Where Technology Meets Ethics – The Humanitarian Principles and Their Troubled Relation to Technology – September 2022 – World

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introduction

At the end of the 17th century, the Age of Enlightenment began, a period of human thought that challenged the most basic assumptions of the western world. During this period of around 150 years, nothing was safe from the advance of human reason and scientific advance. God, monarchy, economics, morality, legitimacy stories for political authority, and every other societal truth or way of being in the world have been uprooted and exposed to the rising waters of the Enlightenment.

It was a turbulent time that left many institutions and individuals feeling alienated, both literally and figuratively. Many institutions, like the church, could not adapt to the changed moods brought about by the Enlightenment. Instead of being flexible, the church remained anchored because of its inability to adequately adapt Christian truth to the changing political and moral landscape around it.

By the end of the Enlightenment, the Church – one of the most influential forces in the West – had become an organization of such insignificance that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche emerged at the end of the 19th century and declared: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we killed him.”1 The primary reason for this decline was not that the Church was unable to change with the tides; it was because the Church saw its moral claims as absolute, and it was unwilling to bend, reluctantly reinterpret, and unwilling to embrace what it could not stop. In today’s age, every major organization and industry faces a similar problem: the information age.

Much like the Age of Enlightenment, technology and data are rapidly beginning to deconstruct long-held truths, questioning what is considered moral, undermining institutions, recreating the economy, and disrupting the political status quo. Unlike the Enlightenment, which was defined by an advance in thought, the Information Age is advancing so rapidly that it is now human thought that lags behind the technologies that define the modern world and its frontiers. The standard ethical, moral, political, and economic models that have guided the Western world since the Age of Enlightenment are rapidly becoming obsolete. Their inability to deal with the changing landscape that the information age has brought about is becoming more apparent with each passing day.

Lesson learned from the Church during the Enlightenment, it is unwise to remain rigid in the face of certain changes, especially when those changes are inherently uncertain. With each passing day, important events are becoming clearer: the outbreak of war between states in Europe, the resurgence of competition between great powers, the looming global food crisis, the uncertain global economic future, the rise of autocratic leaders, and the proliferation of climate-related disasters. These events may well produce a level of suffering not seen by the world, particularly the West, in several decades. This perfect storm of natural disasters, human error and historical force, coupled with the information age, is beginning to challenge the people working to alleviate human suffering – those in the humanitarian sector.

There is an obvious problem for the humanitarian sector and those who interact with it: how will the information age transform the existence of the sector? Or perhaps an even more important question: will the information age do to major humanitarian organizations like the UN what the Enlightenment did to the church? And if that happened, what would the humanitarian sector look like at that point in time?

Over the past decade, calls of alarm have raised the need for the humanitarian sector to think seriously about the impact of technology and its uses. This paper aims to sound a different but different alarm: the time for theorizing is coming to an end. The need for action is there.

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