Juan Enriquez is the author of As the Future Catches You, Evolving Ourselves, and other books. A frequent speaker at TED and other conferences, he has contributed to such publications as Harvard Business Review and Foreign Policy. He is also the Director of Excel Venture Management, a life sciences venture capital firm.
Below, Juan shares 5 key insights from his new book, Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Our Ethics. Download the Next Big Idea App to enjoy more audio “Book Bites,” plus Ideas of the Day, ad-free podcast episodes, and more.
1. Ethics evolve over time.
Every generation likes to proclaim that they definitively know right from wrong. But think about past beliefs that have been widely agreed upon: “We practice human sacrifice to ensure the sun will rise and the rain will fall.” “Come to the town square and watch heretics burn!” “Slavery is okay—the Bible says so.” “Races should never mix.” “Gay marriage, are you crazy?” Surely, you and your generation could never believe anything that, in retrospect, may seem deluded and wrong. Right?
2. Your religious beliefs may feel timeless—but they probably aren’t.
99% of the world’s religions have gone extinct. Most museums contain dead gods: Zeus, Neptune, Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl, Osiris, Anubis, et cetera. Or think about the formerly all-powerful that you may not have heard of—like Ukko, the Finnish god of sky and thunder, or Mithra, Persian god of the sun. So don’t be so sure that you and your generation have found the one, absolutely true and unchanging word of God. And if you don’t believe in God, your belief system could still be challenged one day—what if we were to discover intelligent life on other planets?
“Since machines improve your lifestyle and make some things less labor-intensive, maybe you can now afford to be more generous toward others.”
3. Norms around sex and reproduction are constantly changing.
Imagine talking to your grandparents about sex back when they were 20 years old: “Grandma, can you imagine people deciding to have a lot of sex, and never have a child? Gramps, what if a couple could conceive without ever physically touching each other? And Grandma, what if we could freeze one of two twins, and have another mother give birth to it in a few decades?” They would likely think you were weird, and even immoral. Now imagine a conversation with your own grandkids once they’ve reached 70 years old. They might say, “My mom was so primitive—she kept me inside her body after conception, even as she went mountain biking and visited foreign countries. She never left me in a secure, controlled environment! Even worse, they didn’t gene edit back then, so now I have cancer because they never took out the right gene.”
4. Technology often enables us to be more ethical.
Remember those old Viking ships, with dozens of manacled prisoners rowing? When you fly across the country, those two jet engines on the wings are doing work equivalent to 320,000 of those old Viking ship rowers. Since machines improve your lifestyle and make some things less labor-intensive, maybe you can now afford to be more generous toward others. For instance, these days, there are enough calories to feed everyone on the planet. We can avoid famines—we have no excuses. So the ethics behind economics are no longer about administering scarce resources, but about distributing them fairly.
“As synthetic meats get better for you and are faster and cheaper to make, how will killing six billion animals a year look in retrospect?”
5. Judge the past and the present as you wish to be judged by your descendants.
This is the first generation in which everything we do and say is electronically tattooed on us forever—I’m talking about all our posts on Facebook, Google, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Future generations will dissect these with glee, especially as the standards and meanings of words and actions change over time. If you wore a costume decades ago that doesn’t meet today’s enlightened scrutiny, or if you used a word today that is anathema, but was okay back then, you might end up “canceled.”
But is it fair to judge past generations by today’s strict standards, especially as technology provides new alternatives to how we think and act? Take a synthetic hamburger—it cost $230,000 in 2013, $30 in 2015, $3 last week. As synthetic meats get better for you and are faster and cheaper to make, how will killing six billion animals a year look in retrospect? So we need to bring a little more humility and open-minded listening back into today’s discourse, especially when talking about the moral values of past generations.
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