Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Technology and Social Justice

Pointing technology towards freedom, equality, and fraternity

From Ell Brown
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There are 3 key elements to social justice: liberty, equality, and fraternity. Social justice includes the ideal that all people should be free to pursue their goals in life, to exercise their autonomy in their work, worship, political actions, and personal lives, free from unnecessary interference. Social justice also includes the notion of equality. A socially just society is one in which all people matter equally. The needs and interests of the poor and the powerless are just as important as those of the rich and powerful. While some inequalities are justifiable (such as those based on talent, for example), all unjustifiable inequalities are removed from a socially just society. Finally, social justice includes fraternity, or community, a sense of commonality among human beings and a commitment to the common good. There is a mutual concern for the welfare of others. These are high ideals, to be sure, and while they are not perfectly attainable, progress can be made.

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One way to foster such progress is to use new and emerging technologies to help achieve more social justice.[1] Rather than focusing on developing technologies as toys for the rich, we should create and employ them to provide necessities for the poor. According to Freeman Dyson, we can use three technologies – the sun, the genome, and the Internet – to help poor villages become sources of wealth.

Everyone has solar energy in their midst, and in those countries and regions where poverty is often most grinding (tropical countries and rural areas), it is perhaps most available. At present, it is too expensive and inefficient to capitalize on this, but Dyson suggests that we could develop plants that would be more efficient, and perhaps not even harvested, which we could derive energy from as a source of income and clean energy. He suggests that we genetically engineer trees that would produce fuel from the sun. The roots may even feed directly into underground lines. There would be no environmental damage, and if 10% efficiency could be achieved the fuel produced could undercut gasoline and oil prices. This would be a significant source of income for the villages of the world, and may prevent people from having to flee to large urban areas for factory jobs.

Dyson thinks the Internet is the most important technology for fostering social justice, because it can enable anyone to participate in the global economy, obtain education and training, network with others, and so on. Universal access to it would help to end the isolation that so many of the world’s poor experience. There are obstacles to be overcome in providing coverage to all people, so that they can have access to the Internet, but there are potential solutions to this floating around.

Dyson dreams of “a socially just world in which every Mexican village is as wealthy as Princeton.” Is this feasible? Not perfectly, as inequalities and poverty will likely persist. However, if we allow ethical ideals to guide the development and implementation of technology in the direction of social justice, the world can be made to be a better place. As Dyson puts it, “Ethics must guide technology toward social justice. Let us all help to push the world in that direction as hard as we can. It does no harm to hope.” I agree, and there is much potential benefit to be had if we also act.

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[1] Freeman Dyson, “Technology and Social Justice,” Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs lecture, 11/5/1997.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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