International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Ethics in an Age of Technology (The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991 Vol. 2)

by Ian G. Barbour

Introductory Essay by Holmes Rolston III

Ethics in an Age of Technology is the second half of Ian Barbour's Gifford Lectures, given at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland in 1990-1991. The first half is Religion in an Age of Science, given in 1989-1990. Facing the coming new millennium, Barbour presses the question whether and how an escalating technology can be put to increasingly more humane and moral uses, protecting human and environmental values. This is applied ethics, complementing the more theoretical issue in the first volume, whether, in principle, religious conviction remains plausible in a world increasingly dominated by a science-based outlook.

Barbour considers three ways that science and technology might relate to society. The first is linear development. Science drives technology, which in turn has a one-way effect on society, given a suitable marketplace. This view sees technology as primarily beneficial. Little government regulation is required, because consumer preferences will encourage beneficial results. Secondly, in technological determinism technology drives science--what kinds of science are needed and the instruments with which it can be done--and equally society--which must adapt, like it or not, to what new technologies produce. This determinism can be partial, culturally modified, and hence somewhat resisted. Technological advancement cannot be stopped, although some forms of its application can be. (Electricity, motors, gears, cars, airplanes are inevitable, but we can regulate their efficiency). Analysts here worry that technological advancement can limit freedom of choice as readily as it can enlarge it.

Barbour prefers the third way, what he calls "contextual interaction." Science, technology, and society are interconnected by a series of complex, often nonlinear feedback loops. Social and political forces affect the design as well as the uses of various technologies. Technologies have social goals and institutional interests built into the technological capacities that are developed. There are diverse, recursive interactions, some beneficial, some harmful, some neutral. Although Barbour has resisted "the social construction of science" in favor of a critical realism (in his first volume), here Barbour concedes that there is a "social construction of technology". Technology is here ambiguous, depending on the uses to which it is put by the individuals and societies that produce and regulate it.

So technology can be a liberator, or an oppressor, or an ambiguous instrument of power. That immediately ties technology to ethics. We can value food and health, meaningful work, and personal fulfillment. We can value social justice, participatory freedom, sustainable development (emphasizing human benefits), or a sustainable biosphere (emphasizing environmental protection and respect for all forms of life). Or we can value personal aggrandizement, national power, etc. What we value will determine the technologies we develop and how we put them to use.

Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science devoted a theme issue to Barbour's Gifford Lectures, both books (Volume 31, no. 1, March 1996). There is discussion of whether technology has a momentum of its own, making it difficult if not impossible to control. Facing the new millennium, is environmental conservation not more important than increasing technological development? What does theology have to contribute to this problem? Perhaps biblical writers knew full well human ambiguity, good and evil in those with power. In Barbour's reply, he continues what he calls long-range hope, despite pessimism about short-term prospects for change.