In Search of a Prophetic Voice for Tech Ethics

How should the Church speak about the digital age?
Pope Francis addresses participants at the conference, “The Common Good in the Digital Age,” at the Vatican, September 27, 2019 (CNS photo/Vatican Media).

The Church needs a prophetic voice on technological ethics. Over the past three years, the Vatican has held three events related to ethics in technology and, more specifically, artificial intelligence. In September 2019, the Pontifical Council of Culture and the Dicastery for Promoting Human Development hosted “The Common Good in the Digital Age,” a seminar featuring ethics scholars from around the world. In February 2020, the Pontifical Academy for Life organized a symposium entitled “RenAIssance. For a Human-centric Artificial Intelligence,” which ended with the “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” co-signed by industry leaders from Microsoft, IBM, and others. Finally, on October 21, 2021, the Pontifical Council for Culture held a one-day symposium entitled “The Challenge of Artificial Intelligence for Human Society and the Idea of the Human Person.”

These three events represent the first fruits of Francis’s engagement with the technology community, and each holds importance. The 2019 conference launched the Vatican’s entry into the technological realm, the 2020 conference brought together industry leaders at the Vatican for a conversation about corporate ethics, and the delayed 2021 conference dealt directly with the popular questions of theological anthropology and artificial intelligence. On their own terms, each event was a success, gathering academics, business leaders, and clergy together to discuss the problems of today and tomorrow. But given the scale of the problems that technology presents—growing inequality, corporate domination, and threats to democracy—these events lacked anything resembling the prophetic voice for the poor for which the Holy Father is well known.

A prophetic voice does exist, and it is present, active, and powerful in technology ethics, but currently it resides outside the Church. Ethical studies of technology have generally blossomed in the last decade, but recently they have become dominated by corporate interests, with each major player attempting to out-ethicize the other. Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook have each devoted millions of dollars to tech-ethics initiatives, such as Facebook’s “Responsible AI” project, Google’s ethical tech team (with its constant struggles), and Microsoft’s “Responsible AI” initiative. And yet, as the recently unearthed Facebook Files have shown, a public proclamation to be responsible doesn’t necessarily take priority over the interests of shareholders. These tech giants, like any large corporations, mine profits unyieldingly, often taking advantage of unjust systems without accepting responsibility. They blame the competitive marketplace for their mistreatment of employees, the global mining system for the lack of accountability of rare-earth-mineral harvesting, the needs of international trade for the abuse of Chinese factory workers—and for anything else that may stand in their way, they justify it with the promise of a blissful artificially intelligent future. It is difficult and often dangerous to speak prophetically to the most powerful people, corporations, and governments on earth. It is far safer to discuss whether a future computer may have a soul or whether aliens could be baptized.

 

The tech industry has always outpaced the Church’s ability to keep up with it, and this has made the Church seem all but irrelevant.

My intention here is not to disparage the excellent scholars organizing and presenting at these Vatican conferences, or even the well-intentioned ethicists working at major tech firms, but to illuminate the overall impression such conferences may give to those on the outside. Pope Francis remains pretty quiet when it comes to tech, and it’s hard to blame a man born a decade before the first computer was created for being out of touch with technology. Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of some, the tech industry has always outpaced the Church’s ability to keep up with it, and this has made the Church seem all but irrelevant to the tech community.

One of the perennial challenges of modern theology is to find prophetic language that reminds Christians of their faith and enriches the minds of non-Christians in their search for truth and justice. The first step to develop such a language for technology ethics would be to eschew hypothetical conversations about sentient computers and instead focus on moral failings in the here and now: bias in machine-learning and technological development, unjust hiring and workplace practices, polarization and threats to democracy on social media, deadly practices in rare-earth-mineral mines, the rise of income inequality around the world, poor conditions for factory workers, and the power that tech giants have to make decisions for the entire human species. This work has already begun, with research like Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin, Invisible Women by Cristina Perez, Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neill, and Atlas of AI by Kate Crawford, the last of which I reviewed in the January 2022 issue of Commonweal.

While these texts offer prophetic voices, they are neither the voice of the Church nor explicitly religious. They stand in a long line of social scientists, statisticians, and scholars who speak from positions of justice, hope, and passion, working for a better and more just society. They recognize that technology is full of possibility but are well aware of its limitations. Their work cries out for theological understanding, for words that awaken the Christian faithful around the world to the pressing issues that no single government or corporation can address.

While individual theologians are beginning to heed the call, a voice from the Vatican carries substantial moral weight. Whatever is next—more conversations, studies, or even an encyclical—the Church must move into the weeds of daily ethics and away from broad philosophical strokes like the kind offered by Pope Francis in Laudato si’. In the encyclical, Francis condemns the technocratic paradigm—a term borrowed from technology studies in the twentieth century—in which individuals are valued only for their labor, and society is dominated by the allure of new technology. Francis argues that humanity needs to assert a counter-lifestyle to this paradigm, one grounded in service to humanity, to the earth, and to the poor.

The Church must move into the weeds of daily ethics and away from broad philosophical strokes.

This is certainly correct, but such an approach is ultimately inadequate, missing the trees for the forest. Francis’s argument suffers from its ahistorical all-or-nothing treatment of technology as a global philosophical approach to be univocally resisted, instead of a series of technologies, companies, governmental actions, and market norms that go much farther back than the twentieth century. Facebook did not invent polarization, Amazon did not invent worker efficiency, Google did not invent surveillance capitalism, Apple did not invent wealth inequality, Microsoft did not invent monopolies, and Elon Musk did not invent rare-earth mining. The drive for efficiency at the expense of human dignity can be traced back to the earliest days of civilization, though the industrial and technological revolutions have exponentially increased the efficiency of production and the willingness to sacrifice human dignity to increase it.

Against this drive, Francis’s all-or-nothing approach holds the same problems as many broad philosophical approaches to modern life. They push the reader to yearn for a false past, when things were better and life was purer. The ahistorical nature of moral paradigmatic philosophies has become a non-starter in the recent boom of discussions of tech ethics, which perhaps explains the less-practical conversations hosted in the last three years, as well as the well-intentioned but toothless “Rome Call for AI Ethics” in 2020. There are many better philosophical and theological approaches to the modern world than the technocratic paradigm, some described in the books above, some described in the myriad other books available now on the intersection of technology, society, and ethics. But the Church is called to be more than a philosopher, as Francis himself regularly demonstrates. The Church is called to teach, and to lead, with what theologian M. Shawn Copeland has called the “spirit-filled, prophetic, critical, and creative impulse.”

The path ahead for the Church is unfamiliar, but not impossible. We can begin by amplifying the voices in and around the tech community already crying out for justice, focusing on the ethical areas on which the Church historically holds a strong voice: factory conditions, human dignity, wealth inequality, democracy, war, bias, misogyny, and xenophobia of all types. Through these conversations, we can invite Christian theologians and ethicists to bring their language and gifts to the conversation: sacramentality, witness, memory, lament, forgiveness, reconciliation, liturgy, mysticism, contemplation, and action. There are so many prophetic writers in the Church today, and so much need to develop a better theological ethics of technological development. The road to an ethical technological future may be long and the obstacles may seem impassable, but the Church is no stranger to challenges, and there is no time like the present to be a voice in the wilderness.

 This article was made possible through a partnership between Commonweal and the Carl G. Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology, and the Law at Duquesne University.

John Slattery is the director of the Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology, and Law at Duquesne University.

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