Future Morality

Future Morality

Edited by David Edmonds
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. 288 pp., hardcover, $13.95.

A woman is being treated for a medical condition only by software bots. Another woman has an implant that automatically adjusts her brain function in response to her bodily experiences. A baby is born from an artificial womb.

These are among the many hypothetical scenarios described in the anthology Future Morality, a book about, as the preface puts it, “future moral dilemmas.” Future Morality focuses on preemptive thinking about the ethics of future decision making in ways that might help to shape present-day decisions. It touches on a wide range of fields and social practices where recent technological developments are creating major pressure for change, from life extension to gender, food production, and policing. What happens to our definition of death when we keep figuring out how to medically extend life even further? What happens to policing when people are taken entirely out of the decision loops?

The future here is in the short and medium term—less than half a century out from the present, with an occasional glance at life in a much more distant future. At the same time, there is acknowledgment of what is known as the Collingridge dilemma: the fact that while it is easiest to shape the impact of new technologies early in their development, unfortunately that is nearly always too early to be able to accurately foresee what kinds of interventions would actually lead to better outcomes.

In other words, the hypothetical scenarios described in Future Morality are based on what is happening now, and don’t fully reflect how things will actually play out in the long run. Yet changes are already occurring in all of these areas, often led by technology firms partnering with businesses and governments, and too much of it is happening out of sight. A major recurring thread, for example, is the rapidly increasing intrusion of AI into many areas of our lives, often without the knowledge or consent of the public.

The primary goal of this anthology appears to be to offer insight into what is happening behind the scenes, along with reflections on what values should be brought to bear in present and future decision making. This approach is welcome in light of the complexity of these issues.

As in any anthology, some contributions are much slighter than others and do not seem as deeply informed as they could be. In some cases—especially where the author is extrapolating about issues that are already receiving a great deal of press—it does not seem that much is being added to the current debates. For example, the chapter on friendship in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic reads like a thousand opinion pieces from the last year, although it is less negative than most in its assessment of how virtual interaction affects friendship. Yet as in other chapters, there are nuggets of interesting information—on the likely cognitive limits to how many friends we can actually maintain, and on the differences in how friendship is understood in individualistic versus collectivist cultures.

The chapter on alt-meat reads as a short summary of familiar arguments about the need for a comprehensive shift towards vegetable proteins and localized agriculture, along with familiar warnings about the possible role of big agriculture in undermining those changes. The chapter on avatars and avatar customization has nothing new to say on a subject that has been amply covered by authors such as Legacy Russell, Sherry Turkle, Lisa Nakamura, and Julian Dibbell, going all the way back to the 1990s.

In a few cases, the arguments are stretched rather thin. In a chapter on abolishing gender, Brian Earp neatly summarizes the problems with what he calls the dominant gender ideology (DGI) of Western cultures, especially the imposition of hierarchical masculine and feminine gender norms. One path away from this would be to abandon gender as a category altogether (the gender abolitionist position), while another would be to reshape our understanding of gender to eliminate its role as a determinant of social hierarchies (the gender reform position). He observes that any significant movement toward neutralizing gender norms is likely to morph into gender abolition. He then asks whether the abolition of gender would harm transgender people by eliminating their very identity. This argument has been made by only a handful of transgender activists, and Earp proceeds to dismantle it, largely on the grounds that in a postgender world everyone would have to refashion their self-identity to the degree that it was predicated on gender. By the end of the essay, this reader had the feeling that the central discussion was something of a straw argument, a pretext for outlining the current state of informed arguments about where our ideas about gender are likely headed. In this, it exemplifies both the strength and the weakness of this book: if you’ve been paying attention to the debate, you will not find a great deal that is new, but if you haven’t, it provides a usefully compact summary.

Overall, there is a lot to like in this book. The consistent use of hypothetical case studies is helpful, as it gives the reader something concrete to chew on, even while knowing that the particular scenario probably won’t unfold as described. The prose is readable and refreshingly jargon-free, and in many essays provides information one wouldn’t necessarily come across in general-interest publications. For instance, an essay on predictive policing makes important points about how algorithmic surveillance techniques quickly become an impenetrable black box for both citizens and police. That chapter also touches on the serious harms of China’s current social credit system—which both rewards citizens for following norms and punishes those who don’t—and flags it as a potential future path for Western democracies that fail to safeguard citizen privacy and autonomy.

The essays are short, making it easy to dip in and out of this book when looking for an overview of anything from driverless cars to cryopreservation, from fetal vaccines to neurological interfaces. Especially welcome is the absence of either protechnology hype or antitechnology scaremongering, replaced by careful analysis of the values at stake in the decisions we are making now and could find ourselves forced to make in the future.

Antoinette LaFarge

The author is a professor of art at the University of California at Irvine. Her book Sting in the Tale: Art, Hoax, and Provocation has just been published by DoppelHouse Press.