Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethics and Technology in the Wake of September 11

Remarks by E. Floyd Kvamme

November 5, 2001

September 11 changed many aspects of the daily lives of U.S. citizens, from grieving for the lost, to mail handling, to seeing friends and family go off to war.

It has also changed the role of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), where I serve as co chair with John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Our council members—soon to be announced—consist of people from industry, academia, and the community.

We are tasked with advising the president and his cabinet on such far-reaching items as climate change, telecommunications infrastructure security, genetically modified foods, as well as the budgets for such organizations as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and others who sponsor much of the university research that takes place in America. Clearly, recent events have had a dramatic impact on where advice is sought.

To put those changes in context, let me first look at some of the more general questions the attacks have raised. It may be hard to realize sometimes as we go about our daily routine, but we are at war. And war and ethics are intertwined.

The question of whether this war is just and being justly executed falls on our governmental leaders. These ethical judgments are never cut-and-dry. I use the term “our governmental leaders” because in a democracy they are ours; we elected them. In the case of our foe, this is not true, so our treatment of the people enslaved by this foe must also be dealt with ethically—another challenge. The concept of considering the stakeholders, as taught by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, is particularly important now.

This attack has seen a tremendous outpouring of patriotism. I think that is terrific, but we are in the early days. There are no signs this war will be a Desert Storm. We’ve become accustomed to immediate remedies—sitcoms that solve issues in 30 or 60 minutes. In World War II, we attacked the enemy’s home turf 132 days after Pearl Harbor, but it took three more years for the war to be brought to conclusion. And in that case, the enemy was defined.

Ethics and ethical treatment of issues many times requires patience. I suspect this is going to be one of those times.

Also, we are fighting an enemy who has agents among us, who seeks to destroy not only our citizens but our way of life. So in a sense, this is not a war that will be fought exclusively by our government sending military personnel to overseas locations.

It may well—in fact it already has—involved citizens. Consider the men on Flight 93. They saw their fate. Their call was, “Let’s go!” And with that, they well may have saved our nation’s capitol or the White House.

That decision required bravery, patriotism, and ethical judgment. Before this war reaches its conclusion, any of us may be called upon to react similarly and required to respond, “Let’s go!” George Washington once wrote, “Once we appreciate how our own well-being, prosperity, and liberties are all the products of living in this country—as opposed to any other—we will become natural patriots.”

Our patriotism and ethical judgment, though, should be rooted in what America is and what it has stood for these last centuries. All of these considerations weigh on the role of PCAST.

To cite just one very simple example, we are likely to consider matters having to do with privacy—specifically online privacy. What is the ethical position? How much privacy should be granted to a citizen? How much to an immigrant, an alien among us? Should they be treated differently?

How much privacy should be surrendered at an airport check-in counter? If technology exists that can determine whether I possess this or that potential weapon or agent of destruction, should it be used without my knowledge? Is that a permissible invasion of my privacy? If persons under suspicion can be tracked day or night through the use of technology, should it be deployed?

It would be a lot easier if the role of PCAST were to advise on what technology can do, but that’s not what we are asked to do; we are asked to advise on policy. In other words, given the technology, what should the government do?…

In an attempt to make America a better place, we will always have our differences about this kind of question, but through consideration of the ethical standards that this Center espouses, we can make a difference.

Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said it well: “Am I embarrassed to speak for less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do. Have we done obscene things? Yes, we have. How did our people learn about them? They learned about them on television. In the newspapers.”

In the days that lie ahead, we’ll learn about a lot of things. Let’s weigh them in the light of what this Center teaches and what this country has demonstrated, and have the patience to apply ethics as we seek answers.

E. Floyd Kvamme is the co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology. These remarks were given at a reception honoring new Markkula Ethics Center Director Kirk Hanson.

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