Juan Enriquez on right and wrong, and how technology transforms our ethics

What if right and wrong change over time?

On Thursday, 4 March 2021, the TEDxJohannesburg Book Club hosted a fireside chat with Juan Enriquez, TED All-Star and bestselling author of Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics. Juan presented his reflections on what happens to our ethics as technology makes the once-unimaginable a commonplace occurrence.

We invite you to watch the video of his presentation here, or you can read the extended summary below.

Juan wrote the Right/Wrong to address the extreme polarisation that the world is currently going through — I’m right, and you’re wrong if you don’t agree with me.

But, even if it was true that you’re right and those who disagree with you are wrong, what if our notions of right and wrong — of ethics itself — change over time?

Consider the following:

There was a period in time, in many societies, when human sacrifices were not only legal but were considered essential for those to thrive. If the poor schlub were not offered to the gods then maybe the rains wouldn’t come, or the sun wouldn’t show up.

You might be thinking “Wow, these societies were pretty savage,” right?

Juan then takes us back in time, to medieval Paris, in the heart of Europe. It turns out that the beautiful squares of the city of love used to be theatres for beheadings. The Parisians would celebrate these acts by showcasing the heads — still dripping with blood — in festive picnics throughout the city, with children present.

Again, you might be thinking “Wow, these societies were pretty savage.”

Our notions of what’s right and what’s wrong do change over time. This includes ideas about what should be legal, or what the state’s role in society should be, or how we should relate to one another.

Juan asks us to consider another set of ideas: human bondage, serfdom, and slavery. He makes the point that these are practices that have been in place everywhere, including India, China, Africa, United States, Europe, and Russia. The Incas and the Mayas are not excluded.

The extraordinary thing here is that these practices went on for millennia and only went away when machines powered by new energy sources and started to become a more efficient way to get work done.

“How would your grandparents respond to the idea that you can now have sex without having a child?”

A single barrel of oil gives you the equivalent of about ten years of a person’s labour. Tie that to the thousands of horsepower you can get from a machine, and all of a sudden, over a relatively short period of time, almost everywhere in the world, the legality of endangering human beings for their labour goes away.

It doesn’t mean that we’ve completely done away with indentured servitude, serfdom, or slavery. But it is a fact that these practices are no longer considered legal or justifiable in any society.

Let’s look at human life expectancy. For tens of thousands of years, early humans had a reasonable expectation to live between twenty and thirty years. In recent years, our life expectancy has suddenly exploded, including here in Africa. As technology allowed us to treat each other better, and as technology provided labour, we could afford to be more generous to other human beings.

Juan emphasises that this phenomenon does not justify in any way, shape, or form taking another person’s life, or indenturing someone to servitude. There is no circumstance under which that is ethical, he feels.

The point here is that technology changes ethics. It changes our notion of what’s right and wrong. As it turns out, we are currently in a period of exponentially changing technology. Therefore our notions of what’s right and wrong may also start to change.

Juan illustrates this point with a few examples.

In 1997 only one-third of Americans were in favour of same-sex marriage. Ten years later in 2017, that scenario flipped 180 degrees, with two-thirds of Americans in favour.

In 2010 Pope Francis described gay marriage as a “destructive attempt towards God’s plan.” Only three years later, in 2013, his position flipped to “Who am I to judge.”

What is okay today may be wrong tomorrow (and vice versa). Again, it is technology that may change this.

Take a lab-created synthetic burger patty, for example. One of these burgers would have set you back $380,000 in 2013, and $30 in 2015. Today the price stands at $9.

As the price comes down and as you get faster, better, cheaper synthetic meat, people will start questioning the wisdom and morality of keeping and killing six billion animals for their flesh.

Our grandchildren are going to find it very hard to believe that grandma and grandpa would ever walk into a steakhouse and feel hungry — and not horrified — from seeing raw slabs of meat in the display rack.

Going back in time yet again, Juan asks us to think about having a conversation with our grandparents about the birds and bees. What if you could bring them back to today in a time machine, as randy twenty-one-year-olds? How would they respond to the idea that you can now have sex without having a child?

For hundreds of thousands of years sex usually equaled baby. Today we have decoupled the act from the consequence.

How would they respond to in-vitro fertilisation, where two bodies never have to touch each other or be in the same room, or in the same country, to be able to conceive a child? One response they may give is to ask if this means the immaculate conception is no longer a miracle, but something we now perform every day?

Then there’s the matter of surrogate mothers. So, you can have a child, that is conceived without the parents touching each other, that is carried to term by a stand-in mother. And, because you can freeze the fertilised eggs, it means that you can have identical twins born three decades apart.

We have decoupled sex from consequence, sex from physical contact, and sex from time. If you asked your grandparents if they thought this was right, they would probably say “No, this is the devil’s work.”

Let’s look at gene-editing, which is mostly considered scandalous today. Get back into your time machine and fast forward a hundred years into the future when CRISPR technology will have made the practice of cutting and pasting your DNA a normal everyday occurrence.

“So, this is the bottom line: technology is exponential; technology changes ethics; and ethics may start to change at exponential rates.”

You might face a situation where your grandchildren question why you were so primitive that you didn’t edit their genes at conception, so they might avoid cancer later in life. In their eyes, your actions will be absolutely insane, if not downright primitive and superstitious.

Or, take the case of artificial uteruses. We can now bring an animal to term outside its mother’s body. The thought of it might be awful to us today, especially if that animal were to be human. But, to our grandchildren, it may be completely natural, and possibly the safer, better option. In the same way that today we accept caesarean as a normal procedure for childbirth, other procedures may be the norm in a generation or two.

Pulling back, the bigger point is that sticking stubbornly to a position of being right, and others wrong, kills off the possibility of discussion, tolerance, the evolution of thought, and learning.

In today’s world where certain words are off-limits, or where you can be crucified for having used a word ten years ago whose meaning may have changed, what you then get is a highly polarised society that spends most of its time fighting itself.

So, this is the bottom line: technology is exponential; technology changes ethics; and ethics may start to change at exponential rates.

Juan cites technologies, for instance, that he has been working on for a couple of decades now, like being able to programme synthetic life. It’s already possible to print life forms on-demand in something that looks a lot like a desktop printer.

As we start going deeper into this we are going to start seeing some very strange stuff, he says. There are people building bio-hybrid animals using rat heart cells, rubber, and gold. You may start seeing the emergence of different kinds of creatures or plants designed for living in extreme environments like Mars or the Moon.

There are people trying to create life from scratch by assembling chemicals that existed a billion years ago into something that spontaneously becomes a living creature. The results of this work may be only a decade away.

If these things are possible, then life probably originated several times, and it is probably common in the universe. The implications are mind-boggling.

Juan reminds us that if you assume that even you can be wrong, you have to bring back two words that he feels are rarely used today: humility and forgiveness. You have to be humble and forgiving towards others, and towards yourself.

“All of us have been electronically tattooed.”

You have to judge people in the context of their times and situations. One advantage of doing so is that if not everyone on the other side is evil, then you can begin to isolate the one or two percent who truly are.

When you tar the entire other side and say all of them are the same it becomes hard to cull from the herd the psychopaths, the sadists, and the corrupt. You may disagree with someone, but they are probably a decent human being. That’s why it’s so important to isolate evil from differences of opinion.

This position is especially important in today’s world because all of us have been — as Juan terms it — electronically tattooed. If you think you can judge figures in history because of what they did or thought, then guess what — your Google searches, Facebook statuses, Instagram posts, Twitter outbursts, credit-card spending patterns, Tinder dating profiles, pictures, friend’s tags, and Paypal records are permanently inked into the cybersphere and can never be erased.

Something you do today may look really bad tomorrow. So, it’s in our own interest to begin to practice humility and forgiveness.

Rules can change. Right and wrong can change.

We have to listen to one another and talk to one another because we may be coming from very different places.

Juan Enriquez is a leading authority on the economic impact of life sciences. He has done extensive research on the human brain and its impact on business and society. He is also a respected business leader and entrepreneur. He is author and co-author of multiple bestsellers including As the Future Catches You: How Genomics Will Change Your Life, Work, Health, and Wealth (1999), The Untied States of America: Polarization, Fracturing and Our Future (2005), Evolving Ourselves: Redesigning Humanity One Gene at a Time (2015), and RIGHT/WRONG: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics (2020).

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