Monday, March 20, 2017

A New Morality in the Age of Technology

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Times are changing. The advantages of technology we now have go far beyond building a wheel or controlling fire. We are reaching right down into the very genetic core of life itself.

At the same time, we are able to communicate faster and faster. Just take this blog for example as an amazing form of technological communication. All around the world people can come here just like you, and they can do it almost instantaneously. I can also publish extremely rapidly without waiting for months or years for a publisher to post it. This is truly a miracle of science and technology.

Yet, there are costs. In the realm of communication, one cost is that anyone can say any thing they want too. So while we can communicate faster; people can also lie and subvert faster. Waves of panic can be more easily spread via communication, and that can lead to physical harm. And clearly just talking and posting on the Internet is the tip of the iceberg.

This leads us to many questions about how to use or not use technology. I think it's important that we start to really consider where we are going with technology. For a long time, technological advances were slow--like the stiff collar plow for horses many centuries ago. That was like the major invention for a century, and it helped plow fields faster and increase food yields. There was lots of time to consider both positive and negative impacts of the plow to the horse and the community. But now, things are proceeding so quickly and in so many fields, that we don't have time--or we just don't take the time--to grapple with the repercussions of all of these advances. There's also an open question about how technology is shaping our evolution. It is absolutely impacting how we interact or don't interact communally. What are the repercussions of these new ways of communicating? There is a lot going on that we don't fully understand.

All of this brings me to the very real spiritual issue of the need for a new morality in the face of all this technology.

Now, let's be clear that there are many parts of our religious and spiritual traditions that absolutely do apply and must be continued. Core principles like "be kind" and "be honest" are foundational aspects of all true religions, regardless of how those belief systems get manipulated from time to time. But then we run up against questions about contraception, genetic modification, genetic editing (which I believe is different than genetic modification), cyberwarfare, prescription medications, what to share on the Internet, digital privacy, and many more. Those new technologies challenge us to think in new ways. What does being kind mean in relationship to using prescription medications that may cause addiction or some kind of dependency? What does being helpful mean in terms of genetic modification when we don't know all the possible long-term ramifications of manipulating genes?

These are questions with which our long established religions never had to grapple. That's why I think collectively--and especially all spiritual teachers of all religions and backgrounds--we need to think about technology proactively in terms of spiritual morality.

And I don't proclaim to know all the answers here, nor am I providing total solutions. I am starting a conversation to get you thinking about this and to stoke the fires of discussion. How we advance in technology in the coming centuries can either bring greater kindness and prosperity to the entire globe or unrivaled power to destroy ourselves and much of the life around us.

Back to Spiritual Basics: 8 Key Moral Building Blocks

There are many timeless spiritual morals, and as we consider morality in context with technology, there's no reason to exclude them. They should not be surprising to you.

In this list, I am writing in the positive to be clear about what you should do. Sometimes, moral beliefs get put in the negative, meaning you are told what not to do. This might be "Thou shalt not kill." Instead of saying that, I say, "Be kind," because it's pretty clear that killing people is not kind.

This list of spiritual morals is not meant to be an extensive list, and I welcome other thoughts on core moral building blocks on which we should base our global society. But it should give you a strong foundation of morals if you've never thought about it, and for those who have thought about morals, this can give you some inspiration to consider other morals you may have.

1. Be Kind

Be kind. It's such a simple phrase, but we can run a foul of it in so many ways. The first and most important form of kindness is that we are not intentionally unkind to ourselves or to others. In this way, it's not okay to physically or emotionally hurt another because you want to or to gain advantage for yourself. It's also not okay to hurt yourself physically or emotionally. What we do to ourselves we do to others. What we do to others, we do to ourselves. This is based on the spiritual truth that we are all one, and ultimately, all true spiritual morals arise from spiritual truth. There is a difference between the two, but for the sake of this spiritual blog post, I'm keeping the focus on the principles rather than how we come to understand them from the lens of truth.

As we mature on the spiritual path, we find that we have to face our ignorance and hidden issues or else we can run afoul of this spiritual principle through our ignorance. It's like smoking cigarettes if you did not know they were bad for you nor understood the impact of second-hand smoke, then you don't realize you're being unkind to yourself and others. You are being unintentionally unkind. So you have to learn about these things, and then you can correct your behavior. The path of kindness keeps us humble too because we realize that there is so much about life we can't know and to which we are ignorant. As we learn more about ourselves, others, and life, we can become kinder and more considerate people. Knowledge and education are essential to true kindness.

So we remember to stay curious and engaged with life so that we can be truly kind beings.


2. Be Honest

We have to be honest about what we know. Speaking the truth is central to creating good relationships, and being honest with ourselves is vital to taking care of ourselves. If we lie to ourselves and believe that alcohol is good for us, we will hurt ourselves. If we lie in business deals, we sow ill will, and others will want to hurt us in return. Honesty is a doorway to clarity, and clarity helps us to engage intelligently with life. Lies are just illusions that make it harder to know what is going on, and as I said, they can cause quite a bit of pain.

Speaking Your Truth

Honesty is not ego bluntness, however. The ego often confuses saying whatever it thinks as being honest. Thus, you will find that knowing yourself--one of the other principles--is important to true honesty. Honesty is not just saying whatever random thing comes to mind. If we speak ignorantly even if it seems relevant to us, then we are not truly honest.

3. Honor the Agreements You Make

Relationships are at the core of human civilization. However, relationships are also not real. Consider that you can point to a tree because it is real. But can you point to your relationship with your brother? With your wife? With your boyfriend? No. You can't, and because they are so unreal, they can also be easily broken. Because they are so central to civilization, it is important to honor the relationship agreements you make with your boss, co-workers, employees, spouse, siblings, parents, and so forth. And because they are ultimately illusory, we know that our relationships can be re-shaped when it is necessary rather than attempting to hold on to them. This isn't fickleness. Committing to our agreements is crucial, but true honoring of relationship agreements includes flexibility.

At the heart of good relationships at every level is communication, and so honoring relationship agreements also means practicing clear communication.

You should also honor the agreements you make for yourself. If you need to get in shape, then committing to those agreements is important. Breaking your word to yourself shows a lack of self-commitment, and it tends to echo out into your other relationships, making it is easier to not show up for other people. Self-commitment is an important foundation for all agreements you make with others.

4. Know Yourself

The more you know who you are, the more you know what you love and can do it. The more you know your fears and old pain, the more you can address them--as mentioned in spiritual moral number five below. You also become more free to live life how you want. You are less easily manipulated by other people with different agendas. Knowing yourself helps you to be truly kind, honest, and maintain good relationships.

This moral is foundational and it takes you towards understanding spiritual truth. Through understanding true reality, we can more easily and appropriately apply all spiritual morals.

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5. Face Your Fears

Fear defines a lot of ways that people live their lives. When a human being is stuck in a fearful state of existence, they do not think well. Then, they do not act well. Things like greed and pride grow out of fear as people try to escape their uncomfortable feelings and bury their fears under a pile of possessions and a wall of ego.

This spiritual principle is about finding freedom fear. The more fear-free someone is, the more they are free to live life. The more they also typically gravitate towards those first two principles of speaking honestly and offering kindness to others. Thus, facing your fears is of utmost importance to living a moral life.

6. Honor Sexuality and Honor the Creation of Life

Sexuality is a fundamental part of life. As such, it should be honored and appreciated. In the age of contraceptives where heterosexual sex no longer creates a really high probability of conception, access to the simple enjoyment of sexuality has never been more available. The pleasure side of sexuality can and should be honored. It is also important to honor the space of sexuality that others have, however they choose to express it. It is not kind to impose our preferences for consentual adult sex upon other people.

It is also important to find the middle path between self-control and over-indulgence. Sexuality can be abused in many, many ways, and so, the middle path of deep acceptance of sexuality is truly important to maintain good health and balance.

Sexuality is also more than making babies and having fun. Sexual energy can be very healing, and it can also be a gateway to higher states of consciousness. These roles can also be embraced through balance and integrity.

When two people choose to have a child, it is important to honor the creation process from conception to birth. Bringing children into the world is part of shaping the next generation of humanity, and how they are treated from the very beginning profoundly impacts how they we will live and join with our global human community. This honoring and support starts with fully supporting the mother and her needs during pregnancy, and it continues with supporting all parties involved in children rearing. It is also important to honor when people do not want to have children; no child should be born and unwanted through their lives.

7. Respect the Earth and Environment

Respecting the Earth and the environment is part of appreciating our interconnection with all of life and our dependency on the world around us. What happens to the world affects how we live. Food, air, and fresh water are some of the most basic and most fundamental parts of living a human life. We would not exist without the Earth, and honoring the Earth is about taking care of the resources we are given and using what we need of the Earth without taking more than that.

Additionally, the environment we live in is more than the Earth. With technology and human ambitions looking to Mars as another place to inhabit and outer space in general, we have to consider how we impact those environments as well. Just around the Earth's orbit, that local environment has "500,000 pieces of debris, or 'space junk.'" That number includes non-man-made things like meteorites, but it also includes plenty of our own debris. Clearly, we're going to have to think more about how to be in harmony with a far greater environment than we typically think of. But it starts by being good stewards to the Earth.

8. Honor All Life and the Greater Good

Plants, animals, energy beings, and so much more are part of our world and the spirit worlds. Honoring them is important. They all have a right to exist, and whenever we need to take a life such as to eat or get wood to build a house, it should be done with caution and care. This world is built on energy being consumed and passed from one being to the next through the consumption of the former, and this cannot be avoided. But what we can do is to honor the lives we do take without taking more than is necessary.

It should be obvious that hunting animals for sport or creating unsustainable eco-systems--like golf courses in the desert--does not honor the natural harmony of this world. It stresses eco-systems and food chains, and it does not serve any greater communal good. In this time of more than 7 billion people and billions more of other lifeforms, we need to think beyond just ourselves to this greater good.


Applying the 8 Spiritual Principles

In the past, the above spiritual principles would have been more than enough morality. The principle of being kind is challenging for most people. Clearly, many human beings still believe that killing and torture are okay to do, and that emphatically shows how lacking humanity still is in dealing with a basic principle that every spiritual path I know of espouses.

Being honest and being in integrity with the Earth are other ways where many people are failing to follow such basic and important spiritual principles. Not everyone is failing at this, but with issues such as climate change and the amazing amount of lies circulating in that regard, we watch those two principles get violated every day through what is reported in the media--at least here in the U.S.

Yet, technology has altered things, and that means we have even more to consider. Which is why I am offering the next set of spiritual principles. Because what is the moral thing to do when it comes to gene altering? We certainly would all love to get rid of childhood leukemia, and if genetic modification gives us that power, why wouldn't we want to do it? But is it that simple? Are there ramifications to future children that a genetically modified person may have and thus such a change impacts the greater human gene pool? If we can change that, do we not also open a doorway to genetic warfare where someone can ethnically cleanse a race they don't like through a disease or gene mutation? What is the real kindness here in approaching genetics?

Spiritual Morals for a Technological World

In the following spiritual morality, I apply a lot of the basic spiritual principles that I've mentioned above. This is a starter list. It's a start for all us to think and discuss more on these topics, as we consider our own use of technology. Just because you can be on your phone playing endless games doesn't mean you should. That is taking more energy resources, and it impacts your brain in ways we don't fully understand. Some people are already taking breaks from different forms of media from their computers, TV, and cell phones. There are even technology-free retreats that offer people that break.

Obviously, computers, TV, and cell phones are one part of the technology discussion, but I bring them up because they are so prevalent for many of you. Cars are another issue. How much and how often we use our cars impacts the environment in many ways, so there are plenty of things you may want to consider to change in your life to be better aligned with your spiritual morals.

Some of the issues I raise may seem to big for you, but those of you who live in democracies and who can vote, you may have to educate your elected officials and vote for wise elected officials who are thinking about these issues. Being thoughtful on this topic is important for all of us in how we choose to live and how we influence the direction of our communities.

If you want an example of the extremes of technological advancement and why we need to stop and consider where we are headed, you can consider Fritz Haber. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in chemistry for creating fertilizer, and he was the father of chemical warfare:

"Praised for his work that still enables agriculture around the world, yet condemned for his work on chemical weapons, Fritz Haber personified the extremes of technological innovation in the 20th century. " Smithsonianmag.org

That is an example of extremes in early 20th century. What might the extremes in the 21st century be?

Without further ado, here are some spiritual principles for a new morality in our technological age.

Spiritual Technology Principle #1: Use Our Resources Wisely

This principle obviously applies to any resources. I would say that it naturally builds off of respecting the Earth and environment as well as respecting all of life. Creating technology takes all kinds of resources to build, transport, and maintain. Most of it requires electricity derived from burning coal or natural gas. That means using your technology--even if it's the dishwasher or turning on a light--asks more and more of our planet, and it creates all kinds byproducts like waster and pollution. It's awesome to have so many kinds of technology before us, but it is important to mindful of what you're using and how much. Using resources more wisely can be as simple as turning off your TV or leaving your phone alone for awhile to preserve a little electricity.

On bigger levels, those of you who are government officials or who work at large companies, you have an opportunity to conserve resources on larger scales. The bigger the scale this principle is applied at, the more resources are conserved and the fewer byproducts of those resources impact our planet. As the population of humanity continues to grow, resource management at every level will be critical to taking care of our human family and all the lifeforms on Earth.

Spiritual Technology Principle #2: Practice Mindful Advancement of Technology

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Right now, it seems like people are creating new things all the time just because they can. In fact, many things that are being "created" aren't necessarily new at all, but they absorb tons more resources to create the illusion of newness. This is like what is going on with the cell phone industry. There are always new phones coming out, but they don't really advance us in any particularly profound direction. It's just about making money, and this is a waste of resources.

In other avenues of advancement such as medical technology, there's a lot more benefit. There's a benefit to having better prosthetics for the disabled. There's a benefit to humanity to being able to eradicate diseases and disorders. In the instance of genetics, however, that's a place that can benefit from slowing down advancement. There is so much we don't know, but many scientists are in a race to be the first to solve some of these things. It's a hard thing to say that we may want to slow down technological advancement in the face of solving diseases, but we are treading in uncharted waters. We may need to consider generational tests on new genetic therapies because who's to say that influencing genes won't have repercussions until 3 generations down the line. Slowing down testing won't be what many people want to hear, including those with an specific genetic illness. They want to be cured. Who can blame them? But this is an instance where we have to think about the greater good, and it is far better to slow down than to make a major mistake that will influence millions or even billions of people in the next generations.

Spiritual Technology Principle #3: Prioritize Life-saving and Life-enhancing Technologies

Humanity has a terrible history of prioritizing life-taking technologies. Nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, Agent Orange, drones, cyberwarfare, and so many other forms of technology have been the ones given the most time, energy, and money. As conscious spiritual people, we need to change that. We need to put the emphasis on life-saving and life-enhancing technologies. This is the kind thing to do.

So long as people don't face their fears as mentioned earlier, we can be manipulated into believing that weapons are somehow life-saving. But that's not true. Technology advances in cyberwarfare now make it possible to shutdown an entire regions grid and water systems and create new levels of devastation to a community. These may be complex computer viruses now, but once these things get built, fewer people need to be involved to do terrible destruction on others. Technology places more and more power is in fewer and fewer people's hands to do terrible harm to others.

As a global society, we need to make it clear where the real priorities should be. Otherwise, more and more of these new weapons are going to fall into hands that are willing to use them. It's best not to create the weapons. Then you have no fear of who is using them and how. And there is already so many more important things we can learn about saving and enhancing life on this planet. We don't need any more energy extended towards weaponry.

Spiritual Technology Principle #4: Honoring Artificial Intelligence (AI)

We are fast approaching some increasingly blurry lines between conscious awareness and computer program. I am not sure what kinds of definitions people are using for what conscious awareness is and where does it become possible that AI is within those bounds. If you ask philosophers, spiritual teachers, theorists, and others, "What is consciousness?" then you're likely to get some rather complicated answers or general avoidance. The truth is people don't really know how to explain it, and yet we're creating more and more intelligent systems. At some point, we're going to have an AI system that is basically able to function, evolve, and innovate spontaneously on its own. And we'll need to honor this new lifeform/consciousness and its right to exist.

I would also add that the ego that so many of you are working on is little more than a computer. The ego is a complex set of beliefs programmed into you by family, society, and others. They're your computer programmers, and the ego is essentially a "program." It tells you how to think, feel, and live. A lot of inner spiritual work is simply re-writing that program. So I ask, is that really that much different than a bunch of zeros and ones that tell a computer how to act? Well, we're going to have to think more about that and how we treat these creations in the future.

Evolving Our New Morality Together

This new morality in the age of technology is a start. I don't consider this a completed work. It's, as I said, meant to get you considering some of the complex issues that we now face through technology. I would say that I'm not for ignoring technology or trying to somehow go backwards. I am glad to live in a society where I don't have to fear cholera or polio. I love being able to talk to people all around the world through my computer. I am super happy that modern medical technology makes removing an appendix so easy. If it wasn't, I might be dead already and not writing this blog post.

So to me, there's no going backwards without a major cataclysm, which would probably be caused by mis-use of technology. Ultimately, technology is a-moral. It doesn't have a morality to it. It is defined by how human beings use it. That said, some forms of technology clearly have purposes. Weapons are meant to kill and destroy. That is undeniable. Certain medical technologies are meant to help and heal, and I think that's where we really should be focusing more of our collective technological advancement. In the end, technology should be about helping our global, human family. That's going to serve us far better than continuing to find newer and more horrific ways to damage each other.

Calling All Spiritual Teachers

As some of my parting words, I want to encourage all of you who are spiritual teachers that you need to think about these things, and you need to share them with your congregations, followers, and anyone with whom you work. Spiritual teachers and leaders are meant to be a key influence in guiding society, and we need to collective consider how our spiritual texts help us to engage with technology as well as to honestly admit when they do not help. Spiritual texts are partially based in the times in which they are written, and many of the great texts never had to consider genetic alteration and how to advise their followers. In this way, I encourage you to take the essence and think about how it applies in this technological age. Hopefully together, we can guide people towards a more harmonious way of living on this planet and out into the universe through the many gifts that technology offers us.

The beautiful photos accompanying this blog post are gifts from Becky Stiller, a long-time friend, reader, and blog supporter. You can see more of her lovely photography on this Flickr link.
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