect understanding of this philosophy. “Daly concludes that utilitarianism inevitably leads to a type of mania for growth that has become the mark of a consumer society. Utilitarianism does not allow the question of limits to growth to arise; there can be no answer to the query of how much is enough. More is automatically better than less” (p. 44) This is a myopic, one sided view of utilitarianism. Clearly “the greatest good for the greatest number” doesn’t automatically mean more is better. If we define “good” as meaning “overall quality of life” then -- less stress, fewer gadgets, far less food consumption in the West, less mind-numbing television watching, less unrealistic expectations of individuals and so on will result in more good for the majority.
The final chapter Technology and the End of Ethics discusses in a theoretical and philosophical manner how new post-liberal ethics would work and why we should follow this path. “The questions posed are hypothetical and unanswerable. Our point in asking them is to highlight the inadequacy of utilitarianism (cost-risk-benefit) to determine what we ought to do in the real world”. (p. 169) It does not give detailed recommendations for how to bring this about in practice. I think the book would have benefited greatly from such an addition. As it stands we are left with an; OK we know the world has had it, the future looks gloomy, yes we need a new ethics based on technological and capitalist restraint, but how do we bring this about? Such guidelines would have rounded out the book and made it even more important than it is.
One practical way to put such ethical guidelines into place is for governments to legislate that “science -- technology courts” be developed. Very briefly and simply these courts have a kind of jury made up of a cross-section of people from many different walks of life -- scientists, mothers, teachers, pluralist religious experts, accountants, farmers, engineers and so on. A question is proposed, for example, should genetic screening (and consequent abortion take place if a hideous disease is detected) be allowed in society? This system may not be perfect but we cannot trust, nor should we expect politicians, multi-national corporation directors, scientists, doctors or religious leaders to make these decisions alone.
This criticism aside The End of Ethics is a well researched, highly readable and important book which needs to be taken very seriously by all who have an interest in their children’s future.
© 2009 Rob Harle
Rob Harle is an artist and writer, especially concerned with the nature of consciousness and high-body technologies. His current work explores the nature of the transition from human to posthuman, a phenomenon he calls the technoMetamorphosis of humanity. He has academic training in philosophy of mind, comparative religious studies, art and psychotherapy. Rob is an active member of the Leonardo Review Panel. For full biography and examples of art and writing work please visit his web site: http://www.robharle.com
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