Why the Future Needs Us

Nov 25

Many science fiction writers have painted a picture of a future where humanity and technology merge and the lines between man and machine blur. Some scientists have gone so far as to argue that the future doesn’t need us, apparently lending credence to science fiction stories. While this is fertile ground for ethical analysis of choice, it depends on some false assumptions, which are discussed below. One characteristic human tendency is to defer blame or avoid direct responsibility. For example, the phrase “The devil made me do it”, which some say traces it’s origins back to the bible, suggests that we are not the masters of our own destiny. We mistakenly attribute to technology the responsibility for the bad things that happen in our day, while simultaneously celebrating it for the good it accomplishes. Such a bipolar perception of man vs. technology has the potential to confuse the ethical analysis of human choice whenever there is a technological component involved. At the root of the false assumptions mentioned above is the mistaken association between compute capacity and sentience. Compute capacity refers to the ability of a machine to mimic human thought, such as a processor in a modern computer. When a processor performs math or renders three dimensional pictures or simulates complex systems, it is doing what it has been taught to do by a human. As a result, some humans refer to the processor as the ‘brain’ of a computer and attribute human characteristics to it, such as labeling a computer as ‘smart’. Observation of nature is often the impetus that inspires technological invention, which may make this type of association feel natural. However, regardless of how much compute capacity grows with future technological advances, by it’s nature it lacks subjectivity. The human who writes the program remains the subjective party. Real risk is unbounded trust Trust is a result of repeated experiences where expectations agree with outcomes. In Bill Joy’s article, linked above, he did accurately identify that human trust in technology can lead to dependence. “… the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’...

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The Business Ethics Divide

Oct 26

“There’s no such thing as business ethics”, argued John C. Maxwell in response to a suggestion that he write a book specifically about business ethics. His response highlighted his belief that there are not independent ethics for business matters and personal matters. In other words, it is unrealistic to expect a plurality of ethics to produce a consistent and beneficial outcome. From the Christian perspective this plurality of ethics is similarly discounted in the book of James 3:8-12. Speaking of the difficulty of managing the tongue, or what we say, James asks: 11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? 12 Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh. In this passage an individual is the fountain or the fig tree. James asks whether it is reasonable to expect that a behavior in one context won’t impact behaviors in another. If a man lies at work, can he claim to be perfectly honest at home. If he takes advantage of a colleague at work, can he then be respectful and sincere with his family in the home. If a man cheats in sports, when the stakes are high, can he subdue that competitive shortcoming in professional settings when pressure mounts? Non-biblical issues also complicate ethical plurality. In the absence of a constant value system, the lines between ethical contexts, such as work, home and sports, may not be clearly delineated. For example, work situations that involve family relationships or sports leagues with work peers. In these situations where ethical contexts are mixed, which ethic takes priority? Even without mixing contexts, situations like workplace sales competitions and decisions that affect families can blur the lines between ethical contexts. Complexity in ethics leads to confusion and can result in a misstep, where behaviours spill over from one context to another. This complexity can be especially tricky in ethical philosophies like John Rawls justice ethics. The assumptions and presumptions necessary to pursue justice ethics as proposed will tend to discourage consensus. The more simple and practical an ethical theory, the more likely it will be applied accurately and consistently. Moral Philosophy Prevailing...

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Contextual Ethics, or Ethical Relativism

Oct 21

Ethics in business is a game, not unlike poker, argues Albert Carr in a 1968 paper entitled “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?”. Throughout his paper he argues that there is an ethical divide between personal ethics and business ethics, and that what may be unacceptable in personal matters, is not only acceptable in business matters, but expected. About 15 years later, Norman Chase Gillespie published a counterpoint to Carr’s paper entitled “The Business of Ethics”. Gillespie’s position is that there should not be as much license for business matters as Carr proposes, however, he stops far short of arguing for an absolute. Context drives the turning points in each argument from Carr and Gillespie. One main difference between their arguments is found in the assertion by Gillespie that morals represent an absolute that applies in all contexts, while implying that Carr throws morals out when promoting business ethics as a game. Carr does discuss morals, but not in their impact on business, instead taking the position that in the business context, the dominant guiding principle is law, not morals. What is right in business is determined not by morals or conscience, but by what is lawful. Carr does cede that  in circumstances where non-legislative stakeholders, such as clients, take a deep interest in a matter, that can also sway the business outcome. In this case, the choice is not made based on any right or wrong, but instead based on what is prudent and economically sound. Relativism enters into Gillespie’s arguments as he introduces the concept of a “moral rule”. When he originally published his paper in 1983, society may have had a narrower view of what moral rules applied to groups of people, so that some of the relativism observed in Gellespie’s arguments may be a reflection of contemporary society and culture. For example, he argues that lying to save a life is acceptable. He also argues that putting the driver of another car at risk is better than threatening oncoming traffic or sacrificing one’s self to preserve the safety of others. These examples are far from absolute and he provides no justification as to why his moral conclusions ought to be shared by others, which weakens his arguments. Dilemma...

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China and India

Oct 02

China and India are the two most populous countries in the world. Despite relatively small growth rates when compared to the world, 1.312% for India and 0.481% for China, they still add every 22,271,565 new people to the world every year. In some cases, the size of the population has prompted government intervention, such as China’s one-child policy for urban residents. Infrastructure throughout India has struggled to keep pace with the burgeoning population. In both cases, the sheer mass of available workers has produced an economic engine built on top of cheap labor. Despite impressive growth, both of these countries have relatively fragile economies with high dependence on foreign allies. Emerging economies China and India are identified as emerging economies. Political and regional conflict and instability  over the last century has caused some setbacks economically. China has only operated as a market-oriented economy for the last few decades, during which time it has seen extensive growth. India has focused on the IT industry and has made great headway in winning business, although the appeal to Indian IT services is often the low cost relative to other sources. As a result, they have not enjoyed the high economic benefit from their IT outsourcing that might be expected. Fragile economy While both economies are growing, they are fragile. Risks for these two economies include unrest and discontent among citizens. In the case of China, the current communist government only goes back about 70 years, which is a relatively short period of time. Currency issues affect both countries. China has been under pressure from western trading partners in recent years to voluntarily increase the value of their currency against the Dollar and other currencies. Trade deficits and high exports are the reasons most often cited for this pressure. An increase in the value of the Yuan would benefit only the west, and not Chinese interests, which understandably causes reluctance on the part of the Chinese government to comply. Inflation poses a substantial threat to social programs and devaluation of the dollar conflicts with western interests. India has experienced growth economically, but their infrastructure has not kept pace. There is a stark contrast between urban and rural areas, with a great deal of...

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2011 Arab Spring

Sep 25

Events on December 10, 2010 in Tunisia would quickly reverberate around the world, and more especially throughout the Arab world. Citizens of Tunisia began a series of protests which led to the downfall of their government about one month later. Political prisoners were released and government agencies, including the police, were disbanded. Elections followed in which the people elected officials to a representative assembly. Similar uprisings then happened in rapid succession throughout the Arab world with similar results. This has come to be referred to as the Arab Spring. Freedom vs. Economics There has been a lot of discussion about the instigating factors for each uprising. Both economics and desire for freedom have been suggested, and both have some merits. Economically poor circumstances frequently lead to unrest. However, more likely than a desire for democracy is discontent with local governments. Economic difficulties Since the uprisings, economic circumstances have not improved. Much of the infrastructure and stability present before the protests has crumbled. Forming a new coalition government takes time, as does establishing infrastructure and stabilizing currency and trust in external markets. In some countries there have been additional protests and in the case of Egypt, newly elected officials have been removed from office by the military that allowed the initial transition. The result is an economy without foundation and a people even more under pressure than before the uprising. Sectarian divide In addition to the economic strain that both led to and continues with the Arab countries is a sharp division between religious sects. Many of these divisions are specific to different forms of Islam and go back many centuries. Existing cultural tensions related to sectarian differences have been intensified through the process of elections and attempts to find a common ground. The power vacuum left by the fall of these governments has become a breeding ground for continued confrontation, adding ideological disparity to the existing economic and social difficulties. While many have celebrated the Arab Spring as a rebirth of freedom and opportunity in the Arab countries, it’s important to note that it is in the very early stages of development. The initial protests are likely to be repeated, and they have been in some cases already. If...

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Colombia’s New Country

Sep 10

In some ways the history of Colombia as it is known today began in 1830 following the collapse of Gran Colombia, an event which saw Ecuador and Venezuela emerge as separate countries. Even after the split, it remains the only South American country with coastline on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Drug Trade In recent decades, there has been much instability throughout Colombia, especially from the insurgent group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is heavily funded by the drug trade. The country is considered to be the world’s largest cocaine producer. The fact that the population of United States of America is among the top consumers of illegal drugs in the world, many US dollars flow into the country every year. Some estimates put the figure in the multiple billions of dollars annually. In spite of the extensive funding at the disposal of insurgent groups, they still lack the military and popular support necessary to take control of the country. As a result, violence has actually decreased over the last decade. While the decline in violence is a promising trend, there are still regions of the country under insurgent control, a problem that has been exacerbated by the demobilization of the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) around 2006. In the resulting vacuum of power various insurgent groups came to fill some of the gaps. Continual instability within Colombia has led to tensions with its neighbors over concerns that the violence will spill over their borders. In very recent years the Colombian government has escalated its efforts to restore government control throughout the country and within its own administrative departments. A Peaceful Colombia Regional interests in peace and Colombian government efforts toward better control have encountered continual resistance. US consumption of illegal drugs and the enormous flow of US dollars to the insurgent groups who are responsible for the drug trade present a multifaceted problem. Money flowing into the country is not benefiting the economy of Colombia directly. Instead it is benefiting a very few who participate in the insurgent activities or provide services and products to them. The insurgents have more purchasing power on the global stage due to the position of the US dollar...

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