How a Secular View of Morality Creates Challenges for Ethical A.I.

By: Akos Balogh

Artificial Intelligence is increasingly making decisions that impact our lives.

From the Social media algorithms that decide what you see on social media (and thus, shape what you’re likely to believe) to artificial intelligence systems aiding medical diagnoses. These technologies all have ‘built-in’ moral and ethical values influencing how they work. [1]

However, as we continue to develop and use these technologies, we must consider the ethical implications of A.I. systems making moral choices. Will these technologies make decisions that ultimately harm or help humanity? Will these technologies lead to ethical human flourishing, or will they dehumanise us?

While the ethics driving Western societies – and thus many A.I. designers – have been based on a loosely Christian framework, this is eroding and being replaced with a more secularised view of ethics.

And this secular view of ethics will cause increasing challenges in developing ethical A.I.

Here’s why:

1) Secular Society Believes Morality is Made Up & Subjective

Historian Yuval Harari captures the widespread secular view of morality in his bestselling book Sapiens:

“Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective reality.”[2]

In this view, there is no objective moral code that transcends time and culture. It’s like any other arbitrary rule, like road rules: we make them up to give order to our societies.

2) …So How Can One View of Morality be ‘Right’?

This raises an urgent question for the future of A.I. ethics: if morality is purely subjective, how can we determine whether one view of morality is superior to another? Oxford mathematician and author John Lennox points out the disturbing implications of this view:

“However, if morality, if our ideas of right and wrong, are purely subjective, we should have to abandon any idea of moral progress (or regress), not only in the history of nations, but in the lifetime of each individual. The very concept of moral progress implies an external moral standard by which not only to measure that a present moral state is different from an earlier one but also to pronounce that it is ‘better’ than the earlier one.

He continues:

“Without such a standard, how could one say that the moral state of a culture in which cannibalism is regarded as an abhorrent crime is any ‘better’ than a society in which it is an acceptable culinary practice?” [3]

And this view will impact A.I. design:

3) What is Ethical A.I. if Ethics are Subjective?

If morality is purely subjective, how do we decide what is right and wrong? Without an objective framework, what moral principles will A.I. have, whether autonomous weapons or autonomous cars?

Companies will likely make these decisions in the short term (hello, Facebook!). And sadly, such companies are often driven by the almighty dollar rather than by Almighty God. After all, if ethics is just made up, who’s to say that loving money is any worse than loving your neighbour?

However, as the government starts regulating A.I., the question of morality becomes even more crucial. Regulation is expected to grow, and at that point, we citizens get a direct say in the ethics that guides the development of these technologies.

We must recognise the need for an objective moral framework to evaluate and compare different ethical perspectives. Doing so can pave the way for a future where A.I. systems are efficient, innovative, compassionate, and ethical.

[1] For more on this, see the book by Tim Challies, The Next Story: Life and Faith After The Digital Explosion.

[2] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 108. Quoted in John Lennox, 2084 – Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2020), 147.

[3] John Lennox, 2084 – Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2020), 147.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.

Feature image: Photo by Owen Beard on Unsplash