Ethics, Philosophy, Principle and our minds

When I worked at Finisar and wrote essays I tried to make many of them on subjects relating to optical and high-speed networking. But inside Small World Group, I am free to range more broadly in what you see here.

Lately, I have been thinking long about how we are approaching a crisis in terms of the moral framework in which we make decisions. Let me give you a modern example pulled from the pages of today’s newspapers.

Our government, George Bush and those that work directly for him have a large number of detainees down in a US naval base on a tip of Cuba. Some of these people have been subjected to extreme forms of questioning that may have been torture (1), (2), (3), (4). In one recent book, the author goes so far as to suggest that if President Bush were to travel to a foreign country, like France or England, after his term in office, that he should be arrested and tried as a war criminal!

The problem is that the argument has substance and it also suggests a moral dilemma.

Let’s suppose that through non-lethal and non-long term harmful torture US interrogators were able to find out the details of a plot similar to 911, one where the loss of life and property would be measured in the 1000s or even millions of people. And by this torture this loss or life would be prevented. Is the torture ethical? Does the end justify the means?

How do our citizens think through this matter?

In the past the world laws that are embodied in things like the Geneva Convention have governed many aspects of war from the treatment of wounded on the battlefield to the treatment of prisoners. And today this specifically calls for there to be no torture used on prisoners.

But when these laws were adopted, the range of damage that was possible was much smaller than it is today where there are weapons of mass destruction and where the opportunity for harm can be exported so far from the site of the conflict. Do these world laws and conventions of behavior fairly assign the rights and protections to the people both combatants and civilians?

If you like thinking about such matters, there are some interesting sites that present similar stories where the ethical or moral dilemma is put with simplicity and stark contrast. Take a look and see what you would do. Remember you have to make a choice, even doing nothing as your choice has consequences.

Small World Group is beginning work to define a new philanthropic effort called “The 12” and through this group we will be providing non-profit funds for people who will act as social venture capitalists. The investments they will hopefully make will be in areas of knowledge creation that will expand our critical thinking and practices in many of these areas. You can link to The 12 on SWG’s home page and watch as the group definitions and first members get started.

By putting ethics into our efforts to cause change and in the broadest possible meaning we will come under potentially much criticism. But we need to progress in our understanding of ethics. There are so many ways that we compromise ethical thinking –

  • a recent article in Scientific American on the ethics of climate change highlighted a weakness in that we have little means to think through an extinction level change. What if global warming would release methane from the permafrost so that temperatures rose 20 degrees or more. That would surely cause loss of nearly all or fully all human life. But current science only judges this to be a 5% probability. How much sacrifice do we ask from current living people to save the lives of those not even born based on a 5% chance?
  • there will always be differences between people so differences in wealth are probably natural in some sense as well. How much is ethical though? Am I worth more than all others? But I have probably done more philanthropy than most others as well. Would difficult philanthropy ever get done with out accumulation of wealth? How do we understand wealth in a future where uneven distribution may very directly relate to ability to survive extreme conditions brought on by our own excesses?
  • What is the value to our world of a very challenged human. Do we keep a very bad criminal (known bad) alive at the expense of much poorer education for large numbers of children?
  • Do we continue to allow religion to define so much of what happens on our planet. In a time when weapons are so powerful, can we allow the survival of a religion that teaches the full inhumanity of all non-believers and therefore total disrespect for their lives and beliefs?
  • Can democracy work in a time when the voting masses may not be able to understand a global life-death level decision because the lack the technical and mental ability to understand the arguments? Can we survive if people vote for much better lives now at the sacrifice of the future lives of many or all?

Anyway, I am so convinced that we need new modes of thought, science, living, respect for one another and our planet. We need ideas as sweeping in ethics and philosophy as quantum mechanics and general relativity were to science 100 years ago. Before these to key pillars of all modern technology, many believed all that would be discovered had been discovered.

And now for 2000+ years we have not evolved far in ethical thought areas so we believe that religion and Greek philosophy define the center and circumference of what we need for ethics, morals, philosophy. Moreover, we lack systems of thought that even make change in these areas possible.

In science there are mechanisms for helping sift truth from false ideas. Even then there are major challenges to making changes. But in religion, once an idea has been part of such an organization of humans for more than 100 years, it becomes the word of God and then cannot be challenged by any human. Change then takes 1000s of years not 10s of years. We may not have such a period of time …

Posted in Essays, Green Perspectives, Spiritual Threads

Movement of a Butterfly Wing

In an email exchange this morning, I was able to reflect back on the past 30 years of technology change in a very personal way. Let’s see if this can be reconstructed for you as well.

Around 30 years ago, I was finishing a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Virginia. Jobs were scarce in this field at that time and there were questions about my thesis as well. So when I applied for teaching or research jobs, I received no offers at all. With a baby on the way (my son and his wife are having their first child later this month!), I widened the job search.

One thing I did was to take the Air Force officer’s candidacy school exam (OCS) and did pretty well, so I was offered to join the US Air Force and to teach and do research but would also serve. I had some dream of perhaps being a shuttle mission expert as that program was just starting.

But finally people believed in my thesis, but too late for normal astronomy jobs and so a former professor offered to help me have interviews with Bell Labs (ATT). I interviewed in integrated circuit processing, software for IC design, switching technology and fiber optics.

And in the end, I chose to go to work for Bell Labs in Allentown, PA.

They say that sometimes hurricanes get started when a butterfly moves its wings off the coast of Africa and that ultra small disturbance at just the right moment changes everything.

Well it did for me!

At the time I joined Bell Labs here is the state of communications-

  • virtually no optical fiber had been deployed anywhere (today you do not make a call except to your neighbor)
  • the phone company only offered plain old telephone service (POTS) and long distance was expensive; around that time I made a phone call to Europe that cost over $100!
  • fast data communications was 0.0003 Mb/s using a modem over the phone lines – today we have DSL at 1-8 Mb/s and cable modems are even faster.
  • no cell phone network so no SMS, no email on phones, no GPS, no camera phones
  • there was no Internet like we think of it today, a few researchers were playing with it and Bob Metcalfe had just made ethernet work pretty well. But no email, web browsing, Google, video on demand, YouTube

I was able to begin working in a field that would produce one of the largest transformations for us all over the next 30 years

Today we have all of those elements different. That $100 long distance call would be $0.60 or free if we use Skype or iChat and it could be video as well as audio!

And in starting Finisar in 1988, the level of participation I had was even greater. Today most mouse clicks, most email sends, nearly all video conferences and skype phone calls at some point have one or more Finisar optical transceiver modules make light for those actions! Now I am sure the internet would have happened without me, but the point is that my seemingly random decision not to go fly the shuttle and instead to work at Bell Labs on optical fiber communications was a butterfly wing level personal decision that let me ride the hurricane for more than 25 years!

How does one get so fortunate?

I would like to tell you that I felt the butterfly wings and knew what was right to do. But I did not. I was educated, open minded and willing to help. But I did not consciously choose this wonderful (looking backwards) decision.

Posted in Essays, Personal Stories, Spiritual Threads