Debate on ethical governance of science and technology

By YAO XINZHONG / 06-23-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Code of ethics has become a topic of discussion today as science and technology develops at a fast pace.

Science and technology are the primary driving force for mankind’s progress. But in the 20th century and beyond, the rapid development of science and technology has led to disasters such as environmental pollution, the spread of viruses, human rights violations. Due to the vicious application of high-tech in the two World Wars particularly, many people have been afflicted by the consequences.

Reflections on duality 
Faced with such reality, human society began to reflect on the use of technology from ethical viewpoints and established ethical principles for scientific and technological activities.
On March 20, 2022, China issued the Guideline on Strengthening Ethical Governance of Science and Technology (hereafter referred to as the Guideline) and outlined systematic plans for ethical governance in this area.
The duality of science and technology, and its applications, shows that mankind has limits. Despite great success made in the past, Engels warned that we should not become intoxicated by victory over nature, because each so-called victory also means the revenge of nature on mankind. Today, our understanding of the universe, the world, matter, and life has reached its peak. Emerging scientific technologies such as cloning, gene editing, artificial intelligence, big data, and so forth, involve growing moral hazards. But we can only accurately predict the hazards within a limited range.
Biased understandings
Some people simply understand the relationship between ethics and technology from opposed perspectives and they say that ethical governance in this area is a constraint of moral norms upon the development of science and technology. Indeed, science and technology pursue truth and ethics pursues goodness, which means the two are not necessarily consistent with one another. Under certain conditions, the pursuit of truth by science and technology would even hinder the pursuit of goodness by ethics, and the intention of benefiting human society could convert to harming people’s well-being. 
In addition, science and technology is essentially about making breakthroughs, while ethics is about balance and restriction. There are obvious differences in the presupposed values between the two, and the goals they pursue are not completely unified.
From the perspective of time, ethics is the accumulative result of human civilization and the collective form of traditional customs and habits, which embody certain historical, traditional, and conservative elements. Although science and technology, especially modern science and technology, make up an important part of human civilization and also are a driving force for its development, the field often needs to break through previous norms, rules, and practices. Thus, it produces great uncertainty in cognitive activities, moral life, and social order.
However, the pursuit of truth is not necessarily opposed to the pursuit of goodness. We need to perceive technological development and ethical progress in the interactive context of tradition and modernization. In other words, the traditional elements of ethics and modernity of science and technology must be blended. Viewing the relationship between the two simply from perspectives of tension is biased and would easily fall into the trap of the so-called “modernization theory.” 
Ensuring security is the core
The basic principles for ethical governance of science and technology are to promote human welfare, respect the right to life, adhere to fairness and justice, and control risks in a reasonable way. Among these core principles, safeguarding human security is fundamental. Security is a basic need for human survival. However, while science and technology are transforming nature and the environment, they are also exacerbating global insecurity. It can even be said that the more advanced modern science and technology is, the more serious global risks become. Considering this, the United Nations introduced the concept of “human security” in 1994, and broadened the concept of human security from the mere political, economic, and military levels to the protection of life, health, and dignity. 
The Guideline which China recently issued also takes “reasonable risk control” as a basic ethical principle. As are emphasized in the document, scientific and technological activities should objectively assess and prudently deal with uncertainties and risks brought by technological application and prevent misuse and abuse of the research findings. The goal is to make sure that social security, public security, biological security, and ecological security are not endangered. 
However, not transcending the bottom line of human security does not mean that scientific and technological activities should be limited to the known, the visible, and measurable areas. Most malignant results brought about by scientific and technological inventions are not the problems of inventions themselves but are caused by a process of misuse and misapplication which violates moral rules. Therefore, it is not valid to deny ethical values of scientific and technological activities just because of their side-effects. Science and technology can be either good or evil. Therefore, the ethical governance in this sector, is essentially about strengthening the compatibility between science and technology and ethics, in order to impart benign values to more and more human activities.
Yao Xinzhong is a professor from the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China.
Edited by BAI LE