Friday, June 21, 2024

Ethics, technology and the future of humanity

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An internationally renowned professor, philosopher and ethicist, Peter Singer is at the forefront of thinking about the social impact and ethical implications of new technologies.

How to define ethics?


In our reflection on the judgments we make, we should be able to adhere to certain fundamental ethical principles or oppose the application of these principles in certain specific situations. From an ethical point of view, for example, we should be able to accept that the interests of each individual should be treated equally. My own interests do not carry more weight than those of other people elsewhere in the world, provided they are similar interests. Starting from the principle that a given disease causes identical suffering in human beings everywhere on the planet, I believe that equal weight should be given to each patient suffering from this disease, regardless of differences in other kind.

This principle is one of the foundations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions. Ethics is not a matter of taste: it is a truth that imposes itself, like mathematical reasoning or logic. It follows that, in this area, there are objectively good and bad answers.

But of course, within this principle of equal consideration of interests, it is possible to express different ethical points of view as to our way of living or behaving. There are two main philosophical approaches to this.

According to the first, to do well – starting from the principle of equality of interests between individuals – one should strive to maximize the sum total of interests, promote well-being and reduce suffering. Commonly associated with English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 18th and early 19th centuries, this utilitarian thesis still has many supporters among contemporary philosophers. I’m part of.

According to the second approach, associated with the 18th century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, there is a principle of inviolability which requires that certain behaviors should be banned because they are contrary to human dignity.

This does not mean that utilitarians place no importance on human dignity. These rights are important because they lay the foundations of a society that seeks to ensure the well-being of everyone, but this thesis does not exclude the violation of certain human rights.

Imagine a runaway train approaching a tunnel in which it will lead to the death of five workers. If the train is diverted, there will be only one death. As a supporter of the utilitarian thesis, I believe that one must be prepared to sacrifice one life to save five.

Ethics and intellectual property rights

When it comes to intellectual property rights, utilitarianism encourages innovation and creation for the benefit of all. There is, however, another current that property rights, including intellectual property rights, are inherently natural rights; it would therefore be unfair to deprive the holders of these rights of things which are rightfully theirs, regardless of the consequences. What is less known, however, is that from a natural law perspective, there are limits to natural property rights. If, in a state of need, a starving person, for example, steals an object from someone who has plenty of it – a loaf of bread, for example – we cannot speak of theft because according to the theory of natural law, this type of property right exists to allow us to satisfy our needs. As soon as these rights prevent us from satisfying our basic needs, they are no longer valid.

Now, assuming this principle is applied to intellectual property and drugs needed to treat patients who cannot afford to treat themselves, for example, it may result in a doctrine that justifies the production of generic versions of drugs protected by patent for these patients in poor countries. According to this conception, certain international agreements, like the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, contain clauses allowing governments to authorize the manufacture of generic versions of patented medicines (under so-called “compulsory” licenses) in certain situations. This type of approach can be defended,

The utilitarian approach, which is part of a long-term perspective, gives more importance to the right to patent protection, while natural law privileges the immediate needs of the patient, who will die for lack of treatment. In natural law, nothing is said about future generations who will benefit from the development of new medicines which do not yet exist and which will only be able to see the light of day if the pharmaceutical companies have the assurance of having sufficient financial incentives to develop them.

In addressing global health challenges, it is essential to take this long-term view, while recognizing the importance of finding solutions to make life-saving medicines available to those who need them. Similarly, it is important to avoid that effective drugs are available in rich countries but remain inaccessible in developing countries.

However, the question of how to incentivize pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs for markets where they are unlikely to be financially profitable remains the most complex.

Today, in rich countries, a patient can benefit from very expensive treatments of up to 500,000 United States dollars per year. In contrast, in developing countries, it only takes US$3,400 to save a life by distributing insecticide-treated mosquito nets in malaria-prone areas. This gap is too big. Changing this situation will probably require efforts to save more lives at lower cost in developing countries while capping the amount of money invested in saving lives in rich countries.

According to Peter Singer, the technological future based on artificial intelligence and the existence of super-intelligent machines with capabilities far superior to those of humans raises many questions that deserve careful consideration.

Technology and bioethics

Let me now turn to the complex question of the interaction between technology and bioethics.

In the 1950s, the invention of the ventilator made it possible to keep alive patients unable to breathe without assistance. This device continues to save the lives of patients who, after some time, make a full recovery. That’s wonderful. But what about patients who never regain consciousness or who can no longer do without respiratory support? This ethical problem arose even more acutely in the 1960s, when Dr. Christiaan Barnard showed that it was possible to save lives by transplanting the heart from one patient to another. What to do with patients on a ventilator who will never regain consciousness and whose brain no longer reacts? Should we keep them on artificial respiration for the rest of their lives or should we disconnect the respirator and let them die?

The solution was to change our definition of death. Until then, according to the legislation in force, an individual was declared dead when he no longer showed heart rate, pulse and respiration. It was enough to add to this definition the irreversible cessation of all brain functions, which made it possible to pronounce the official death of certain patients on ventilators. More importantly, thanks to this new definition, it became possible to remove the organs of patients who were artificially kept alive while their heart was still beating and to use these organs to save other lives. If it had been considered that these patients were still alive, the operation would have been in every way contrary to the Kantian idea according to which a human being could not be a means to serve the ends of another human being. To avoid this situation, we have changed our definition of death. This change was not the result of any great scientific discovery. It was a political choice. This decision met with very little opposition at the time, which is hardly believable, even if it remains a subject of discussion.

I hope we will use technology to improve our quality of life in a more equitable way that helps those most in need. It is in this area that we have the most to contribute.Subsequently, in the 1970s, the technique of in vitro fertilizationhas been developed, allowing infertile couples to have children. Thanks to this process, it has also become possible to produce a viable embryo outside the human body and transfer it to a woman with no genetic link to this embryo. A woman who wanted to have a child but was unable to produce eggs could therefore become a mother. At the same time, it became possible for a woman to rent her uterus and receive remuneration as a surrogate mother. There are already a number of cases of this type at the international level, which poses an ethical problem. The fate of viable embryos produced outside the human body, including what we can do with them in terms of genetic screening and modification,

Aimed at detecting certain diseases that can lead to pregnancy termination, genetic screening and selection in the prenatal period are now commonplace. It is also possible to obtain the same result by proposing to women exposed to a high risk of having a child presenting a genetic anomaly to resort to in vitro fertilization.  After the woman has undergone treatment to produce multiple eggs, which are then fertilized, the resulting embryos are screened, after which a healthy embryo is transferred to the woman’s uterus, eliminating any risk termination of pregnancy and allows the future mother to bear a healthy child.

This process in itself is not really controversial. But as genetics advances, above-average genes will inevitably come to light. There is no doubt that couples will then seek to select the embryos so as to have a child with the desired characteristics. To what future do such practices destine us? It is permissible to imagine the formation of a class structure, an aristocracy and a proletariat based on genetics, where individuals – and even more so states – would use genetics to improve intelligence, for example, to gain a competitive advantage over the rest of the world. Although it is rather limited, there is today a possibility of social mobility between classes which has its importance; is it really desirable to give it up? Also, assuming that we decide not to prohibit the use of genetic technology for this purpose, how do we go about regulating it and making it accessible? This deserves reflection.

Moreover, it is quite possible that in the next 10 years, CRISPR technology will allow us to modify the genome of embryos. If this process proves to be safe and reliable – of which we have no guarantee yet – human nature could be modified. I don’t see anything wrong with that per se. The constant evolution of human nature and our genetic heritage contributes to our survival. It would be wrong to think that, guided by some kind of providence, evolution leads to the best possible result on the ethical level. Better results are possible: more intelligent, altruistic and benevolent human beings, for example. Perhaps this should be seen as a solution to protect the future of humanity.

Artificial intelligence and the future of humanity

The development of artificial intelligence is another important area that requires careful thought. These techniques are increasingly being used to perform operations that humans already know how to perform. In the manufacturing industry, for example, robots have taken over repetitive tasks once performed by factory workers. Everything suggests that many other sectors will in turn use artificial intelligence to perform similar functions. It is therefore time to reflect on how to establish a society characterized by a much lower volume of work for humans but capable of achieving productivity gains and putting them at the service of the community – for example by means of a universal minimum income scheme – all while satisfying the need to feel useful that every individual feels. This challenge will be extremely difficult to meet.

In the opinion of some observers, the advent of super-intelligent machines with capacities far superior to those of humans is for tomorrow. How will they affect the future of humanity? Will they decide one day that they can very well do without us? This ominous prospect could lead to a tragedy of unimaginable proportions by ending billions of years of existence on the planet and undoing all the lost potential of future generations of humans. Is it incumbent on us, in this context, to seek to minimize the risk of extinction for all of humanity? Can we imagine that these super-intelligent machines – in the event that they are beings endowed with consciousness – have in themselves an equivalent, or even superior, intrinsic value? cheers? Most of us will reject this idea, perhaps due to an instinctive bias in favor of our own species. This perspective should certainly encourage us to reflect more deeply.

Many questions arise at the dawn of this new technological future. And the uncertainty is great. I hope we will use technology to improve our quality of life in a more equitable way that helps those most in need. It is in this area that we have the most to contribute.

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