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By Politically Incorrect Australian
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technology and morality

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I’ve just been reading Larry Niven’s very early science fiction novel A Gift from Earth. I’m not really familiar with his work and I’ve tended to avoid it since he has a reputation for having libertarian tendencies, and libertarian science fiction is something I avoid. This one does however have a few interesting ideas in it about both politics and morality.

One of Niven’s more disturbing ideas is that technology changes morality. It’s not an idea that I’m comfortable with but it has to be admitted that he argues his case pretty well. It should be said that he’s not necessarily arguing that technology changes morality for the better (A Gift from Earth is in fact a dystopian novel of sorts). He’s not necessarily arguing that it’s a good thing that technology changes morality. He simply argues that it happens. In the novel medical science has advanced to the point of being able to extend life for centuries but on the colonised world that provides the book’s setting that technology is dependent on the supply of human organs. Lots of human organs. Fresh ones. That demand is supplied in a disturbing way. Almost every crime carries the death sentence. The executed criminals supply the necessary organs for the organ banks.

The ethical dilemma in this case is that if you commit a crime it’s only right that you should die so that non-criminals can live. It’s not an idea that has been put into practice yet, although the harvesting of foetuses in abortion clinics does come perilously close (and could be considered to be in some ways worse since the victims are entirely innocent. Given the way the moral arc has been trending in the past half century it’s not entirely impossible that even the practice Niven describes might start to seem reasonable to some.

It’s a fairly crude example of technology changing ethics but the fact that it’s crude gives it an impact.

And in the real world we have seen examples of technology changing morality. The obvious example is the contraceptive pill. Whether we like it or not, whether we approve or not, the pill did change sexual ethics. It enabled sex to become a purely recreational activity, entirely divorced from emotion and from any kind of individual or social  responsibility or duty. It was a catastrophic change but there’s no question that as far as a very large percentage of the population is concerned that change did happen. It could also be argued that it laid the groundwork for the acceptance of abortion, easy divorce and homosexuality since the principle that sex is purely recreational had already been established.

Other changes in what might be called reproductive technology, things like surrogacy and other more horrifying changes, are going to have similarly dramatic effects on what constitutes accepted sexual morality. And of course the extraordinary and horrific boom in so-called gender re-assignment surgery are going to drive further changes.

Of course all of this applies only to societies that take an entirely materialistic and atheistic view of life. A religious society would be more likely to outlaw or very severely regulate such technologies. Unfortunately in the modern West we live in an entirely materialistic and atheistic society.

Niven, rather cleverly, does not try to preach. He lets the reader make up his own mind how to respond to the idea of capital punishment being linked with medical technology.

Niven is also surprisingly clear-sighted about politics. He understands that politics in practice is about power, and about lobby groups advancing their own group interests. Principles are no longer of any interest to modern politicians (if they ever were).

So it’s a novel that does raise some interesting issues in a fairly brutal manner.

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