I consider myself to be essentially unremarkable. I’m much like you, a working stiff attempting to pay the bills, frustrated by the state of things that I see around me. I used to protest a lot when I was younger but grew to realise, that to make real progress, we need to understand those who oppose us as neighbours in the social spaces we seek to claim. Telling the rich they should pay more tax doesn’t necessarily raise tax revenue and telling the poor they are to blame for their own circumstance gives nothing to the sheer luck that made you rich. The contingency of our own arguments is often left straddling a divide of responsibility. We do know the drawbacks of our arguments but fail to admit how shaky our foundations really are. In the worst case many are not even aware how poor their own arguments are.
I became particularly angry about the state of debate in modern politics and culture. Truth is now a degraded concept, replaced by opinion, which anyone can issue. Facts are therefore assumed to be weapons in this battle and it is only a matter of how many facts that one can deploy. This elevates simple knowledge over the wisdom to use it and ignores the terrible implications of solely relying on facts to make decisions about issues of feeling or imagination. There are no facts about our future that we can rely upon so to shape a better future we need a hopeful imagination. I began this blog because I care deeply that we are moving towards a darker, harsher time in our history and that the problems this presents are of a fundamentally different type. They ask a different attitude of us and this blog is an attempt, albeit an inadequate one, to try and wrestle with those ideas and issues.
Scientists have recently proclaimed that we are living in the Age of the Anthropocene, a geological age of man. We have had such a profound impact on the planet that, even if we vanished tomorrow, the effects our being here will be felt for thousands of years. Obvious examples of these man made effects in this Anthropocene era are nuclear power and climate change. But what other challenges does this era present and how might we consider them morally? Of particular concern is how we respond to these problems collectively and how we can individually interpret a collective sense of responsibility.
We should also recognise how these problems differ from what has come before. Problems which are man-made and affect all of us, whether we are willingly involved or not, take on a different character and tone morally than problems arising in nature. They ask a different responsibility of us and a different interpretation of ourselves. Using this perspective, I have identified what I feel are six specific Anthropocene challenges: Climate change, genetic alteration, population growth, robotic labour including cybernetics, artificial intelligence and nuclear power. These have been nascent in our collective consciousness for some time but are now heading to climactic resolution.
As problems they need to be considered for their different effects and characters before we try to produce a moral response. Otherwise we increase the danger of assuming we are capable and powerful and sensible enough to manage them properly without further consideration or debate. We mistake feeding a cat for being the same thing as feeding a lion. They are what Rittel and Webber referred to as wicked problems. They yield no simple solution which works reliably, they interact in feedback loops with one problem being the solution for others, they are occurring simultaneously and all of these problems possess the power to irrevocably change our societies, even our very collective humanity.
My immediate concern was the response already being generated in politics and the media and amongst the companies developing the technologies and services. Specifically that these problems are being adiaphorised; made into technical issues remote from a real, moral consideration. Adiaphorisation, as a process, encourages us to believe that we don’t need to consider the moral impact of AI we just need to change the algorithm; we don’t need to worry about genetic alteration we just need new laws that will protect vulnerable people. We don’t need to act or be different as people to solve climate change, we just need solar power and wind turbines. In this adiaphorised slumber we have lost sight of how humanity can be more than the sum of its parts. Changes of the radical kind may be necessary, even inevitable but they also make us all vulnerable and not in readily apparent ways. It will not always be possible to see that the solutions offered will become problems themselves later on so we need to step outside of a moral guidance based purely on duty or consequence or utility. We will need broader approaches that look to our values and virtues, to systems of thinking that give us a better appreciation of the pervasive uncertainty we are now moving towards. We simply do not know, or at least, cannot reliably predict, how the introduction of these technologies will impact our world. This is an uncertainty not just of the outcome but of the method and application of the technology. It is also an uncertainty of our identity – we will no longer be able to easily define ourselves or define what it means to be human. We will then find ourselves outside of principle or consequence alone as neither offers a convincing explanation of how to be moral when the results will impact not only ourselves, but our children and our descendants 10,000 years from now.
At the same time as these challenges emerge we have passed beyond human rights as a progressive political goal into human rights as an entitlement. People feel able to claim extensive powers over social spaces, not because they have a plan designed to enhance society, but because we have decreed that they have rights not to suffer the pain they feel and we have then obligated society to give them a means to remedy it. We have created the means for people to claim that any amount of suffering is unjust, no matter its cause or origin and the basis of the claim is an undeniable fact, their very humanity. We then have limited power to mediate the claims as the fact of being human makes the claim a priori more powerful than any form of mediation. Nor can any amount of co-operation or competition over the space resolve the dispute because each fresh interpretation yields more claims. There is no overriding incentive to co-operate rather than compete in sharing these rights because all are equally entitled and the claims are indisputable purely from their declaration.
So the means for society to resolve these issues in a sustainable, moral and progressive way are limited. New technologies promise to make the claims obsolete because we will be able to feed, clothe and house everyone cheaply. But that simplistic, material ideal ignores the problem that each new technology creates: more, new and different claims. Even in the case that we can trust the new technology to resolve one type of claim what new measures must be taken, what new laws imposed on the rest of us that some small portion of us are alleviated of only one measure of their pain? How is society to reconcile the competing claims? How do we create a society capable of creating and maintaining the institutions, traditions and spaces that make these rights? The available answers are often limited and based on maintaining a status quo that technology is busy undermining. Meanwhile the desires multiply and their satisfaction becomes more important than any consideration of the society which must meet them. We must not abandon the ideal of human rights, but we need to see these claims within the light of these Anthropocene problems outlined above. As we become more than human and move into competition and co-dependency with artificial life what will these rights mean and how will we reproduce our societies through our children such that they too enjoy the fruits of our collective labours?
At the intersection of these historical changes this blog aims to present cognitive tools and ideas for moral comprehension, assessment and action. Aimed at the general public and seeking an uncomfortable truth in preference to a noble lie, I seek to describe the dichotomy of rights and responsibility within a framework of moral responsibility. We cannot have human rights without a responsible society capable of delivering them and it is our moral reactions, the ways we respond to problems, that demonstrates the candour of our responsibility. But how can we be responsible individually for challenges of such magnitude as climate change or robotic labour when we can only solve them collectively? How do we address and protect individual rights if collective solutions will fundamentally undermine those freedoms?
It is my contention that only responsibility in an atmosphere of doubt, acting without the surety of success, that will solve these problems without sacrificing our morals in the process. We need to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge and our power to fully grasp the implications of the actions we make. Doubt keeps us honest, doubt keeps us awake and it will ensure that the boastful claims of technology are not allowed to override our ability to raise our children, build our homes and love each other for what we are and not what other people or technology would have us pretend to be. A responsible society will take that job seriously. But to meet this transition for a more responsible society we will also need hope. A sense of transcendence liberating our weaker, material, individual selves for something greater. It will need to be something we see in each other, something we see in society itself. We need a new vision of ourselves: not as a capricious, greedy race of monkeys seeking little more than carnal pleasures but one that elevates us to believe we can make progress again. We need a politics that gives us a credible, balanced sense of hope.
Hope, of late, has been degraded to represent a consumable, increasingly recycled, narrative used by corporations and politicians to make the human race apologise for its existence and sweat in exchange for facile promises. We don’t hope to create a better society, we just hope to keep our jobs. We don’t hope for starvation to end worldwide we just hope if we stay on the treadmill long enough we’ll lose the last five pounds. We engage in politics that mirror this by replaying the old battles of socialism versus the free market, hoping that this time we will finally reach Jerusalem with a belly full from the free lunch we just consumed. The left claim it’s not our fault the banks collapsed it was the rich cheating on their taxes! It’s not our fault that the climate is being destroyed, it’s those greedy oil companies. The right then claim that it’s not our fault we are heavily indebted as a nation, it’s all those lazy people cheating on their benefits. It’s not our fault that people can’t afford to buy a house, it’s their own profligate spending. Both sides think it’s possible to solve these problems, not with hope and a humble acknowledgement of the problem but just by blaming the other guy. The febrile passion of social media is only making this problem worse. Rather than define the beauty of the world in hope and uncertainty we drag it towards an illusory certainty that we smother ourselves in with the childish pretence that if I can’t see you; you cannot see me. Posting memes and furious group-think in closed echo chambers online is not public discourse, clickbait will not educate us and managerial politicians cannot satisfy the competitive nature of our rights based claims. We gain no progress or certainty from cynically rejecting these things, we need to embrace the challenge of building something better and it will take hope to get us there.
To do this we can no longer retreat from politics in every area of public life. We’ve stopped discussing politics and its challenges at work, with strangers, even with our friends, because we are afraid of offending others and being cast in negative ways. Personal opinion is under assault from the notion that there are proven good and bad concepts and we are only entitled to endorse the good and we must condemn the bad. We have found no way to discuss immigration without sounding racist, no way to discuss the depth of inequality without ascribing it simply to greed alone. We cannot be free if we are chasing our tails, vainly struggling to assert our identities in a competitive atmosphere. The weakness of this when it is coupled to entitlement rights & politics reduces us all to children and ignores the responsibility we have to assert those rights in creative moral actions and in mature considered thought. But we can counter this desire to keep politics out by asserting the genuine work required to make our world free: that the freedom to speak means I have the duty to listen. It is our responsibility to each other that can provide the foundation for hope. It is the co-operation and the compromise that liberates us because it frees us to see ourselves in each other honestly, as whole people and as people who are part of a larger whole.
I know words do hurt, or we wouldn’t worry about what our children say. But I reject the idea that words can offend to the extent that bones become physically broken. We do ourselves no favours stuffing the debates these problems need, with woollen thinking, just to dull the thud of landing on something hard. Suffering is not just a problem to be solved. It is an essential part of the human experience. It is necessary for growth and our obsession with eradicating it only burdens others or creates new forms of relative pain. The idolatry of victimhood, that those who suffer first suffer the most, strips us of the liberty to make mistakes and own the consequences of them. I assert the right to hope, the power to be responsible for myself and my loved ones without the cloying intervention of an expert state exerting a pseudo-scientific moral judgement. I desire progress for all human lives and expect that we can solve all of the Anthropocene challenges. I urge you to join me in making yourself responsible for challenging the system we all live within and in asserting the right to be as human as the society you are willing to build.