Science And Tech Ethical Discourse Should Be Inclusive
We are living in exciting times. Advancements are being made in many areas of science and technology (S&T) which promise to not only change, but also challenge, the way in which we live life. Most definitely for Muslims, these exciting times can also be challenging.
We acknowledge that advancements in S&T such as artificial intelligence and neuroscience, to quote two examples, are driven by scientists, technologists and medical practitioners. Having said that, we must equally recognise that these developments would affect many parties outside the realm of science and technology.
Arising from this, we must also acknowledge that any discussion on S&T development also entails ethical deliberations. As such, the stakeholders of any ethical discourse of S&T are similarly diversed.
In today’s reality, ethics of S&T should not be viewed as being exclusively under the purview of only scientists and technologists. As a matter of fact, S&T ethics involves multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary stakeholders.
These stakeholders include the government and policy-makers, universities and research institutions, companies and corporations, as well as non-governmental organisations and consumer groups.
In the case of Malaysia where religion is part and parcel of everyday life, religious scholars and religious organisations must also be included as important stakeholders. Therefore, in tackling S&T developments from an ethical perspective, we must rethink the approach so that it is inclusive and takes into account the various stakeholders that are involved in the discourse.
If we were to look back at history, initial discussions on ethics of S&T began with deliberations on bioethics. This began in the 1970’s where ethical deliberations were primarily focused on medical ethics.
The term “bioethics” was first used in 1970 in a publication by Van Rensselaer Potter from Wisconsin University, while André Hellegers of Georgetown University first used the term for an organization, namely the The Joseph and Rose Kennedy Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and Bioethics.
However, contemporary discussions on ethics have expanded extensively beyond merely medical ethics and bioethics. We can see today many sectors are involved in ethical discourse of S&T.
Furthermore, contemporary advancements made in S&T have resulted in new specialised sectors for ethical discourse, chief among them are ethics of artificial intelligence as well as neuroethics.
In order for us to make ethical discourse more inclusive, it is therefore imperative for us to better understand the concept of “stakeholder.” This concept originated in the theory of management but has been appropriated by scholars in business studies where it is considered to be one of the most attractive devices in business ethics.
This concept made it possible for businesses to have obligations to a wide range of parties, moving away from the stockholders to whom corporations were traditionally beholden. Hence, we can define stakeholders as “groups aside from stockholders who also have a stake in a particular endeavour.”
If we expand the stakeholder concept to S&T development, it can actually serve as the middle ground which reconciles on the one hand forward-thinking scientists and technologists, and on the other hand public interest groups (such as religious bodies, consumer groups and environmentalists).
Essentially, the adoption of the stakeholder concept is a healthy shift towards the perspective that there are many other parties who are impacted by S&T development, and that these parties must never be ignored.
This is important so as to provide policymakers and scientists with a lens that allows them to give due attention to the interests of any group or individual affected by a decision, a policy or a new innovation in S&T.
Ideally in any S&T discourse, stakeholders are engaged in a process of identifying and understanding numerous and varied social, economic, political, legal, cultural and moral claims of the various parties (which are often often competing and contradictory). It therefore goes without saying that each stakeholder in the ethical discourse represents the interest and viewpoint of a particular group, even though the degrees of obligation may vary.
Some stakeholders may have written contractual obligations while others may have fiduciary or trust-based obligations. In other cases, the stakeholder obligation may be in the form of the good neighbour, that is non-interference and non-intervention in internal matters, but engaged in mutual exchanges.
As Malaysia is a multireligious and multicultural country, participation of religious representatives as stakeholders is critical in any S&T ethical discourse. There is indeed an urgent need for ethical and religious inputs in order to address the rapid progress in S&T today.
We cannot afford to be merely users of technological advancements without truly weighing in on the good and the bad, the benefits and the risks of these new technologies. New technologies may have a lot of benefits, but it is also pertinent that we draw the “boundaries” that spell out what can and cannot be done, and what should and should not be done.
These “boundaries” must be practical and not be too rigid, as new progress in technologies may require for the “boundaries” to be adjusted. Nonetheless, the boundaries should be there, and should be drawn based on shared sociocultural values, religious norms and legal provisions.
We must not construe the ethical boundaries as inhibiting S&T progress. Instead, we must view them as safeguards that will ensure progress made in S&T do not result in unwanted risks and dangers.
If ethical deliberations (guided by sociocultural and religious norms and values) are not carried out vis-à-vis S&T development, ethics would not be able to play a proactive and effective role but instead, will forever be struggling to catch up to progress.
Hence, the urgent need for S&T ethical discourse to be inclusive to take into account all relevant stakeholders. To have an inclusive ethical discourse could be challenging, but at the same time, it would also be interesting as it provides the opportunity for people of various backgrounds to convene and discuss shared ethical concerns.