Global ethics explained: a pathway towards a fairer world

Explore the complexities of global ethics in a rapidly changing world. Dive into bioethics, automated warfare, and the ethical dilemmas of technology and artificial intelligence.

Think of every sci-fi dystopia you’ve seen portrayed in books and film. George Orwell’s 1984 features a tyrannical government that uses surveillance technology to violate its citizens’ privacy and stifle freedom of expression.

I, Robot tells the story of humanity defeating an AI supercomputer, the programming of which draws it to the conclusion that humans must be protected through control. Every Black Mirror episode focuses on a different theme – from armies adopting indiscriminately lethal VR tech to society embracing a system where everyone’s socioeconomic status is determined by a public rating system. 

All these stories serve as cautionary tales of global ethics going awry. 

What is global ethics? 

Global ethics is a critical enquiry into how our actions and morals affect the world around us, as well as international relations. Ultimately, the ways in which society addresses (or fails to address) these issues will determine the kind of world that future generations are born into.  

This subject has quickly taken centre-stage in today’s intricately connected world, and goes side by side with philosophy as a field of study. Below are some examples of fields that are covered by global ethics – but these are just the tip of the iceberg, which goes to show how rich and exciting this subject is. 

Bioethics and medical research 

Even if the safety issues surrounding human cloning are (theoretically) tackled, can it justifiably be permitted under any circumstances? Therapeutic cloning may have the potential to provide breakthrough treatments for a range of human diseases, with the possibility of generating healthy tissue and whole organs – but should this prove successful, where do we draw the line?  

Governments, societies and nations may consequently reconsider their stances on reproductive cloning. While hopeful parents-to-be could selectively alter the genetics of embryos to eliminate debilitating and lifelong disorders, at what point would it turn into eugenics?  

For decades, this has been a fierce topic of debate – but just as human dissection went from being historically outlawed to a routine post-mortem practice, ethics on this may change in the future.  

Organisations such as UNESCO, the UN, and the National Human Genome Research Institute serve as authorities on the ethics and human genome research, as well as defining human dignity. 

Automated warfare 

Automated warfare refers to the adoption of AI technologies in combat – and these can range from drones and defence systems to military robots. There are many arguments in favour of automated warfare – including enhanced precision for striking targets, reduced casualties on the battlefield and lower prevalence of PTSD for the force deploying it.  

But who should be held accountable if a target is incorrectly identified? US forces in Afghanistan infamously made a fatal error in 2021, when a drone strike was ordered on civilians 

AI lacks human capacities for intuition, empathy, and a nuanced understanding of what they are observing – so does its adoption ultimately devalue human life, and trivialise the gravity of war? Would removing human decision-making lead to more ruthless forms of warfare, with less chance of peaceful agreements being reached? Is the continuity of an AI arms race likely to destabilise geopolitical relations?  

Many also question how world leaders intend to prevent this technology from getting into the hands of terrorist organisations. With all these factors considered, it’s easy to see how the use of faceless, unmanned killing machines will conjure up nightmarish images of an apocalyptic hellscape for many. 

Technology and artificial intelligence 

Now more than ever, the ethical dilemmas surrounding technology and artificial intelligence are preoccupying us. Tools like ChatGPT and deepfake media are popularising the use of AI technology, but what measures are being taken to limit the distribution of misinformation? Whose duty is it to put these measures in place?  

Read a Q&A with Dr Elke Schwarz from Queen Mary University of London on the impact of ChatGPT's language model:

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Corporations are lauding the benefits of generative AI technology, but simultaneously laying off many writers. This was one of the triggers of the Writers Guild of America strike in May 2023, with SAG-AFTRA members more recently joining forces with them. How do we, as a society, embrace the benefits of this technology without devaluing human labour? Does the pattern of AI adoption and corporate layoffs reveal a sinister habit of favouring work from a ‘mind’ that doesn’t demand pay or rights?  

When a Google engineer voiced his belief that the Google Lamda AI model is sentient, his claims were widely dismissed – but this doesn’t negate a very valid school of thought. How do we define consciousness and sentience? What could the potential repercussions be of artificial intelligence falling out of human control?  

Since generative AI is fed with existing works from human beings, many have argued that it is tantamount to theft of intellectual property. Dystopian futures with robot uprisings still seem far-fetched, but they may be closer we think. 

The benefits of studying our Global Ethics and Digital Technologies short course 

With the questions above offering just a brief glimpse into how rich this topic is, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the idea of exploring it. Nevertheless, it’s clear that learning about these issues will broaden your understanding of the world around you, and potentially shape the future.  

At Queen Mary University of London, our online short course in Global Ethics and Digital Technologies is a great opportunity to deep-dive into the subject without the longer-term commitment of a full degree.  

Over the course of 3 weeks of self-directed study, you’ll explore this fascinating subject through clips, readings and activities centred on the question ‘Can Machines be Good or Evil?’.

By discussing this pressing topic with leading scholars from Queen Mary’s School of Politics and International Relations, you’ll learn to apply ethical theories and thought to today’s technological and political developments. Each week will focus on a different module revolving around the ethics and power of digital technologies. 

Given how ubiquitous technology is in our day-to-day lives, this avenue of study is incredibly versatile and relevant – so whether you’re looking to move into international relations, start your own business or quench your personal curiosity, you can do so with a more informed and holistic approach.  

Learn more about our free short course in Global Ethics and Digital Technologies:

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Topics: Global Ethics

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