Ethics in a Machine

I’ve been taking another religion class online through Harvard recently (an excellent — and free — program, btw). In addition to an NPR segment I heard the other day, this class caused me to think more about the abortion issue.

I wondered how abortion legislation had evolved, and I did a little reading on its history. I found it wasn’t really that much of an issue until the 19th century, and even then, the tendency was toward little or no restriction until the fetus moved in the womb. As more regulation came into place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, England’s regulations were generally more permissive than U.S. regulations, about which one source reports:

“Abortion was common in most of colonial America, but it was kept secret because of strict laws against unmarried sexual activity.

“Laws specifically against abortion became widespread in America in the second half of the 1800s, and by 1900 abortion was illegal everywhere in the USA, except in order to save the life of the mother.

“Some writers have suggested that the pressure to ban abortion was not entirely ethical or religious, but was partially motivated by the medical profession as a way of attacking the non-medical practitioners who carried out most abortions.”

I was listening to another show this morning on NPR about AI, and the speaker commented that although human beings like to think they are extremely ethical, in reality, their ethics are superficial and very inconsistent. He explained that ethics can be programmed, and that this kind of programming (for machines) will ultimately prove deeper and more reliable for ethical decision-making and will inspire us (human beings) to become more ethical.

The thought occurred to me that I, personally, would like to see this eventuality — and an agreement within and among governments to abide by final decisions on ethical topics presented to the machine. Get the politics out of it.

I’d like to see us submit this abortion issue in the U.S., which has become so fraught and devoid of common sense, ethics or intelligence, to such a machine with an agreement to abide by its recommendations.

The machine could account, much better than any human, for all extraneous but relevant facts, for different religious and philosophical perspectives, for otherwise unanticipated results from a particular decision and for the various genuine ethical dilemmas at the heart of the discussion. And after accounting for everything, could make the best decisions unburdened by considerations of an upcoming election.

Those religions, like Judaism, that have legal traditions as part of them served this function in the past. One way I understand the separation between rabbinic Judaism and post-Enlightenment human beings is that the first submits to the authority of the tradition and the latter exalts the authority of the individual.

In my mind, “the tradition,” is not merely a consensus among scholars laterally but vertically through history. As such, it is a vast store of information and precedents which it can bring to bear on a particular contemporary situation. It is a filter (albeit through a particular cultural/religious lens) that can render a decision without personal concerns like a concern for reelection.

I think the future holds amazing possibilities if we use them to make us better, more ethical human beings.

2 thoughts on “Ethics in a Machine”

  1. Bravo. Very interesting Leslie, and I see why AI would be an attractive option nowadays. I’m intrigued by the thought of an ‘ethics machine’ too. We wouldn’t need one if our decision makers had the ability to feel shame and were incorruptible, which I am not positive machines are either. I’d like an ‘ethics machine’ to figure out what to do about gun control. 😉 Thank you for getting my mind working.

    1. Yay! It’s always hard to keep my own brain cells going in the winter, and this year seems especially difficult. I agree, I think it’s unlikely our decision-makers will ever have the ability to feel shame or will ever be incorruptible. That’s the nature of being human (or organic) — everything decays in time. And it’s an advantage of machines, I think — although maybe not, and now you caused me to think. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *