“Ask a Priest: Why Is Ethics Important in Regard to Technology?”

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Q: Why should Christians care about the ethics of technology? – B.M.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The short answer is that technology is a tool that, unchecked and misused, can hurt human beings and societies. Technology needs to be at the true service of man. This is why it’s vital to use technology with an eye toward ethics.

Ethics can be defined as moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity, or the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.

An example of the intersection between ethics and technology is atomic power: Its early application went into bombs that destroyed two cities in Japan and killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Technology can be very helpful, but it can cause lots of harm if not harnessed correctly. Closer to our day is the widespread use of smartphones and the Internet to transmit pornography and toxic messages.

It’s notable that in an age of remarkable advancements in technology, we see increases in depression and suicide. What people often lack is not adequate technology but rather meaning and a deeper sense of connection with the human community.

Pope Benedict XVI in an Easter vigil homily in 2012 reflected on the problem of technology when it doesn’t truly lead mankind forward:

“The darkness that poses a real threat to mankind, after all, is the fact that he can see and investigate tangible material things, but cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil. The darkness enshrouding God and obscuring values is the real threat to our existence and to the world in general. If God and moral values, the difference between good and evil, remain in darkness, then all other ‘lights,’ that put such incredible technical feats within our reach, are not only progress but also dangers that put us and the world at risk. Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment? With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify. Faith, then, which reveals God’s light to us, is the true enlightenment, enabling God’s light to break into our world, opening our eyes to the true light.”

Decades earlier, the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes cautioned:

“Indeed today’s progress in science and technology can foster a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data, and an agnosticism about everything else. For the methods of investigation which these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth. By virtue of their methods these sciences cannot penetrate to the intimate notion of things. Indeed the danger is present that man, confiding too much in the discoveries of today, may think that he is sufficient unto himself and no longer seek the higher things.” (No. 57)

In other words, a danger of technology is that we think we can solve all our own problems. We can’t. We need God’s grace, and if we forget that, we will go into decline.

We need ethics; otherwise, we might think that anything that is technologically possible is OK. But it’s not.

We could develop, for instance, microchips that could be inserted in a person’s body, enabling a government to keep track of his every move. This probably isn’t an ethical use of technology.

Then there is the challenge of artificial intelligence and its use (see Crux post). You get the idea.

A further taste of Benedict XVI’s thought on technology is found at First Things.

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