Systematic Ethics, Part 3 (The Politics of Multicultural Ethics)
Maybe it’s just the result of getting older (and hopefully somewhat wiser), but been finding out lately how important it is for the people I’m talking to — whether it’s personal or professional — to have some kind of spiritual side to them. I’m not particularly religious myself (music is my religion, in a way) but I seem to connect easier with people who are either actively practicing or at least have an interest in figuring out how this stuff works.
When I first started doing research on ethics I approached it with the attitude of a product manager, trying to find a “solution” to a “problem”. Well, the problem is bad behavior and the solution is just to stop doing bad stuff, right? So just “Don’t Be Evil™”, then.
Of course reality is a lot more complicated than that, as tech companies now find themselves in hot water as they deal with a myriad of issues like fake news, bots, workplace harassment, labor rights, political sabotage, and more. The main problem with all of this is that when you don’t engage in serious talks about what “good” and “evil” means, the subjective interpretation of those in power simply becomes the law of the land, no questions asked. Because of this, I tend to get along with people with spiritual backgrounds — regardless of what type of faith they might subscribe to — mostly because they tend to take the idea of ethics and morality more seriously. For many secular business enterprises in the US, ethics is an afterthought after profit, whereas in religion, ethics should exist at its core, at least in theory.
It’s not to say that secular beliefs cannot be ethical, but since secular institutions are less organized (if at all) than most religious institutions out there, they simply don’t have the models nor consistency to turn it into “a thing” for their followers. If there are refined secular ethical models out there (there very well may be) it certainly isn’t being used in practice, at least not in ways that are obvious.
Technopaganism and the Newer Age
Mostly out of fear of backlash, most people won’t admit to this but the technology industry actually does have a spiritual side to it — in the form of Burning Man. If you look at the Burning Man phenomenon for what it really is, it is a form of neo-paganism — or in the case of its Silicon Valley variant — techno-paganism, which has close ties with the New Age movement from the 80s and 90s, leading up to the advent of the Internet as a new global communications network. In a way, the Internet is just a continuation of the work of the New Age movement that came before.
The “disruption” narrative that SV culture runs on also has eerie similarities to how pagan traditions in Europe became institutionalized through the emergence of the Christian church during its first 1000 years. As the church stole ideas from paganism to be used for their own purposes, there was always a tension between the two camps where pagans would try to “remind” the church of its roots and ideals as the institution gradually became the Western world’s new status-quo. A similar type of dynamic plays out in Silicon Valley’s startup culture, where the newcomers and the status-quo are constantly fighting and helping each other at the same time.
Those Myers-Briggs “Personality Charts” that are very popular in the industry right now — where does it come from? From the ideas of Carl Jung’s “Personality Types” theory, of course. Where did Carl Jung get his inspiration from for this? Astrology, of course. A lot of the business practices we see in Silicon Valley are actually re-branded versions of ancient practices that have been in use for thousands of years, despite it’s claim to be doing “everything new”.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but as predicted in the article I wrote here, we are now approaching the point in time where these truths will become too obvious to ignore, spurring a crisis in spirituality in SV and the technology sector overall. The success of the crypto/blockchain space was in no small part due to the fact that the blockchain is one of the very few ideas in tech that can be considered to be “sacred”. The immutable ledger shalt always be pure and unmolested by the petty ambitions of man, after all.
Next Steps — Making Ethics Systematic
As much as I like talking about these types of weird, otherworldly subjects, as a product manager I can’t help but try to turn these ideas into a tangible, practical product. I think the pain points and wants of people are pretty obvious — we all want to work in an environment where ethical breaches happen infrequently, and we all want to feel like we’re being listened to and being treated with respect. Easier said than done, of course.
For the sake of argument I’m willing to buy that corporations are people, too. But the corporations we have now are basically all assholes because they’re currently lacking an ethical model or moral compass as part of their core being. It’s easy to “not be evil” when things are going well, but its during the difficult times where these models are needed the most. There are some advantages for anthropomorphizing corporations in this way (mostly as an easy to understand mental model), but before we can expect people to take this idea seriously the corporation itself needs to get its shit together and start acting like a responsible adult.
But the reality is that we’ve neglected this side of the work for so long that we might as well be starting from scratch. The first step is to simply create a space where we can talk about ethics in a way that’s both open and honest. The results from these conversations must also be well-documented and well-archived as a result, so that we can also learn from our previous mistakes. And here’s the tricky part — it must also be secular, inter-faith, and multicultural so that it can be used in virtually any business enterprise or government institution if necessary.
Does such a “repository” or model exist right now? As far as I can tell, no. But I’m currently working on research grants for this idea (as explained in Part 2 in this series), including an application I’m working with the Mozilla Foundation. But if you happen to know anyone who’s also working on similar initiatives, let me know!