Monday, August 18, 2008

Technology and moral responsibility

"Now I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds"
-J. Robert Oppenheimer (from Bhagavad Gita Krishna)

A recent conversation with a friend has got me thinking about the oft used phrase "technology is amoral". Usually used to justify why research or a technology should be pursued when there are foreseeable abuses of the research/technology.

I've used the phrase myself without really thinking what it means. Until now.

The phrase isn't a justification but rather a cop out. A cop out for the researcher or technologist involved from thinking the ramifications of the research or technology and ultimately taking responsibility for possible misuses of the technology or research.

Every researcher and technologist must consider the moral ramifications of what they are doing. It is not straight-jacket of right or wrong. But rather a thought experiment to understand the ramifications of the research or technology being pursued. The aim is to answer questions of what are the moral ramifications of the research or technology? What could happen if things went wrong? What could happen if it was used immorally? Do the benefits out weight the risks?

Being unable to answer those questions about research or technology being pursued is a gross act of negligence. To often justified by the phrase "technology is amoral".

The phrase should really be "technology is amoral, but technologists aren't". As scientists and technologists we must take moral responsibility to how our research and technology is used.

tags: Technology, Morality