Bernardo M. Villegas
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Ethics for the Digital Age (Part 1)

          A most basic ethical principle contained in the Philippine Constitution of 1987 is the obligation of every Philippine citizen to contribute to the common good, defined as a social or juridical order that enables every individual in society to attain his or her fullest development economically, politically, culturally, socially, morally and spiritually.  This contrasts with the very incomplete and sometimes counterproductive definition of the common good as “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  In the action of an individual, whether he be a businessman, a politician or a consumer, he or she must always consider how he is contributing to the integral human development of everyone else in society.  Moral leaders, especially Pope Francis, have time and again reiterated that the old assumption that the business man, for example, can get away by just aiming at maximum profit for his business, without thinking of how his behavior is affecting the welfare of every stakeholder in his business, has to be rejected in constructing a just and humane economic society.  There is no “invisible hand” that will automatically promote the common good if we encourage business people just to focus on maximum profit, as the traditional capitalist theory assumed.  The business man, as all other human beings, must always factor the common good into his behavior if social justice is to be attained in the community. This is the principle of solidarity that is the complement to the principle of subsidiary which emphasizes individual freedom.

         How do we apply the concept of the common good to the digital age?  Thanks to a recent 2019 Statement made by a group of top leaders from all over the world who belong to the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation (inspired by the encyclical of St. John Paul II entitled Centessimus Annus that appeared in 1991), we can follow some very specific guidelines in how to behave ethically in the age of “new things” in the so-called fourth industrial revolution.  Let me quote from the introductory paragraph of the 2019 Statement: “In our digital communications ecosystem and ‘machine learning’ environment, technical tools have a direct influence on human culture.  The creation, accumulation and use of ‘big data’ are all-embracing and their potential growth is exponential.  The ethical debate about privacy and the abuse of information is already everywhere.  But new ethically significant developments arise also in other areas of ‘artificial intelligence’, from agriculture and food to industry, healthcare, urban development, catastrophe risk control and climate change.  At the same time, we are still getting to grips with ethical failures in the past:  more than ever, an old concept based on individual ‘gold-rush’ maximization of personal gain is threatening the very integrity of humankind.”  Increasingly, business people are told to focus on the triple P, i.e. People, Planet and Profit.

         The following guidelines are being offered from the recent work of the Centessimus Annus pro Pontifice Foundation in its effort to identify ways toward a sustainable, fully human market economy.  It would be well for all the stakeholders in a national economy, i.e. the business people, the workers, the consumers and the government, to seriously consider how to  put these general principles into practice in the context of the realities of the Philippine economy.  The very first guideline has to do with the primordial role of education which is the key to really transforming the greatest resource of the Philippines, a young, growing and English-speaking population, into a real asset for integral human development.  The first guideline is to educate people to take responsibility in a context of equal opportunities.  Excellence in education does not have to mean pursuing status or privilege.  While proposing usable skills and tools for judgement, the aim should be to develop the ability of people to make informed choices, to overcome over dependence on consumption and to foster among students of all ages (learning should be a lifetime process) the natural will for cooperation and good quality.  This presupposes teaching every human being the skill of critical thinking, effective communication and the ability to relate to others.  If businesses, as is happening today in such sectors as construction and manufacturing, complain about the lack of technically skilled people, let them invest more directly in permanent vocational training and apprenticeship. Technical skills are better learned in the work place.  Schools and universities should give the highest importance in their curricula to the liberal arts and the humanities.  In the digital age, the liberal arts should incorporate a good dose of mathematics which should include the Calculus.

         Second, families need to prepare themselves for the new environment, where inter-generational dialogue is difficult because of work pressure, lack of time and technological invasion.  More than ever, parents should be the first educators of their children, never allowing too much work to interfere in their primary duty of bringing up their children as morally responsible citizens.  It is in this connection that our Congress should focus on how to penalize parents of underage children for their negligence in guiding their children so that they do not commit criminal acts instead of quibbling on how to bring down the age at which children should be held socially (criminally) liable.  It is the responsibility of parents and guardians of children to create the necessary space for conversation and exchange within the family.  A very practical rule to follow here is not to allow children to bring their cellphones to the dining room so that those precious moments for conversation will not be wasted.  The aim within the family is to construct a culture of mutual respect and virtue-driven behavior, especially regarding gender equality and the valuing of different contributions to the common good.  The family is the environment in which children should be trained to value the dignity of every human being (including the domestic helpers, drivers, and other workers) so that no one of them will be tempted to bully anyone, whether in school or out of school.

         As users of technology in a competitive world, whether as professionals or members of their respective churches, people need to apply the most efficient technical instruments available.  It is our duty, however, to look for the best use of data and processes, to protect those at risk and defend their rights against monopolistic abuse.  Consumers should be the first ones to give feedback to state institutions regulating monopolies if they feel that some large companies are guilty of anti-trust behavior.  This vigilance of consumers is a very specific way of contributing to the common good.  In the setting of a free society, transparency about the choices underlying expert systems should be demanded by the consumers.  Scientists and managers on their part should stop developments which can exceed and escape human control.  Technology needs to be ergonomically oriented, where human work is supported and multiplied by machines.  This would require constant dialogue with those who develop algorithms, understanding of new languages, discernment between means and ends, and initiative to foster purposeful innovation.  (To be continued)