ethics and science

How will our games end? Today, we are increasingly capable of altering the world and our political, social and natural states due to advancements in science and technology. More than ever before, how we behave and the ethical choices we make can have far reaching consequences. What ethical pitfalls exist? Will our actions harm humanity or the natural world around us? Drawing from literary and visual art works spanning hundreds of years from different genres, this exhibit highlights basic ethical messages that can apply to modern day events. In the following exhibits, changes emanating from a broad range of scientific disciplines are considered: physical and environmental sciences (Cat’s Cradle); biology and computer science (Snow Crash); political science (Utopia and Red Harvest); as well as psychology (Red Harvest). Hopefully, by having heightened awareness of our actions as we participate in the game of life, we will avoid the ethical “sticky nets of human futility (Vonnegut 164)” for many millenniums to come.

Just as Kurt Vonnegut’s dark, apocalyptic tale in Cat’s Cradle is based on a scientist who creates the first atomic bomb with an innocent, childlike curiosity, this image brings together dark imagery, creation of child’s toy, and the chilling statement “love what you create and others will love it too.” Vonnegut’s fictional creator of the atomic bomb was indifferent to the consequences of his work; instead, he viewed research narrowly as a puzzle, saying “Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on? (Vonnegut 11).”
Cat’s Cradle exposes the ethical “sticky nets of human futility (Vonnegut 164)” that can entangle and destroy us. I see in this art work, titled Mundillo Nuestro (Little World), how the hands of science can become caught in these webs, influencing and setting into motion actions that can have far reaching, apocalyptic consequences. The pursuit of scientific knowledge should only be done in a manner that does not harm the world.
As this ceramic dog dated 300 BC–300 AD demonstrates, humans and dogs have a long history together. However, that relationship takes an unusual turn In Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk thriller Snow Crash, where we see both man and dog redefined into beings barely resembling their prior, natural forms. What are the ethical limits of these technological capabilities? Are there any limits? Stephenson makes it easy for us by taking us into the dog’s still existent brain: “The factory that put him together thinks of him as a robot named Number B-782. But he thinks of himself as a pit bullterrier named Fido (Stephenson 249).” Fido of the future leads a happy dog’s life and is still man’s (or in the case of Snow Crash, a 15 year old girl’s) best friend, but these organic and machine creations straddle a fine line between improving and harming life.
Advances in technology make it possible to easily monitor what we say and do, in both the real and virtual worlds. I chose this painting by Juan Gris, titled “The Open Window,” to represent our lives. Gris shows sharp, contrasting lines between dark interior and bright exterior scenes. When should we have the right to draw the curtains to shield our inner lives? In Snow Crash, the Feds and lead antagonist Rife impose broad surveillance programs. Ironically, it is the Mafia character Enzo who provides an example of where to draw the line, stating “Not unless it has tactical significance (Stephenson 458).” Today, current surveillance practices are being questioned: is the tactical need for protecting society from terrorism worth the costs to individual liberty and privacy?
In the science of politics, what are the ethical bounds of an ideal society? Thomas More, in his fictional satire Utopia, imagines a society capable of eliminating poverty, crime and greed through a new state controlled form of government that abolishes private property. In a critique of English society during feudal times, we hear about sheep “so voracious and fierce that they devour even the people themselves (More 22).” Due to changing economics in the wool market, people are put out of work and forced to beg or steal to survive. Providing jobs- that is, farming plus one other trade to meet the needs of the common good, was a central part of Utopian society. Over 500 years later, we face similar disruptions as this picture from an early 1980’s typewriter factory depicts; technology advancements have made the typewriter and its workers obsolete. However, More’s text challenges readers to consider what Utopia should be- and I believe that while jobs are critical, no political structure should be so voracious and fierce that it devours individual free will and liberty.
This painting by Paul Cezanne titled “The Murder” depicts a violent and disturbing scene where individuals take matters into their own hands. Drawing from actual life experiences, Dashiell Hammett exposes the inner workings of a corrupt, broken society in his hard-boiled detective story Red Harvest. In the mining city of Personville, known by the locals as Poisonville, its inhabitants are transformed by industrial capitalism. Greed and violence dominate and become a way of life. Similar to Cezanne’s image, the natives go “blood-simple (Hammett 154)” and act outside of legal and moral codes. While trying to clean up the city’s corruption, Hammett’s Continental Op also succumbs to the environment. He states that he could have got “the support I needed to swing the play legally… But it was easier to have them killed off, easier and surer, and now that I’m feeling this way, more satisfying… Poisonville is right. It’s poisoned me (Hammett 157).” In a society dominated by greed, ethics and morality suffer.
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