Crafting an Ethical Global Society

By on June 29th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Ethics, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

At the 2015 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS’15), SSIT was greatly honored with an opening address to the conference from the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. The speech was delivered at the Grand Hotel, Malahide, on Wednesday, November 11. The prepared text appears below.

Tá áthas orm an deis a beith agam freastail ar an siompóisiam tábhachtach seo. Is mian liom mo bhuío-chas a ghabháil le Paul Cunningham don chuireadh dom labhairt libh inniu, agus libhse ar fad as ucht na fíorchaoin fáilte sin.

I am delighted to I have the opportunity to be here at this important symposium. I would like to thank Paul Cunningham for inviting me to speak here, and all of you for that generous welcome.

The central theme of this conference “Culture, Ethics and the Knowledge Society” is an important one. As President of Ireland I initiated, two years ago, a national conversation about ethics to discuss the principles and values by which we might wish to live together as a society. Amongst the discussions held as part of that initiative were those on ethics in human rights, ethics within economic systems, ethics in relations between countries, and how such might apply in new technological conditions.

The range and breadth of the programme for this conference is a strong reminder of the increasing centrality role of technology in today’s world, a centrality that has profound and far reaching global implications. There can be no doubt that new technological breakthroughs can bring opportunities with benign consequences for the project of development. but there may be unintended consequences which present us with new and complex moral dilemmas, and the themes you cover, including Professional and Research Ethics in STEM, Supporting Research Collaboration with Africa, Professional and Research Ethics in Science & Technology, eAgriculture/mAgriculture. and Technology and Development Policy Issues, are critical areas around which there needs to be considerable debate.

Innovation and technology [must be] delivered within the requirements of social justice and human rights.

As our world becomes increasingly shaped by new technology, it is critical that at global level we explore the impact this has on our collective ethical responsibility and action. Fundamentally, we must ensure, in forging new models of development, that innovation and technology are delivered within the requirements of social justice and human rights. I believe that there is great potential for technology to have a hugely positive role.

The ethical issues presented by the application and dissemination of technology are myriad but I was particularly pleased to learn that, in this European Year of Development, the opening Plenary of this Conference has focused on the critical issue of Technology and Development. There can be no doubt that the dilemma of how technology is to be transferred – if we are to take advantage of rapid technological advance, whilst ensuring it does not underpin an increasing inequality between rich and poor nations, or open a new fissure between advantaged and disadvantaged members of our society, and takes account of the threat posed by climate change – is perhaps the most significant and challenging global issue of our time.

Indeed, this year 2015, has been defined as a critical moment in world history – the two major international summits on development and climate change will set the agenda for the next century in meeting humankind’s greatest challenges. It is a year, in its significance for new beginnings, that echoes the year 1945 when the tragedies of two world wars within a half century had shocked an international community who had witnessed the collapse of the most basic standards of human behaviour. Today, once again, we are at a moment when we cannot ignore the persistence of global poverty at a time of unbounded surplus, a growing inequality, in the context of uncontrolled and unregulated destruction of species and their environments, as well as of the balance between them, on our planet.

For example, tackling climate change challenges us to reconsider the sources of the energy requirements of today’s world, one in which advanced industrialised nations have benefitted hugely from centuries of fossil fuel based development, while delivering a consequence of desertification and rising sea levels to those in undeveloped countries. Developing countries struggle with heavy rains, floods, droughts, and food shortages at what are, for them, the early stages of their development. If we are to ethically confront climate disruption, those of us in the developed world must acknowledge that our lifestyle is unsustainable, and our model of economic development, if continued at the present rate, would make this planet uninhabitable. We must also acknowledge the historical debt owed by those who have historically benefitted from the delivery of such technologies through a prism of colonialism, and the consequences for those who are still striving for economic justice and equality in an unfair globalised economy.

The Sustainable Development Goals which have been agreed in New York set out 17 Goals and 169 Targets aimed at addressing global hunger and poverty over the period to 2030. The Goals speak to governments as primary duty holders and call on them to act in solidarity. They speak to business and capital – and to those institutions that might regulate them – about how they might support sustainable development. The Goals also speak to us all as citizens on the responsibilities we must assume if we are to change how we live, and our patterns of consumption.

Intellectual Crisis

Global inequality is about more than a failure of policy or restitution of the inherited wealth gap; it is an intellectual crisis and one in need of new ideas and new thinking. We cannot deny that our existing models of economic development, as they have transitioned to a financialised global economy, have led to an often de-peopled growth; one in which the people exist as appendages to the economy rather than the economy being designed to serve the people; where human or insatiable consumption is prioritised over the needs of the planet, and where the gap between what is described as “developed” and “developing” nations consequently continues to widen in terms of life choices and opportunities for human fulfilment.

Technology is at the heart of the considerations of both climate change and development.

Such prioritising of the wants of the consuming few over the needs of the many has eroded social cohesion and has led to a social and political crisis of justice as well as a scientific and environmental crisis. Solutions to address unemployment, poverty or climate change must now require the dominant economic model of our time be subjected to critique. This demands a pluralist ethos of scholarship, an ethos which is in thin supply with consequences for a limited discourse.

Technology is at the heart of the considerations of both climate change and development. Central to the failed model of neo-liberal economics is a mythic, but prevalent, view of technological advancement as neutral and inevitable, as a natural pathway towards enrichment and improvement. Such a view fails to acknowledge the finite character of nature and its resources and the consequent link between climate change and resource scarcity; a view which defines nature and its resources as both unlimited and quantifiable commodities for the production process.

Technology is a resource that can empower poor nations to meet their development needs.

Many difficulties have flowed from the creation of a false dichotomy between what is presented as the “hard” concerns of economic planners and scientists, and the “soft” concerns of those in the social and environmental sciences or the humanities, concerned as they are with the human and environment impact of growth, or with the ideological context in which science is taught and practised or the context in which technology is delivered.

The belief that such concerns are mutually exclusive is belied by those leading scientists who have always factored ethical questions into their work in areas such as environmental science, meteorology, and marine biology, for example. The marginalisation of their voices has lead to a view of science being the root cause of a narrow version of economy; responsible for our dependence on destructive technologies, including those based on fossil fuels.

It is important, however, that in considering the association between technology and environmental concerns, we do not simply refute technological advancement as being antithetical to the concerns of conservation. To do so would be to ignore the possibilities and potential of technology if scientific innovation is harnessed to ethical consideration of the values that must underpin such innovation.

Recapture Potential of Technology

It is possible to decouple an uncritical use of technology from an obsolete and failed model of development. We must, I argue, recapture the potential of technology derived from fundamental and applied science as a key form of wealth, harnessed for public good, and allow it to be delivered within an open citizenship model and thus be emancipatory. Technology is a resource that can empower poor nations to meet their development needs and address the threats posed by climate change.

It is through the ethical use of modern technology that we will be equipped to build a sustainable model of development for poorer nations, which will create and support employment, indigenous industry, and effective infrastructure whilst addressing the urgent question of climate change.

The head start in technological innovation enjoyed by wealthy nations and derived from their development advantage can either be used to achieve equalisation of opportunity in the future, or to strengthen their advantage and widen the existing technology gap. The concept of “technology justice” calls for a system of access to technology that is available to all people in all parts of the world, an access that will assist them in meeting their needs without compromising the ability of others and of future generations to do the same.

Already we are witnessing areas where we can see how the ethical use of technology can empower sustainable development. For example, as a global leader in the fight against global hunger and a nation who helped to found the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement in 2010, Ireland has scaled up support for research and extension initiatives focussed on boosting the agricultural productivity of poor smallholder farmers, with a particular focus on women farmers.

Under this programme, we have stressed the necessity of research being accessible to, and used by, poor farmers in their fields, helping them to grow foods for their families. Agri-science is being put at the service of populations in those countries facing the greatest risk of malnutrition and its associated effects such as stunting of child growth; whilst the importance of sustaining the life of the farming community remains a priority. There is a difference we must never forget between what is appropriate as a nutritional response to famine and hunger in the short term, and the generation of sustainable food production within a diversity of cultural settings.

Access to the necessary scientific knowledge is delivered through state agencies and universities; and this is then combined with local expertise and understanding of cultural and other location-specific contexts to ensure effective results. This source and delivery of scientific knowledge differs fundamentally in intention and from unaccountable strategies that can merely create a new dependence, or new forms of consequence from hierarchy.

Indeed, when we review the impact of technology in the developing world it is clear that the best results are achieved where the benefits of science and technology are delivered within a citizenship model, rather than a consumer model, and where research and technology programmes are conceived and delivered in conjunction with local and state authorities. It is also worth noting that the greatest long-term advances, those which have pushed boundaries and challenged concepts, have come from investment in fundamental scientific research which has not been scoped by, or limited to, the narrow confines of applied and instrumental research in the service of industry, or of a limited lifespan structured solely around market exploitation.

The vision of the Sustainable Development Goals is one of common humanity with universal objectives for achieving human dignity for all. An essential step towards that vision is a science without borders, where discovery and innovation are not limited by time or sovereignty. The genius of scientific discovery can be used as a tool in an aggressive competition between us or, alternatively can become an aid to solidarity and cooperation across the globe.

Scientific research and technological advancement generally play a critical role in our society and in our economy. Investment in science and promotion of science in education is a cornerstone of our economic policy and has played a central role in our economic recovery. But of course, science and its application through technology have an importance far beyond the economic, and science is central to every aspect of our contemporary lives.

SSIT is Vital

The work of organisations such as the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology is vital to the crafting of an ethical global society. Your commitment to understanding how new technology impacts on our global society, and its possibilities for improving the world we live in is admirable. Your wide and varied membership is, I know, critical to the success of your endeavours; and indeed the distinguished list of international contributors to this two-day conference gives testimony to both the importance of your work, and the esteem in which the IEEE-SSIT is held around the world.

Your programme is inspiring and wide ranging and includes, I was pleased to learn, much opportunity for networking and knowledge sharing.

Tá saineolas mórthaibh-seach le brath sa tseomra, agus is mian liom sibh ar fad a mholadh as bhur spiorad comhoibrithe agus rannpháirtiochta flaithitúil agus sibh ag teacht le chéile chun aghaidh a thabhairt agus plé a dhéanamh ar na ceisteanna agus na dúshláin tromchúiseach a eascraíonn sa ré teicneo-laíoch seo.

The work of organisations such as the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology is vital to the crafting of an ethical global society.

The depth of expertise in this room is impressive, and I would like to commend you all for your generous spirit of co-operation and participation as you come together to consider and address some of the serious questions and challenges arising in this increasingly technological age.

The British Nobel prize winning pharmacologist James Black has stated, in terms of the ethics of research:

“In the culture I grew up in you did your work and you did not put your arm around it to stop other people from looking – you took the earliest possible opportunity to make knowledge available.”

I thank you for being an inspiring embodiment of that statement, and I wish you a successful and fruitful conference.


Michael D. Higgins