A friend recently tweeted that she believes ethics to be an impossibility. As she unpacked what she meant, I realized this attitude toward ethics is shared by many, especially in our digital age. With the rise of sophisticated modern technologies—such as artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition, bioengineering, and social media—our society will increasingly question what’s moral or immoral, as well as how we might pursue an ethical life. Yet these definitions are often based on what seems right in the moment, not on an ethical framework.
Between Google’s AI principles, the U.S. Department of Defense‘s recently adopted guidelines regarding military use of technology, and the European Union’s proposal for an ethical framework for technology, our world is longing for direction in addressing complicated and life-altering technologies in a way that’s good, fair, applicable, and ethical.
Ethical principles often focus on fairness as a major objective. Fairness, however, is a vague concept, one that can be misused and abused to prize one group over another, even to silence positions outside the mainstream of our society.
In our digital age, society trades conviction and a grounded ethic for what I call “fashion ethics”: ethics defined by what is popular or what might impress others. We take ethical stances based on what will put us in the “in crowd.” We claim one form of injustice is wrong, but another is ok because “they” are the wrong type of people. We proclaim our enemies are on the “wrong side of history” as we scramble to curry favor from a particular voting bloc. Such ethical formations are marked by a desire for notoriety and influence, rather than distinguishing right from wrong.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek alludes to fashion ethics when he speaks of “green capitalism” and the choices businesses make to go green in order to be seen as ethical. He argues we often assuage guilt over environmental issues by purchasing these green products, since we want to be seen as environmentally conscious. Businesses know this and change their models to entice us to shop there.
This is similar to how businesses across the world reacted after the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage. Knowing it would help their brand if they were seen as supportive of same-sex marriage, many businesses changed their social avatars to rainbows. This fashion ethic was based less on conviction or transcendent truth than on the fashionable moods of the day.
Because we’ve abandoned a transcendent ethic, our society defines the “good” based on what others think of us. This isn’t just true of our consumerist habits, though. It’s true with the technologies that drive our day and soon might drive us around.