Moral Reaction & the Challenge of the Anthropocene

We are now living in an Age of the Anthropocene, a geological age of man. This presents a new concept of humanity as an agent in the world. What challenges does this era present and how might we consider them morally? Complex problems which have only recently emerged in our collective consciousness are now heading toward uncertain resolutions. From climate change to genetic alteration, robotic labour, artificial intelligence and nuclear power we find man-made problems that affect both our ability to survive and our ability to surpass ourselves. They could be solutions which remedy all our ills or a pandora’s box which only yields more insurmountable difficulties. These Anthropocene challenges have been adiaphorised; made technical and remote from moral consideration. The problem might be moral, but the solution is presumed to be technical which leaves them in the realm of experts. This alienates them from the moral considerations that would otherwise regulate their development. We then find ourselves outside of moral principle or consequence alone as neither offers a convincing explanation of how to be moral when the results will impact both our children today and our descendants 10,000 years from now. How do we begin morally assessing the impact of artificial intelligence? Especially when we should consider its interaction with genetics and climate change to make a full enquiry relevant to what we are already seeing. In short, we return to the age-old question of, what do we do now?

All previous moral theory was concerned with acts or characters. Individuals and their acts within isolated circumstances are good subjects for philosophical enquiry, but they leave large gaps in our understanding of social moral problems. In place of this we need a theory of moral ‘how’. I may know very well what the moral principle is and what the range of consequences are. But if I have no how, no road map, then I have no means of moving between the starting point of my intention and the outcome that will truly decide whether what I did was moral. If I act in a moral fashion but arrive at an immoral outcome many may recognise my good intentions, but few will thank me. We may not repeat the method, even if it would make sense to engage in successive attempts. If I act immorally to produce a moral outcome, some might sympathise with the logic, but there will always be an air of bad faith about my involvement. It would be doubtful whether others could trust me. An irresolvable tension comes to exist between the intention and the consequence because if either one proves to be immoral it stains the meaning of the other. Virtue ethics attempted to resolve this by focussing on the character of the person. But this leaves questions over how one can know a person is virtuous if virtue is itself defined by a virtuous character. It falls into a somewhat recursive loop. I would suggest that these tensions exist because we have failed to account for the wealth of possibilities for action that lie between the intention, the person and the consequence. There is usually more than one way to bring the moral sense you have to life.

This moral ‘how’ will need to need to speak to both individuals acting in a limited context and to wider social issues which we collectively address. It needs this frame because the social outcomes that structure our lives and our cultures affect what we consider and can make individually, morally, possible. It also needs to emphasise telling the uncomfortable truth over the noble lie. These Anthropocene Challenges are Hegelian in nature. Contained within the solution we select are both the means of its moral success and its moral failure. We must acknowledge the crises, antagonisms, opportunities and alternatives which are the direct and natural effect of selecting one thing over another. It is the value we choose that we call moral and our ability to live by it that we call ethics. So, for those terms to have true meaning in a world where climate change is impacted by artificial intelligence, we must be honest about the paths we did not walk because those other paths may later prove to have been better ones. And all these choices are ours. There is no choice we make from this point onward that we should blame on nature as we know enough now to either acknowledge our natural limits or surpass them. The danger of the Anthropocene, morally, is that we seem to be exceeding them without a clear direction or limit.

To build this framework of moral ‘how’ we will need to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Theories of ethics concentrate on a method they feel surest will arrive at the correct outcome by focussing on specific points in the moral act. The intention, the consequence, the person, the moment of decision. Whilst these frameworks generate moral answers they still leave us adrift of the movement between each part of the act. We may now know why, or what outcome we want or what kind of person we should be, but we can’t link all three. Or perhaps worse, we know all three but can’t find a means to express them all through the same act. We have no ‘how’. A prescriptive ‘how’ would be too limited in its answers and would not acknowledge the moral risks we face when we pick one answer over another. It is the person, in their full context, with all the potential alternatives in front of them who is trying to be moral. So, what we really need is not a prescription of what to do next, but a framework within which we can see the many paths. A framework that acknowledges that morals are individual and collective ideas at the same time.

It is towards this end that I have built the framework below to begin addressing this gap. It is a crude answer at this stage, but the task is large and is becoming more urgent. We do not want to leave all the answers regarding the ethics of robots or genetics to the engineers that build them. As has already been amply demonstrated, even if they are good people, they are only a small number of people and this issue affects us all in a way our government and culture should speak to.

I began with the idea of morality as a reaction. We tend to think about how to act morally, when we are already faced with a dilemma. It takes the concrete nature of a problem to present itself before we can be relatively sure of what the more moral choice is. We may feel sure we know what we would do in a given situation in advance but once it is set upon us the weight of the decision comes in to play and the contingency of what is possible even more so. We tend to act as individuals, tribes (families, neighbourhoods, communities) or as larger social groups (nations). We generally react to the problem by either acting positively with kindness or negatively with punishment & prohibition. We are also sometimes unable to act in a way we consider moral. In any theory of how people act morally we need to leave space for people to choose to do nothing or to hold moral feeling and be unable to act it out. Indeed, when we face moral dilemmas, ‘staying out of it’ can be the more moral option, if our involvement would likely make things worse. ‘Aversion’ is those moments when one is either unable to act or chooses not to. It was laying out this thinking in a table of action that led me to the framework.

The choice of terms I’ve made, such as Revenge, maybe seen as the wrong ones. They perhaps leave improper connotations in peoples minds. But I also selected them precisely because they are well known words which evoke a clear and simple understanding quickly.

  • Samaritanism: is meant in a secular sense. It has an admittedly Christian origin (Luke 10: 30–37), but it is aimed at the action not any religious or spiritual idea. A person who is generous to those in distress will act in kindness when dealing with a moral problem. This can include acting towards oneself with generosity and kindness.
  • Charity: because a group of people thinking as ‘Samaritans’ present a cumulative response of kindness and generosity.
  • Welfare: when states and entire societies act to solve moral problems by helping those in distress. This can present some interesting moral issues in that paying our taxes becomes a substitute to genuine moral action towards our real neighbours. To some extent we stop caring about being a kind tribe if we have a state we expect to do that work.
  • Revenge: when we seek to punish immoral acts by taking matters into our own hands. It may not be revenge in the sense of a physical violence or a direct action. But the sense informing how and why we act is similar. We are personally taking it upon ourselves to prohibit the immoral act occurring.
  • Discipline: when a group gets together to punish or prohibit the behaviour of others
  • Regulation: law making at the level of society for acts deemed so immoral we manage them via a codified system of punishment and prohibition.
  • Avoid: when we as individuals feel we cannot do something about moral problems, we tend to ignore, dismiss, ridicule or directly move around the problem. A pure acknowledgement of a moral problem that motivates no action to either support or deter it can be described as an avoidant behaviour.
  • Passive: however, when we operate at the level of a group or tribe this characterisation of avoidance is no longer valid. One individual may ignore a moral problem but for an entire group of people to do so takes a different kind of functional ignorance. We would have to say that the allowance of the moral problem to continue to exist, without the intervention of the group either way amounts to a passivity the group has.
  • Detached: this passivity is more acute at the level of a society. Societies have resources tribes do not and can act independently of many tribes. Each tribe might ignore a problem, but the society at large can act upon because it has the scale to cope and has been invested with the necessary powers. So, if the society at large has chosen to do nothing it is to some extent simply detached from the problem. It does not care either way if the issue exists.

I went with a distinction between individuals, tribes and societies because people act differently in a group to how they act in private. We also tend to feel differently about our moral responsibility in group contexts and the size of that group matters (see: Bystander effects). We therefore need to distinguish between the different ways these group sizes and types of reaction interact and what the moral sense was in the first place.

The idea of this framework is to illuminate the different paths one can take to the achievement of a moral outcome. To show the means we use to go from the person and their intention through to the consequence. It grants us space to examine our world of alternative moral possibilities by seeing how the interaction functions in the world. Will we best serve our moral ‘why’ by acting alone or in a group? Will it work best if we attempt to punish the wrong doer or manage the moral act by prohibition? It is tracing the likely paths from intention through to consequence via the various ‘hows’ that should aid us in moral comprehension.

I would suggest that this framework was especially useful for new moral problems such as artificial intelligence as it is not prescriptive over what kind of method one chooses. Indeed, one could use it to run scenarios across all the different levels and types to attempt to structure the potential moral possibilities. It also allows us to consider how the actions of a company (Tribe) impact the moral worlds of government regulation (Societies) and the potential for persons (Individuals) of different types. We can start to examine how a societies law making (Prohibition) impacts our ability as individuals to assist (Kindness) our poorer neighbours.

Work to be done & Further Questions:

  • Road test the idea with more examples — does it even really work as intended?
  • Is it complete — are there other forms of moral ‘how’ this framework has not considered?
  • Better define the boundaries between what ‘individuals’ vs ‘tribes’ vs ‘societies’ are
  • Elaborate on the interactions and the ways the framework illuminates the process
  • Review the meaning of the terms used: is Charity a good word for a ‘kind tribe’?
  • Is it reasonable to use such a psychological/emotional model to explain philosophical ideas around ethics, norms and law making?

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Daniel Gardner

Daniel Gardner

Daniel is a philosopher trapped inside an accountant. He writes to demonstrate that some accountants know the value of things rather than their price.