Technoethics and the pursuit of human flourishing

As the University continues to develop its research into the crucial role that data science and artificial intelligence will play in the world’s future, Dr James Eglinton, Meldrum Lecturer in Reformed Theology at the School of Divinity, considers the impact on our ethical codes and human character, and how they can lead to meaningful and sustainable progress for the whole of society.


How should we think about the role of technology in the pursuit of human flourishing? At the outset of the 21st century, the moral status of technology in relation to human wellbeing is ambiguous. Ours is the age in which robot-assisted surgeons and remotely controlled combat drones carry out their tasks with equally startling precision, and where the same information technology suppresses one population by denying them information and enriches another by granting them free access to it. Our inventions are a blessing to some and a curse to others. For that reason, the greatest questions about technology take us beyond our inventions to focus on their human creators. What are we to make of the ingenious creatures whose tools are found everywhere on our planet and even litter the surface of the moon?

The greatest questions about technology take us beyond our inventions to focus on their human creators.

Inherently interdisciplinary

On their own, the STEM disciplines that drive technological progress cannot answer the profound questions raised by their astounding efforts. They tell us which developments can take place, but must lean on expertise found elsewhere in the academy when forming judgments on which of these should proceed. In this space, the emerging area of technoethics – an increasingly important field across the University of Edinburgh – is inherently interdisciplinary, bringing different kinds of knowledge from the realms of science, engineering, and the humanities to explore issues of profound relevance across the planet. As such, within the academy, technoethics is everyone’s concern. After all, its questions can only be answered with reflection on the likes of business studies, politics, medicine, economics, philosophy and theology. As a place in which these diverse avenues of inquiry intersect, our own University makes a unique contribution to this growing field. Indeed, the work of the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI), where a significant programme of research and education is under development, draws together academics from fields as diverse as machine learning, law, design informatics, economics, and politics to investigate these very issues.

Consider the relationship of technology and theology, for example. What can theology – a scholarly discipline primarily concerned with knowledge of the divine – contribute to today’s questions on technology and human flourishing? While religious doctrine seems relatively unimportant to the everyday concerns of many of today’s secular Westerners, the opposite is true for most contemporary non-Westerners. In 2019, morethan half of the world’s 7.7 billion people identify as either Christian or Muslim. For the most part, the people who make up this combined Christian-Muslim majority live outside the idiosyncratically irreligious West (and this is to say nothing, of course, about the world’s 1.1 billion Hindus,500 million Buddhists, or 20 million Jews).

Locally, our University finds itself in a predominantly irreligious city. Globally, however, we find ourselves in an overwhelmingly religious world. As such, our University’s inclusion of the critical study of theology is an important part of our general claim to be a globally-focused institution. Were it not so, our community would have nothing to say about the single most important factor in the lives of billions ofour fellow humans.

The good life

More specifically though, how might the study of theology contribute to discussions around technology and human flourishing? Across the globe, the meaning of ‘human flourishing’ varies. In some cultures, humans are seen as flourishing when they are enabled to follow radically individualistic ideals, while others believe humans do best when community takes precedence over individuality. For some, humanity will flourish through liberation from notions of the transcendent, while others see the same goal as inconceivable if human life is not ordered in the light of the divine.

There is no uniform view of the good life that strikes all humans as self-evidently true. Rather, our diverse conclusions on human flourishing are formed by a myriad of factors. For many, these conclusions are indelibly marked by the religious concerns that inform their most basic notions of human worth and purpose in this world. To ignore that particular factor would be to envision technoethics as an approach that imagines all people to be secular Westerners, or that can only address that segment of the human population.

Such an approach would have little to say, however, to those whose understanding of human beings and the swords/ploughshares they fashion is formed differently. As a place of rich interdisciplinary exchange, thank heavens, our University allows for loftier ambitions than that.

£5m investment

Baillie Gifford has pledged £5 million to support University research into the challenges and opportunities around emerging technologies – including machine learning, accelerated automation, and financial innovation. Professor Shannon Vallor will join the University’s Edinburgh Futures Institute in February 2020 as the first Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence.

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