Archive for the ‘ethics’ category

Thinking about the digital economy

December 5, 2017

Some years ago when I was spending a morning in a somewhat obscure library in London looking for materials relevant to the development of a British trade union in the 19th century, I came across a sermon delivered shortly after 1800 in a London church. The clergyman in question was most exercised by what we would now call the impact of new technology. He feared that humanity’s ability to perform ‘miracles’, which should be the sole preserve of God, would create a materialistic society in which a very small number of people would reap the rewards of science and engineering, while the majority would become redundant and face destitution.

I was reminded of this recently when the US company Boston Dynamics, a spin-off from MIT, unveiled a humanoid robot that could jump up and down on various obstacles and, finally, do a back somersault. You can see the whole spectacle here. This display quickly led to a whole tsunami of online anguish about how we are all doomed. If a robot could successfully mimic an athlete, then humans might as well all just go home and wait to be put out of our misery by the new artificial master race. You get the idea.

As for me, I thought the Boston Dynamics machine was pretty smart engineering, but to be honest I was less captivated by it than by another recent item of news: a group of engineering researchers helped by an economist were able to design a robot which delivered a lecture to economics students and successfully answered questions from them at the end. Apparently the robot answered questions with stuff like ‘Well, this is a hotly contested point, but I tend myself to support the view that…’

Today, lots of people are talking about the digital economy and what it may involve and what it may do to us. The science and engineering of it all is of course important, but it may be as important for us to come to grips with what it all means: how it affects our understanding of humanity and human purpose. This isn’t a debate about automation; that’s a debate we’ve been having for 250 years, and to be honest there aren’t many new things to say. It’s a debate about who we are, and how we will harness human ingenuity, and how we can ensure that we evolve successfully to engage that ingenuity with the new means at our disposal.

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Cruel principles?

November 15, 2012

Some readers commenting on my last post drew attention to the appalling news just in from Ireland, of the death of a woman in a Galway hospital, where she had been taken as she was experiencing a miscarriage. Medical staff, apparently, were unwilling to terminate her pregnancy even though the foetus was inevitably dying and the delay in forcing the delivery was placing the mother in jeopardy; in the event both mother and baby died. According to the report in the Irish Times, the patient, Ms Savita Halappanavar, was told that no termination could take place while there was still a foetal heartbeat because ‘this is a Catholic country’.

I have never believed that abortion is simply a human rights issue; it seems to me to be far more complex. But nonetheless what appears to have happened here is outrageous and horrible. As far as I know we have not heard yet from the hospital, so we don’t know for sure what the medical staff believed they were doing; nor have they confirmed that Ms Halappanavar was told what I have quoted above. But if it is all true, then so-called ‘pro life’ principles, which in any case seem often to have a curiously limited view of ‘life’ and of quality of life and which may be more about opposition to social liberalisation, are being conscripted into a campaign that in cases such as this just seems cruel.

One must absolutely accept that doctors and nurses sometimes have horrifyingly difficult decisions to take in extreme medical cases. But pro-life groups, and those who  allow themselves to be bullied by such groups into enacting or enforcing extreme laws, need to be reminded that life is complex, not simple, and that to elevate abstract principles above people is to abandon the values that make us civilised. It is time to ensure that whatever may have happened in Galway cannot happen again.

On the record?

November 12, 2012

A few years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, I took part in what was a somewhat difficult meeting on a sensitive topic. Those present held, and expressed, a variety of what one might call robust views. A few days later I received, from one of the participants, what was described as a note of the meeting. Except that this wasn’t what I would recognise as a note; it was clearly a full transcript. Not only did it contain, fully verbatim, what everyone had said, it even included, precisely, everyone’s linguistic infelicities and ramblings. It seemed to me that the only way this transcript could have been assembled (not least because the person who sent it to me had not during the meeting visibly written down anything other than very occasional notes) was if the meeting had been secretly recorded. I asked a question, and received a strong response along the lines that no recording had been taken. I didn’t believe that for a moment, but decided not to pursue it, though I also felt that if a recording had been taken it was completely unacceptable.

Of course I am not alone in this experience. Last week Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported an incident in which a meeting addressed by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, was secretly recorded by one of those taking part. The recording was subsequently distributed to a select group of people who had not been present. The Cabinet Secretary took exception to this, and has asked the person who took the recording to consider his position. I have to say I fully sympathise with the Cabinet Secretary.

Of course today’s technology makes taking such recordings very easy indeed. I am often at meetings in which those present have their mobile phones lying on the table in front of them, and setting these to record is very simple, and more or less impossible for anyone else to detect. I will hazard a guess that the incident above is not the only time I have been recorded without my knowledge.

But is it acceptable? I might say, for the avoidance of doubt, that nobody has ever been recorded by me without being advised and asked first. I would then add that I regard making a secret recording to be ethically totally unacceptable, except possibly at a public and open meeting. But can it be stopped or controlled? Or do we have to accept that the available technology is dictating acceptable practice? And in that context, is it acceptable for students, without first seeking permission, to record lectures or classes? And if the answer is no,  does that in any way contradict a desire for openness and transparency?

The ethical dimension

August 26, 2011

Just after I stepped down from my post as President of Dublin City University, I received an email from someone who described himself as ‘an interested and concerned member of the public’. The email in question was by no means short, but I can summarise the burden of it as follows.  His message to me was that I had failed to observe high ethical standards as a university head. Mind you, he added that this did not make me unique; he wrote:

‘Universities seem to be unable or unwilling these days to provide a clear moral as well as an intellectual compass. Morality matters not a bit to them, unless that is something you measure in money. You were just following the herd, but I really wish you had been better than that.’

So what had disappointed my correspondent? Two things, mainly. First, that I had not taken a personal stand in support of the ‘pro-life’ agenda, and that I had allowed the university to engage in some forms of research that did not value the human person sufficiently, from conception to the grave. Secondly, that I had not challenged the rampant materialism of society, and more particularly the growing materialism of the student body.

In fact universities are not as unconcerned with ethics as my correspondent suggested. Not only has ethics become a major academic area of study and research, but universities are also increasingly concerned with policies and structures that assess their conduct from an ethical point of view; research ethics committees being a particularly important example. I may also have been just a tad hurt that he did not apparently regard the establishment of DCU’s Institute for Ethics during my tenure as important.

But then again, we tend to regard ethics as very complex territory in which a difficult balance may have to be struck. My correspondent on the other hand appeared to regard it as the determined defence of a stronghold under attack from barbarians. But am I right to dismiss him so easily? Maybe I don’t altogether share his frame of reference, but should I not take seriously the contention that universities should in their actions uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour, and expect to see this reflected in the actions of their members?

These are difficult questions, and universities need to be seen to be engaging with them. I do not believe that we should see ourselves as having a role in preaching to students about complex private morality issues, but we should take seriously the expectation that we will behave with integrity and responsibility. That should be our moral compass. We’re probably not always good at following it.

When institutional ethos conflicts with public policy

April 6, 2011

The University of Wales is currently attracting some criticism over its links with certain colleges that hold to what has been described as a ‘fundamentalist Christian ethos’. In particular, some of the institutions concerned (often operating outside the UK) adhere to the view that homosexuality is morally wrong. The University of Wales validates their degree programmes, and in that sense endorses the content and standards of what is taught.

It has now been reported that some senior academics of the University of Wales plan to make a formal complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, based on their view that the validation of these colleges runs counter to the Equality Act 2010, which requires public bodies to observe the requirement of non-discrimination in relation to a number of categories, one of which is sexual orientation.

If this complaint goes ahead it will address something that is more widespread than just overseas-based fundamentalist Christian colleges. There are numerous indigenous educational institutions that are based on particular religious or other cultural principles, and some of these could be seen as problematic. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and Islam also regard homosexuality as morally wrong, and the Roman Catholic church also reserves its ordained ministry for men only. This ethos is no doubt visible in at least some of the educational establishments that are maintained by them, which in turn either are public bodies or are institutionally linked to them.

There is in this a clash between the ethos of the state as set out in legislation and public policy, and the ethos of these and other institutions. How should the state deal with this? Is it a matter of freedom of speech and conscience that should be protected, or where at least an expression of something that deviates from public policy should be tolerated in the interests of cultural diversity? Or should the principles of equality to which the state is committed trump that? If that is so, it will affect more than just the validation arrangements of the University of Wales.

Often these matters are allowed to be obscured in creative ambiguity, whereby respect for inherited cultural and religious principles gives some leeway to the maintenance of an ethos that might otherwise be suspect. On the other hand, it is difficult to see what the point is of non-0discroimination principles that do not appear to apply to some of the bodies most inclined not to observe them. This is particularly significant in educational institutions, which will influence future generations.

It seems to me to be right to allow people to hold and express their religious beliefs; but that this must stop short of funding the teaching of those beliefs where they conflict with principles of equality and justice. Christians have often been at the heart of campaigns to protect and advance human rights, in line with the key messages of the New Testament. That is still the dominant ethos of Christianity. It should not be undermined by state tolerance of discriminatory principles held by some groups within it.

Protecting an educational ethos?

March 1, 2011

In 1985 in Ireland a female schoolteacher was dismissed by the secondary school employing her when she became pregnant. She challenged the lawfulness of the dismissal, and the case was heard in the Employment Appeals Tribunal, and on appeal in the Circuit Court and, finally, the High Court. The teacher’s case was that she had been dismissed on grounds of pregnancy, a ground for dismissal expressly prohibited under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977. The school in question was a Catholic convent school, and it argued in its defence that she had not been dismissed because she was pregnant, but because her pregnancy was a visible rejection by her of the ethos of the school, as she was living with a man to whom she was not married. The school won its case at all stages, with the various tribunal members and judges stating that it was entitled to protect its particular ethos, and that the teacher had demonstrated visibly that she was rejecting it. In fact in an extraordinary aside the Circuit Court judge hearing the case pointed out in his judgement that ‘in other places women are being condemned to death for this sort of offence’ (Flynn v. Power and Sisters of the Holy Faith).

So is all this kind of thing different today? Well, last month a Roman Catholic institution in Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill College, fired one of its lecturers, a priest, after the local diocese received a complaint about the priest because he was gay. It is in fact a complex case, because when they discovered that he was gay they also discovered that he was not a Roman Catholic priest, but rather a priest of the Old Catholic church (which split from Rome in the 19th century and is now aligned with the Anglican church). The college has defended its actions by pointing out that same-sex partnerships are ‘contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church’.

In these islands there are many denominational schools and institutions, and these cases raise the question of whether they should be allowed to protect their ethos even when this means disciplining or dismissing staff whose actions violate the denomination’s moral code but are protected by law. It is unlawful to fire someone because of their sexual orientation: but should there be an exception to this where the employer maintains religious objections to homosexuality? This may become even more significant when colleges with a denominational ethos are the only providers of certain kinds of programmes.

I am not arguing the case against religious institutions (though I think the near-monopoly of denominational education at primary level needs to be revisited urgently) – indeed DCU has three affiliated denominational colleges of which I was always very proud. But I do not believe that it should be lawful to protect an ethos where elements of that ethos actually violate the law of the land. It is, I think, to maintain a moral perspective opposing certain types of sexual conduct, but where such conduct is protected by law, the law cannot (or should not) be trumped by private morality.

Observing the political classes: the Berlusconi circus

February 15, 2011

One typical type of fall-out from economic crisis is a steep drop in respect for politicians. If conditions become really bad, most voters become really negative about the politicians who presided over the period that got them there. Sometimes that is both understandable and justified, sometimes it’s just understandable. These moments are genuinely risky for political and social stability, and it becomes vital for politicians to display skill and integrity.

Right now we are at such a moment. Irish politicians – those that have been in government – have had some difficulty finding the right note for the times they are in, as was the case also with the last British government under Gordon Brown. But whatever else we might say about Brown or Brian Cowen (who is rapidly disappearing from everyone’s consciousness), they have not been accused of personal wrongdoing or lapses in professional integrity (as distinct from serious lapses of judgement).

The same can manifestly not be said of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. Throughout most of his career as a political leader he has been dogged by scandal and controversy, covering his business activities and interests and his personal life. From the distance of these islands it is sometimes easy to laugh at his antics and to marvel at how his political career can have survived them to date. But really, it’s not a laughing matter for a European politician and the leader of one of the large countries of the EU to be seen in this way, as his collapsing credibility has some effect on the integrity of European politics more generally.

Now a judge in Milan has ordered Berlusconi to stand trial in April for paying for sex with an under-age woman, amidst rumours that this conduct, if found to be true, might resemble other similar, additional, allegations.

In the interests of European political integrity, it is time for Italy to remove this politician from office, and to do so fast. It is no longer funny, if it ever was.