Is Technology Morally Neutral?

Is Technology Morally Neutral? June 19, 2018

Over at The Catholic Weekly, I noodle a claim that is taken for granted whenever the subject of guns comes up–and which is then immediately contradicted by the Gun Cult itself: the idea that technology is “morally neutral”. Check out the argument and let me know what you think. Here’s a taste, but please read the whole thing:

One common theme heard, especially in the gun-besotted United States, is the old saw, “Guns don’t kill people.  People kill people.”  Prescinding from the obvious reply–which the enlightened country of Australia was able to figure out without much trouble twenty years ago– “It’s really hard to shoot five hundred people—or even one–if you don’t have a gun” I want to focus elsewhere and interrogate a bit of philosophy that lies behind that mantra.

It is this claim:  “Technology is morally neutral.”  You know: Spoons don’t make you fat.  Pencils don’t make spelling errors.  Cars don’t drive drunk. Etc.

The idea is that technology is a just a thing sitting there.  We do things to and with technology, but it is not doing anything to us.

I think that, the moment you actually say that out loud, the absurdity of this claim is manifest.  Technology exerts enormous pressure on us and changes us in thousands of ways.  And when the Gun Cult in the US is not repeating its mantras to defend their guns, even they constantly acknowledge this.

So, for instance, zealous Gun Cult advocate Roseanne Barr–the actress who blew up her career recently by tweeting racist slurs–blamed her actions, in part, on the technology called “Ambien” she was taking.  Her argument boils down to the claim that part of the story behind her behavior is that the drugs she takes (she suffered from a traumatic brain injury when she was young) influenced her.  Of course, this does not relieve her of responsibility.  But does anybody doubt for a moment that drugs do, in fact, change how we behave?

Indeed, the Gun Cult in the United States eagerly talks out of both sides of its mouth on this all the time, insisting that guns, like all technology, are allegedly “morally neutral” and then immediately turning around to finger such things as abortion technology, violent video game technologyinternet porn technologyRitalin technology, media technology, and (most absurdly) door technology as the real culprits.  In short, the moment the Gun Cult stops lying that gun technology is morally neutral is the moment it starts saying that every other form of technology it can think of is not morally neutral.

Now the thing is, the Gun Cult is not entirely wrong here when they start pointing the finger at these technologies.  Who in their right mind, for instance, thinks a video game called Active Shooter, in which the player roams the halls of a school gunning down classmates and cops, is “morally neutral” and should be handed to their kid?

Who in their right mind believes that a piece of technology called “a pub” is morally neutral when a visit to it is pressed upon a recovering alcoholic?

Who in their right mind believes that the technology called “internet porn”—especially violent and sadistic porn–is morally neutral and does not exert immense pressure on people with sex and violence addictions?

Who in their right mind does not think that surrounding whole populations with money, toys, TV, video games, junk food, easy access to internet porn and couches will not—almost inevitably—result in spoiled, obese, sexually disordered populations?

And so, back to weaponry.  A common trope in our American Gun Cult is that “Cain killed Abel with a rock. It’s a heart problem, not a gun problem.”

Who in their right mind thinks that handing nuclear weaponry to a Kim Jong Un or ISIS and then praying for God to change their hearts is a good idea?  Who among us is unaware of the fact that such technology inevitably carries with it an invitation and an intrinsic pressure to use such technology that tempts and seduces human actors?

Yes, of course, human beings make moral choices.  But one of the choices they make is to create technology.  And when they do that, the technology bears the stamp of the humans who make it and becomes a form of language.

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