Technology and ethics

“Old Main,” Duquesne University

Catholic precepts can help tech firms

By Patrick Sorek

Anyone who uses digital technology – which means almost everyone – knows it is being scrutinized more than ever for contributing to bad behavior:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice recently sued Google for anti-competitive practices
  • Social media continues to be used to spread disinformation, particularly in U.S. elections
  • Various groups – including current and former social media executives – are pressuring technology firms to be more responsive to how their products impact society.

Tech companies need to incorporate ethics inquiries and standards into their design and deployment of new technologies. And among the best places to look for such guidance are the religious institutions that have provided the foundation of our society’s ethical and moral principles since the beginning of the American experiment.

Faith traditions have not been an obvious source of inspiration for tech firms, which tend to be run by hard-driving entrepreneurs whose empires were forged by mastering complex computer processes rather than philosophy.  

Yet our culture expects – indeed demands – that ethics be a part of most important decisions. Today there is growing discussion of the moral precepts of tolerance, understanding, compassion, equality, patience, mercy and forgiveness as principles upon which all organizations should be run. 

For millennia, identifying those ethical and moral precepts has been the province of religion. These values should be applied to current problems. While dogma can ignite heated rhetoric, most people – conservative and progressive – can agree on certain basic principles for human behavior.

Religion and technological development have historically been partners. Catholics developed the field of optics (Roger Bacon), invented the stethoscope (Rene Laennec) and launched modern accounting (Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli).

Catholic scientists discovered genetics (Gregor Mendel), founded microbiology (Louis Pasteur) and developed the theory of Big Bang cosmology (Fr. Georges Lemaitre). Catholicism gave rise to universities and developed fields including jurisprudence and bioethics, as well as entire genres of music and architecture. 

These innovations all contribute to what Catholic ethics calls “the common good,” in which all persons and communities enjoy the conditions necessary for their mutual flourishing. Acting for the common good requires a blend of innovation and ethics. For each new technology, we must consider: What does it do for people and to people, especially the most vulnerable? Pope Francis’s encyclical – Fratelli Tutti, or Brothers and Sisters All – is the church’s latest instruction on how religion must be in the service of all people. 

How do we connect Catholic ethical expertise to institutions looking for guidance? Specialists at Catholic universities such as Duquesne University stand ready to assist. Duquesne’s Carl G. Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology, and Law, which recently hosted a symposium on recognizing and combatting disinformation in social media, is one such center. It works in collaboration with other universities to  advocate for a greater role for moral values across society. 

Among its partners in this mission are the Center for Informed Democracy and Social Cybersecurity at Carnegie Mellon University, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, and the Initiative in Ethics and Transformative Technologies at Seattle University. All are capable of driving forward the push for greater ethical accountability. 

These institutions will act as management consultants, which corporations have used since the 19th century to improve performance. Universities have an excellent track record of collaborating with business, and have played critical roles in developing innovations including radio, computers, rocketry and vaccines.

This collaboration between universities and business produces a virtuous cycle: People are educated, they succeed in business, and they endow academic institutions and courses of study. These, in turn, help educate successive generations to use the tools necessary to succeed in an evolved business environment. This cycle benefits the entire community. 

The unprecedented scale of social media companies is an indicator of their success at tackling tech issues. Now they must solve “people issues,” at which they are less adept. The open-minded consideration of values that have been around for centuries, and the expertise of people who have made careers studying these values, can be a place to start. 

Patrick Sorek is special advisor to the Carl G. Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology, and Law at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.