Knowledge and New Technologies: From Ethics to Politics and Law

Chapter 2
Knowledge and New Technologies: From Ethics to Politics and Law

Maria da Glória F.P.D. Garcia


The scientific and technological challenges posed today have given rise to a knowledge crisis, a crisis of power, a crisis of law. At the same time, those challenges have raised many questions that must be answered not by politicians, philosophers or experts, but by citizens, by all of us. And this opens the door to a new community-based ethics, encompassing the future, which thus becomes our present responsibility.

Reviving old concepts of Man seems to be the answer to overcoming the crisis. The rule of law must be reinvented, starting with a return to its origins. This means summoning not only the voting citizen but also, and especially, the participating citizen, not only the subject of rights but also, and especially, the subject of duties.

We are living in times of rupture between a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, times where the search for truth, the fight for power and the quest for the meaning of law are becoming strained and renewing themselves in the wake of a rediscovered power of governance.

The southern countries are now experiencing different problems and those that we are dealing with in this chapter may appear very distant from them, as typical problems of the industrialized countries. But the question that has to be asked is this: can the southern countries anticipate the future and learn from the errors of others? Can the southern countries solve problems without having to go through them? In other words, can they prevent the problems so as not to waste time solving them, and gain a better life more easily?

The quest for education is therefore of great importance. The new ethics needs better informed citizens, who are curious about the future and inquisitive, and who exercise their rights and duties so that they can shape their destiny and be part of community solutions.

This new ethics, open to the future, and the rediscovery of the power of governance to deal with this new ethics, on the one hand, and the development of multiple public policies at various levels, led by that power of governance, on the other hand, will give people hope and confidence in the continuous preservation of the rule of law in our globalized world.

In short, we may say that due to the scientific and technological challenges we are currently facing, within the political society, there are not only fears and problems but also hopes and ways of solving problems by means of law.

Scientific and technological challenges and the risk society

Science, considered in very wide and diversified terms, and the technological developments driven by it and infinitely linked with it, have taken over our daily life.

Every day we are surprised by the progress of microbiology and all its consequences for improving our health and welfare. Over the past decades, microbiology has opened paths for the understanding of genetic codes and molecular mechanisms involved in DNA and protein synthesis, fostering the growth and development of genetics and genome engineering and enabling further progress in biotechnology. Everybody acknowledges the giant steps taken by research in the field of telecommunications, alternative energies, clean technologies and surgical medicine. And not a day goes by without our being confronted with neologisms coined in order to facilitate the communication of newly-discovered, decomposed and reassembled scientific ideas, movements, facts and phenomena.

This new reality is accompanied by an odd feeling that the concepts and assertions that we thought to be firm and unshakeable are going through a process of disintegration and are becoming worn out, and even gradually losing touch with the life that inspired them.

Questioning what we have learnt and experienced and what kind of impact that knowledge and experience has in the construction of our future has become unavoidable. No more unavoidable is the need to reflect on the fast scientific and technological development that is taking place, though we are left with little room to think it over and adapt ourselves to it. It is also true that such reflection is accompanied by the age-old certainty that nobody can predict the future or, therefore, teach us how to deal with it. The head-spinning pace of development, and the little time we are therefore left with for serious planning, consequently makes it very hard, if not totally impossible, to shape our human future collectively. This is even truer when we realize that even the normal risk of living has increased exponentially in our technical society.

In particular, since Ulrich Beck published his emblematic Risikogesellschaft in 1986, months after the Chernobyl accident, it has become evident that the increased welfare of society has multiplied the risk of living in a society. And the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 has shown how easily terror can penetrate technical society and spread within it, diversifying the means used for striking at a great number of human lives. Climatic changes, largely associated with the way of life we have created, have intensified our fears about the future, now at the global level. Increased risk and the resulting ignorance about the effects of life in society intermingle with the extended well-being of a society, where science and technology do not cease to amaze us.

This is the context of time where we find ourselves today.

And the first step towards reflecting seriously on politics and law is to allow the feeling of discomfort that stems from not knowing the value of our knowledge and from our uncertainty about the consequences of our actions, to settle within us. We must shake off the obstinacy which has, for decades, characterized the culture of western democracies and imbued our way of being in this world, the obstinacy of wanting to live with certainties.

This reflection is also a stimulus for a journey in search of greater self-awareness among citizens, awareness of the space where answers to the community should be given. This community questions and calls upon each of us daily, within the very singleness on which we are founded and where we exist. It is a space of responsibility where each person, while gaining self-awareness, seeks a global understanding of his way of being in the world, together with all the others, and tries to contribute to the transformation and excellence of the community.

Political thought and knowledge in the polis

The notion that when we are in community we benefit from knowledge and abilities that we do not possess but that others do, dates back to ancient times.

In classical Antiquity, Plato constructed the republic on the basis of that notion, using it to fashion justice in the city. Sophiocracy or the government of wise men was built on the need to assign tasks in accordance with the ‘natural’ abilities of each member of society. The fact that each person only performed the task for which he was predestined made it possible to attain justice and strengthened the whole of society. Aristotle, for his part, although starting from different premises, also maintains the underlying notion of action in the polis, the perfect city par excellence. As a matter of fact, his understanding is that it is within the polis that each citizen becomes, in freedom, distinct from others, as ‘being with others’ who complements and completes them, and thus aims at happiness. Happiness is constructed individually, by appealing to a ‘virtue’ which can only emerge and manifest itself in the city; hence it is seen as the virtue of citizenship. The knowledge of others enables a dialogue with one’s own knowledge, fosters reciprocal enrichment and allows us to overcome the permanent social imbalances upon which justice is continuously being woven.

At a later time, during the High Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas retrieved the notion and Christianized it, that is, he let it share in God’s transcendence: each member of the community has diverse talents and skills, which have been granted by God. They must be used for one’s own good, but at the same time for the common good.

During the Enlightenment, secularization of society and a boundless belief in Man and his potential were accompanied by the spread of rationalism. United by reason, men sedimented the idea that knowledge and individual experience combine forces in the community, in order to overcome iniquitous and despotic political regimes.

More recently, the idea that we benefit from knowledge that we do not have but that others possess, has conquered the welfare society, as Friedrich Hayek1 has tirelessly pointed out. The way in which we fit into the world rests on that notion. We are resigned to what we do not know or have not experienced, but reach confidently for the benefits of knowledge and experience acquired by others, certain of thus contributing, in the uniqueness of each individual’s knowledge and experience, towards the trust that others bring into their own interaction with us.

The banalization of ignorance and the elites

It is no surprise, within this context, that the welfare and technical society, in which we still live, continues to unfold before our eyes at a maddening pace, with its increasingly complex and specialized sciences and techniques and its discoveries and inventions. The products and goods that these generate are delivered en masse by means of a powerful marketing and media machinery. Yet, it is also no surprise that, at the same time, it gradually desensitizes the community in relation to the knowledge that sustains them. Ignorance becomes trivial and no longer worries those who live in this society.

Since individuals are unable to gain access to the full range of available knowledge they tend to accept without question every scientific wonder or technological innovation, one after another. As a result, not only does a steadily widening gap develop between the restricted groups of experts and the immense group of those who benefit from their end products, but the way is also paved for the deification of the former. The community bows before them, and busies itself performing the new tasks that have been conceived in order to respond to the social needs which have been created in the meantime and engendered by the growing number of new discoveries. The complexity of mathematical equations, physics assessments or chemistry experiments is growing exponentially. Understanding all this would demand so much knowledge that it has now become a habit, as well as a potential source of well-being, to applaud, integrate within our culture and consider as components of our civilization, fields such as transgenic foods, chlorofluorocarbons, nuclear energy or third-generation phones, without feeling any particular distress or need to ask any questions. Trust in sciences, in the technologies they allow us to develop and in their end products has gradually become the cement that structures community life.

The uncertainty principle and the resulting scientific scepticism

When Werner Heisenberg raised doubts in the field of quantum mechanics, in 1927, as to the exactitude of mathematical sciences, when he formulated the uncertainty principle, scepticism began to germinate in society. This grew with the notion of the dimension of ‘chance’ present in mankind, as described by Nobel-prize winner Jacques Monod in 1965.2

Nowadays, scientists and technicians tend to display increasing uncertainty as to the consequences of extracting from nature the materials needed to manufacture the goods they design. They reject former assertions about the usefulness of those goods and detect formerly unforeseen negative consequences both for those who benefit directly from the goods and for those who only experience the effects of the destruction. Scientists and technicians are confronted with the problem of waste, its accumulation and how to treat it. Moreover, it is also scientists and technicians who alert us to the slow degradation of the quality of life on earth and to the imbalances and injustice afflicting those who suffer the evils of civilization without benefiting from its advantages. It is these scientists and technicians who point out the ambiguities and weaknesses of the global knowledge of phenomena, in their variety and synergies, particularly when multiplied around the planet, our common home. It is they who spread the notion that the common home is becoming a place which is less and less pleasant to live in as a result of the activities we have been engaging in.

It is no longer possible to consider scientific progress and technological challenges in a different light to that of the present, where there is more personal and social well-being than ever and, at the same time, uncertainty as to the effects of this. The space of ignorance that goes with the aforementioned progress and challenges has now become apparent, a space of ignorance where the possibility of having a future is being gambled with. The substances that the technological society has placed in the atmosphere, water and soil may be agents of illness, if not of death,3 and they tend to multiply, while we continue to be unaware of the reciprocal relations that may flow from them in connection with the sustainability of life. The perception that traditional sources of energy have run out and that waste, in particular toxic waste, is not easily treated and that there is no consensus about its treatment, together with the various inadequacies in dealing with soil contamination, have all shown it is no longer possible to continue to blindly place our trust in those who know or believe they know.

In short, while the expansion of scientific and technical knowledge, by prolonging life and the quality of that life, has enabled the welfare we enjoy nowadays, in our advanced societies, it has also given rise to injustice and produced serious political problems, particularly between industrialized and developing countries. In a certain sense, it seems to have opened a ‘Pandora’s box’, throwing wide open the gates to the unknown and to consequences that are now ‘on the loose’ in the world we know.

In addition, the expansion of scientific and technical knowledge has exposed another reality: what each individual does not know is not necessarily compensated for by the knowledge of others. There is a lack of knowledge about the effects of human action, that is, there are areas of ignorance that no one can offset. This is why we must come to the conclusion that knowledge is not the reality which globally unifies men. In my view, that reality is ignorance.

Furthermore, ignorance is no longer exclusively restricted to issues which are seen as lateral or peripheral. Despite the huge amount of knowledge we possess these days, there is a perception that the space of ignorance, or of chance (Monod), coincides with the space where the definitive issues in the community are decided i.e. life and its future. It is no longer conceivable to accept ignorance with indifference, carelessly, as something banal, as something that others may compensate for in our place.

Scientific elites have ceased to transmit certainties or simple formulas for increasing personal and social welfare. Neither do they broadcast the safety of a better world. On the contrary, they spread doubt, demonstrate vulnerability and draw attention to the unreliability of their knowledge.

Pause for questioning. Ignorance as a challenge

What kind of consequences should be drawn from this development?

I would answer that Man’s relationship with other men, and with himself, should profoundly change. Shakespeare’s immortal prince of Denmark would say that time ‘is unhinged’ and the poet Hölderlin that time has ceased to ‘rhyme’. One thing appears certain: this is a time of rupture or, quoting Gilles Deleuze, it is a time of ‘césure’ between a ‘before’, understood as a succession of events in sequence or repeated, and an ‘after’, the image of which confronts mankind today apparently as a task that is ‘too large for me’4 and which has now, in the gathering dusk, a dimension that may be hindering Minerva’s owl5 to take off on its flight.

Ignorance of the effects of human action is a discovery of the second half of the 20th century that has turned, in the 21st century, into a challenge. Symbolically, it is similar to Hamlet’s sea voyage and, like that voyage, it leads to a profound reflection conducted by each individual within himself. On the other hand, we are heading towards a reflection to be conducted within the community, ‘looking at ourselves’ as the writer David Grossman argued for, on November 4, 2006, in Tel Aviv, on the occasion of a tribute to Yitzhak Rabin.6 At issue is the present of the metamorphosis, a connecting bridge towards the rupture or ‘césure’ between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’, between equal parts that complete each other in the time of Man, since concern about the future is the key to human existence.

The outcome of this pondering may, nevertheless, be a mere shrug of the shoulders, that is, it may lead to the conclusion that the scientific community is wrong and that we can carry on as usual. However, given that what is in question is life, we are inclined to think, with Peter Singer, that ‘to believe in that possibility is a risky strategy’7 and we shall probably not be alive to learn how it will end.

Concern about the future demands that we be twice as alert, that we learn to deal with probabilities, that we be careful with our actions, and that we transform experience into a way of acting. There are no certainties for any of us.

However, since no one is sure, what was until now a scientific and technical issue has become a challenge posed to every individual, as a person, in a community. All this can be set against the backdrop of humanity that everyone carries along, conditions and is responsible for. In other words, the space of scientific and technical questioning is transformed into a space of ethical and philosophical questioning.8

The transformation of the scientific and technical issue into an ethical issue

The transformation of the scientific and technical issue, i.e. the question of the consequences of human action, into an ethical challenge, i.e. living in a political and legal community, resembles the shiver that a gust of wind sends through one’s body.

Around our body there is a layer of hot and wet air that slowly climbs from our feet up to our head and encloses us in an atmosphere created by our own metabolism. When blowing through us, the wind causes that layer of hot air to disappear and the body is exposed to a number of different temperatures and degrees of humidity. Thus, a shivering effect is produced.9 That is why, when one shivers, there is an adage that says: ‘death has passed through me but found me still strong’. The body has been able to overcome the imbalance caused by the elimination of the protecting hot air layer and has recovered its stability.

For the parallel drawn between an individual shiver and the challenge posed by ethical questioning of the community to be appropriate, it is necessary to examine how one’s balance in the community can be recovered after such a shake.

Three decades ago it seemed possible to recover it merely by using good sense and with the help of scientific progress. Even today, some optimists believe that everything can be fixed by virtue of technological innovation, focusing their attention on economic growth, the only reality – so they say – that human communities really need.

However, if we examine the matter in greater depth, we are led to the conclusion that this is not exactly the case.

In fact, this kind of ‘shiver’ calls for a perception about living in community which is different to the traditional one. There are two reasons for this: firstly, due to the eradication of distance between people and the resulting globalization of the community, including the economic community; and, secondly, because decisions are no longer taken based on personal interests but rather according to the interests of future generations, given that the consequences that any decision may have on the distant future are taken into consideration, which means that the timeframe to be considered when making the decision is still a human timeframe, but it goes beyond the life of the actual person taking that decision.

Personal ethics become community ethics. Indifferent to risk and to the possibility of a future, Kantian ethics are gradually being replaced by a type of ethics which encompasses precisely that risk and, along with it, the possibility of a future. The element of chance, as a result of a personal action, affects both the one who acts and others, including not only those who are close by, in terms of distance, but also those who are distant, in terms of time. The possibility that others may continue to exist and that others will exist in the future conditions every action. These actions are conditioned by introducing a special concern as to the probable effects at the moment immediately preceding the decision to act.

From ethical questioning to political and legal questioning

If that is the case, then the acceptance of community ethics – which encompasses the future transformed into present responsibility within the daily freely built continuity of being – implies the reconstruction of the political and legal community. It implies a reorganization of power according to the intentionality of a historical and human notion of what ‘should be’, which is external to it; an intentionality accepted as a right which, since it ‘should be’, can legitimate power as a power of freedom.

Yet, the metaphor of the shivering organism allows us to progress a little further in the knowledge of existing boundaries in the political and legal community and the resulting need for human intervention.

Indeed, it clearly shows that living beings define their own environment. They build it rather than adapt to it and, at the same time, they gradually destroy the conditions of their existence. We might say that the environment is permanently being rebuilt during the lifetime of the various beings, not only human, but also each and every living being.