15/10/04 Has Religion a Role in a Technological Society?

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 Has Religion a Role in a Technological Society?
Reflections of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin
In today’s world the terms ethics and values are understood in different ways by different people.  To a lesser degree the same applies to the word religion.

In my earlier assignment, before returning to Ireland as Archbishop of Dublin, as the Vatican Representative at the United Nations Office at Geneva, I took part in the early negotiations about the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society, which was being organized at the International Telecommunications Union.

In discussing the early draft texts for the Summit, the Holy See suggested that consideration be given to the ethical dimensions of information technology.  The reaction was very interesting.  The United States Delegate immediately came to me asking if I was referring to questions of pornography, since there had been a recent controversial decision of the US Supreme Court which ruled that the right to freedom of expression limited the ability of the Federal Government to take measures against pornography.

He had no sooner gone away when an Asian Delegate came to me and said “you and I know what we mean when we talk about ethics, but we should be careful because some of these Europeans might think ethics had something to do with labour standards, and we do not want that”.

Yet another Asian, not normally known to enter into public conversations with the Holy See, came and said that we should be careful in case someone might think that ethics might have something to do with corrupt corporate business practices and he did not think that that was appropriate in a Conference on the Information Society.

Those comments, which were immediate gut reactions, show not just that there are various views of ethics, but that the range of issues to be covered in an ethical reflection on the information society is much wider than might appear at first sight or if looked at from just one single viewpoint.

I felt then that for today’s reflection I would approach the question of religion and the digital age from an overarching aspect, that of the centrality of the human person, which is always a primary focal point when reflecting on ethics and religious thought.

Information technology is about people because information is fundamentally about people.  The driving force of the digital age, of a knowledge-based economy and society, is human capacity, human creativity and the innovative ability of people.  In the past the “raw material”, as it were, of an economy was land, then capital.  Now we cannot use the term raw material, because the driving force is an active subject, the human person.

Starting out from this overarching principle, I would like to examine three key pillars of Catholic Social reflection which I believe offer some basic thrusts for an ethical understanding of the digital age.

The first concerns the inherent dignity of every person.  In religious thought all persons were created in God’s image, with an inherent dignity which cannot be removed from them.  In a more secular domain, the term dignity would possibly be replaced by rights, as a rights-based approach offers certain verifiable criteria for government and public opinion concerning how dignity is realised and protected.   In a more personalistic context, dignity might be linked with a term like self esteem, which refers to the individual’s perception of his or her dignity and their personal ability to realize that dignity.  In an economic area, dignity might be linked with the term capacity, or the more brutal term “human capital”, which looks at the particular contribution which the individual can make to the economy and society, thus realising their dignity.

Taken together, we can see that the first ethical imperative regarding a digital age is that information technology should be used in a way in which the dignity, self esteem and capacity of each person is enhanced and fully respected.  This involves avoiding certain negative uses such as exploitation, the creation of dependencies (and here the whole role of advertising comes in), and the role of openness and transparency.  But much more significant will be the way we use information technology to enhance the subjectivity of people, enabling them to be, to the highest degree possible, subjects, the shapers of their own future.  People can be the objects of information technology; they can be passive consumers; they must become active subjects in the construction of the digital age.

This is not just pious talk.  On an international level, for example, we have come more and more to realise that poverty is not just lack of economic income, but it is the inability to realise human capacity.  Development is not just about economic programmes, it means fighting poverty, that is, enabling people to enhance their God-given potential so that they can be fully themselves and realise themselves and the creative and innovative skills which are theirs by right.  If the human person, human capacity and human creativity, are the building blocks of a knowledge based economy, then investment in those capacities is not just philanthropy by wise economic investment and is therefore good for society.

Investment in human capacity is a good of the community and not just for the individual.  The more humans can realise their own capacity, the more participative society will be and the more secure our societies will be.  A digital divide, just like any other divide or form of exclusion – whether it be within a nation or on a world level – always leaves a society less secure and more vulnerable.

It should also be remembered that when we talk about the digital divide we are not just talking about communications technology on its own.  A digital divide influences a whole series of areas in society where information technology is crucial.  Where digital divide exists, other divides will abound:  there will be an educational divide, a health divide, an employment divide, an infrastructure divide, you name it.  In today’s world the victims of a digital divide are destined to increasing marginalization in so many areas.

The digital age is about people and about people’s capacity to be participants in a world where human genius and creativity are the driving forces.   I would add just one word, that among the most creative and innovative people in today’s world are the poor.  People living in poverty show remarkable genius in simply surviving.  They show remarkable genius in finding ways of getting out of poverty.  Sadly that genius is often overlooked or simply rejected.

A second principle of Catholic Social thought which I would like to address is called the universal destination of the goods of creation, a complicated term which refers to a simple reality, namely that when God created the goods of the earth he created them for the benefit of all. 

In the past this principle was most often applied by Catholic Social thought to access to land or to the distribution of wealth.  Today it must be applied also to intellectual property.  Catholic teaching has always defended the right to private property.  This was one of the main pillars of its criticism of communism.  Private property is an important instrument to help realise the right of individuals to access to, and security around, their basic needs.

There has also, however, been that other principle, the more fundamental one, that the goods of creation are there for the benefit of all.  Catholic Social thought talks about all private property carrying a “social mortgage”.  Intellectual property rights also carry a “social mortgage”. This means that, while recognising how intellectual property rights systems generate creativity and reward of creative talent, personal and corporate rights and interest are always subordinate to basic human need and the needs of the human family. 

It would be unethical, for example, to place profit or advantage as regards competition as the sole criteria in evaluating intellectual property regimes. There is a sense in which knowledge is the property of all.  Certainly profit and personal possession cannot be blanketly invoked as an ethical justification for not making accessible, in the hope of gaining higher profit tomorrow, knowledge which can enhance life today. 

I participated in the interesting discussion at the World Trade Organization on the theme of access to medicine or public health and its relations to trade related intellectual property systems.  The discussion was in fact on applying already existing norms of the WTO which permitted governments to limit intellectual property rights in the face of great human needs.  Further debate was needed to address the situation of countries that did not have manufacturing capacity to import generic medicine to respond to their needs.  Whereas agreement was eventually reached, the lengthy debate was an example for me of how huge private business interests can place influence on governments, using legitimate and less legitimate means to defend their intellectual property rights, and the huge potential profits involved. 

Similar ethical challenges arise when we talk of placing the fruits of information technology at the service of educational and of development in general.  There can be enlightened policies which are win-win in the cooperation between countries which are highly developed in information technology and for those who are at a lower level.   Increasing information literacy worldwide is good for people, it is good for economies.  Ireland has shown that it can play an important role in providing training for experts from emerging economies in information technology.  This will enhance the capacity of the country of origin, which can become both a competitor and a partner.  

Similar questions about the ownership of knowledge arise in the case of ownership of media, both in print and electronic.  Knowledge has always been considered a source of power.  Transparency on media ownership is a matter of public interest and requires specific legislative norms. 

Today, more than ever before knowledge is owned privately for interest. Even the knowledge of indigenous people about medicinal plants is being bought and protected by others in the hope of future profit, exploiting the fact that for indigenous people such knowledge was the property of the community and such ownership finds less protection in current legal systems.  Knowledge today is managed and processed in the interests of power, economic and political.

One of the negative side-products of the information age has been the emergence of that new form of doctorate, conferred by I know not who: the spin doctor.  Everyone has his or her spin doctor.  In many cases this involves just harmless focussing of the message that one has to get across.  The question becomes more serious when spin enters into the areas of economic competition or into politics and public life.  Spin can in fact create a serious lack of trust in institutions, as the debates on the invasion of Iraq have shown in a particularly obvious way. 

Access to information is an essential dimension of the democratic process.  It is curious to find that in most Western societies there is a growing corpus of law facilitating access to information, while at the same time there is a growing tendency to manage information which surrounds some of the more fundamental dimensions of governance and democracy.  Spin should not substitute telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

The final principle of Catholic Social teaching I would like to address is that of the preferential option for the poor.  This is primarily a theological principle referring to the option of God himself and his special regard for the poor.  But it can easily be applied to a modern day digital economy. 

Exclusion and marginalisation will not go away by themselves.  The path of technological change means that whatever trickles down will trickle down too little and too late to be of real advantage to the marginalised.   There has never been social progress without sustained economic growth, but sustained economic growth on its own cannot guarantee social progress. Questions of marginalisation have to be addressed directly in such a way as to focus on how to bring the marginalized into the virtuous cycle of education and participation.

We recognise that exclusion is a moral evil, but we have to work to show that inclusion is a primordial ethical value.  Just as a digital divide creates other divides, overcoming digital divides requires that we look attentively at the culture and the broad enabling environment which will permit people to enter into that virtuous cycle of inclusion.   There will never be equitable access to the benefits of the digital era if our education system lags behind that of our neighbours.  And I say this not just because our neighbours will soon be our competitors with comparative advantage.  I say it because quality education is an essential dimension of being able to fully live as a human person in today’s world and to participate in the digital age. 

Progress in the digital age requires that adequate infrastructures are in place.  But infrastructures are not limited to road and wires.  There are human and social infrastructures. The quality of literacy that our young people will attain is linked with the overall quality of community from which they emerge.  Literacy requires supportive community.

I visited one area of Dublin last week which soon will have three pubs and three betting shops but no doctor and no pharmacy.  This morning I attended a seminar of food poverty in Dublin.  Progress in the digital age cannot be separated from a policy of a broad response to human needs, because it is only in enhancing people in their fullness that we will really enable them to be themselves, as God created them. This broad response to human needs must also open the path towards something more than the current framework; open the path towards the transcendent.

Information technology is the driving force of globalization.  Globalization will only lead to international security when it involves the widest possible level of ownership and participation and equity.   Part of that challenge will be that of giving people voice.  Voice means giving people the ability to address their problems and to find solutions themselves, making them active creative subjects. 


Let me come back to my opening remarks.  There are many ways in which we can talk of ethics and values in the digital age.  There are areas which some would not normally think of as having ethical implications.  There are different approaches to ethical reflection on the digital age.

This afternoon I could have launched into a litany of criticism of internet pornography, of insider trading, of internet crime, of exploitation.  These are question we must address in the digital era.   I preferred to take a different path which looks at the opportunities that information technology offers and at the manner in which people, ordinary men women and children, can and should be enabled to enter into the digital age, as active participants who draw equitable benefit from progress. The fundamental ethical challenge of the digital age is equitable access.

This I think is one of the contributions which religion can make to our debates on the digital age.  The Church, in Christian theology, sees itself as called to be a witness to the unity of humankind in Jesus Christ.  The more we can forge a world where unity emerges, where all share in an equitable way the good things that God has given us, the more we contribute to the building of a broad ethical culture for the information technology at the service of humankind.

That is the ethical vision.  The challenge is how to generate that new culture.  Conferences such as this one today are extremely important in developing that culture and in proposing new policies on a national and international level.   

But returning to my days working in Geneva, I remember the Director General of the International Telecommunications Union telling me at the beginning of my mission there how, in the short period of his own mandate, his organization had radically changed from one dealing primarily with governments to one where the principle partner was the private sector. 

In setting future policy for Information Technology we have to remember that the private sector will be the prime mover in this area.  Government policy can set a broad ethical and legal framework.  That framework will only work for inclusion when it is accompanied by a new spirit of corporate social responsibility.  The difficulty is that all too often corporate social responsibility remains an “optional extra”.  It cannot be decreed by government.  

But it can be influenced by that other great creation of the digital age: international public opinion.  Public opinion emerges where people are empowered and given voice around the areas that concern them.  International public opinion has shown that it can change policies, prejudices and even the market.  International public opinion is a good example of how human creativity can harness the digital age and achieve social goods, despite all odds.

We need policies which place people at the centre of our activities in the digital age.  If we do not, people will sooner or later do it themselves and all the spin in the world will not shelter us from our mistakes.