Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success…Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, 12/11/1964
It has proven true that seemingly “unlimited” progress has continued to spring forth in the fifty years since his Nobel Lecture. I’m inspired when I think about what technical ingenuity has accomplished since 1964. I’m disappointed, however, that injustice and violence continue despite that development. While we continue to make “spectacular strides,” humanity also continues to suffer a “poverty of spirit.”
Dr. King said that our ability to “bridge the gulf of the haves and the have nots” of the world was “dependent upon man squaring his moral progress with his scientific progress, and learning the practical art of living in harmony.” “Squaring” suggests that the two lines of development run on parallel tracks, but I wonder if that is necessarily true. Can scientific progress be an engine for moral progress?
One common line of argument suggests the opposite; that technology enables violence, greed, ecological destruction. Those sinister applications must be cut short, but it would be wrong to overlook the opportunity to harness the energy and genius that is behind scientific innovation.
As just one example of how human capacity is enhanced by technology, a recent piece by Tim Wu in the New Yorker makes a thoughtful case that smartphones make humans smarter, by making resources and processing easier and faster so we can solve problems more readily. Access to physical stuff —not just ideas— is becoming nearly instantaneous, too; Amazon says that customers could opt for thirty-minute aerial delivery as soon as 2015. And for those occasions on which virtual fact-finding or remote retrieval isn’t enough, the latest reports from the 2014 Detroit Auto Show offer hope that soon our cars will be able to drive us wherever we need to go .
21st century citizens are endowed with a lot of potential to communicate, collaborate and change. The important issue, however, —the one that perhaps Dr. King was most concerned with— is how humans use that potential.
Some concepts out there are intended to directly address the problem of potential. Some biologists and ethicists have explored the concept of an “altruism pill” that would manipulate brain function and hormones to promote goodwill and reduce competition amongst people. In a 2012 ethics paper “Human Engineering and Climate Change” (Paper for Ethics, Policy and the Environment. 2012. See p. 10 in pre-publication version. Also includes citations for more info.) authors S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache pose a possible case for the pharmaceutical approach. “If people were generally more willing to act as a group, and could be confident that others would do the same, we may be able to enjoy the sort of benefits that arise only when large numbers of people act together. Increasing altruism and empathy may help increase the chances of this occurring.”
Even if it technically worked, would the altruism pill be good for society? I’m inclined to use Dr. King’s criteria as a measure. In his Nobel lecture, he argued that nonviolent resistance is the ideal weapon because it “cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.” Perhaps by making generosity and sacrifice less difficult, a pharmaceutical could cut through inequity without wounding one’s pride or self-satisfaction. But I’m not sure that an altruism pill has the crucial “ennobling” power.
The ennobling part of nonviolence is in fully feeling and knowing one’s power but at the same time, refusing to use that power to harm others. Dr. King suggested that he and his allies were surmounting hills and mountains of resistance and wore down opposition “until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity.” That force is lost in the relatively instantaneous act of taking a [hypothetical] altruism pill. The pharmaceutical approach is more like taking a gondola to the top of the mountain and less like wearing a path up and over, with the patient pressure that Dr. King evoked. The pill would promote compliance and conformity, without leveraging the energy that is needed to drive real change.
Dr. King did not swear off technological advances, and neither do I. My point is that we should not to take for granted that technical “progress” must be aimed at domination, speed and acquisition. Human ingenuity could help to conjure a truly livable and peaceful world if the goals of invention include the principles of making peace —bridging the gap between the haves and the have nots; pursuing patient, steady change. For my part, I’ll try to be more conscious of using the tools at my disposal in a way that brings me closer to other people and their needs. I hope that typing these words for you to read might represent a tiny step in that direction.