It’s Ethics. Not Tech Ethics.

Socrates /

Posted on: August 28, 2020 / Last Modified: August 29, 2020

For the past 5 years or so I have noticed that almost every startup in almost every industry is claiming “a revolutionary AI or blockchain breakthrough.” [Often both.] More recently I’m flabbergasted to see a similar fad in the growing number of self-proclaimed Tech and AI ethicists. We apparently have an exponential proliferation of what someone called “ethics natives” such as angel investor ethicists, venture capital ethicists, startup ethicists, bitcoin ethicists, blockchain ethicists, unicorn ethicists, AI ethicists, design ethicists, IPO ethicists, etc.

Here is the thing:

At the end of the day, there is really no such thing as tech ethics. Just like there is no angel investor, venture capital, startup, blockchain, or IPO ethics. There is, really, only ethics.

And bullshit ethics.

Yes, you can name legitimate examples of branching off such as bioethics. But the reason why they are subdisciplines of ethics is the recognition that there are some overarching principles or an overriding framework which comes first and is primary. It is only then that we have the specific context of medicine, technology, or anything else you’d like to consider. Yes, context is important but it is always secondary because ethics is the context-independent universal foundation or framework which allows you to evaluate any particular and unique problem in ethical terms. So, if you don’t have the foundation which gives meaning, contextual considerations are useless, perhaps damaging. And to the degree that we have made progress in fields such as bioethics, it is because we started with a very strong foundation in ethics.

But most AI or Tech “ethicists” can’t even define what ethics is. Even worse, many of them “teach” ethics by starting with the trolley dilemma or euthanasia or abortion or human enhancement or genetic manipulation, etc. But without the foundational framework, the result is only ignorance masquerading as knowledge. So we end up being oblivious to how much we don’t know. And we don’t know that we don’t know because we are obsessed with the specifics of the context while the actual foundation is, at best, an afterthought and, at worse, completely ignored.

We arrive at the modern misperception that there is ethics and that there is “applied ethics.” There is not. Because if you can’t apply it, if you can’t use it, it is not ethics.

Ethics is practical. It is not a theory. It means “a way of life” [so if it is not lived, it is dead – i.e., not ethics]. It means a group of principles or a “moral code of behavior” concerned with one’s personal character. That is what êthos (ἦθος) means – “character” or [moral] “nature” That is the original meaning of ethics – ēthikós (ἠθικός) – “relating to one’s character.”

So every time you wonder if something is ethics ask yourself: Is this practical advice on how to live my life? Does it relate to the moral nature of my personal or our collective character? Does it provide a code of behavior or a set of principles that can inform and guide me [or us] through hard decisions and situations? If the answer is “No” then chances are it is not ethics. Certainly not in the original meaning of the word as coined by the ancient Greeks. A meaning which we have apparently forgotten but, I believe, we must revive.

Alas, over the last two millennia, ethics got to be perceived as abstract, vague, theoretical, and impractical. That is a result of forgetting its foundational origins as per how and why it started in the first place. Then we got entangled in the contextual intricacies of each new epoch, century, technology, or extreme outlier case, and only made a bad situation worse. And we arrive at the point where the gurus of modern tech ethics don’t even know what ethics and philosophy stand for, let alone live them as a daily practice or a way of life. Those “ethicists” spend 90% of their time on the transitory, secondary, and short-term details of specific tech tools or discoveries and less than 10% on the long-term, non-transitory, overarching foundation of what ethics actually is. And thus are doing more damage than good. Because unless the ratio is reversed, the horse cannot be put back in front of the cart, and therefore we are not going to go forward but backward. Not personally. Not collectively.

We have to go back to where it all started – ancient Greece and Rome. And the people who defined the term for us and spent their lives practicing ethics as a way of life. 2,000 years later their imperfect but understandable, simple, and shockingly practical advice is more useful and needed than ever.  Be it in technology, medicine, law, politics, economics, friendship, love, war, peace, death, justice, personal choices, etc.

Or we can choose to be hip by tagging another suitcase word in front of or behind ethics. But every time we do that we dilute the original meaning and delude ourselves we are making progress. Because we move away from ethics both linguistically and conceptually. And we end up with fake ethics. [Just like we have ended up with fake news, fake friends, fake privacy, etc.]

It’s ethics we need to be better. And it’s ethics we need to do better, including better tech. Not tech ethics. Ethics – first. Tech – later. We need to be better to make better things. So, just like Facebook friends are not real friends, tech ethics is not real ethics. It’s bullshit ethics.

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