Economics, Technology, and Virtue

The explosive development of automation, robotics, and AI requires a dedicated focus on the role of conscience—our spiritual life—to help us respond to the challenges we face as producers and consumers.

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The power of Silicon Valley’s science and engineering is a phenomenal tribute to humanity’s capacity for development, but the Church must necessarily focus on technology’s impact on workers. What does it mean for people? How is the ongoing revolution in technology shaping today’s and tomorrow’s work? Where are the light and shadows in this technological moment?

Moore’s law and Catholic social doctrine

At this point, anyone remotely aware of the economic growth of “The Valley” and its developments spawned by the digital age is familiar with Moore’s law. Gordon Moore, a founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and the Intel Corporation, predicted in the mid-1960s that one would be able to purchase two times of the semiconductor computing power for the same price about every two years for the next ten years. In other words, the power of microchips would increase exponentially, and only after a half a century is this pace apparently slowing down, far outlasting Moore’s original prediction of ten years. The computational power made possible by constant improvements in microchip technology has resulted in such incredible advances, such as the completion of the genome project, the advances of the internet, the launch of the biotechnology revolution, the presence of driverless cars, and a host of other remarkable achievements in the span of two human generations, a period of roughly 50 years. When describing the evolution of the digital age, most futurist authors refer to Moore’s Law as a descriptor for the recent past and a pointer for our future.

Changes in work life, the occupational choices available, and the experience of economic expansion (with both winners and losers) have run parallel with the amazing computer revolution and digital age. However, everyone needs acknowledge its negative effects as well as anticipate the potential negative effects of the ongoing socioeconomic changes resulting from this unprecedented and constantly accelerating technological development. We must remain completely aware that human beings are made in the image of God, and each are given distinct talents to share with the world. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church teaches:

The Church sees in men and women, in every human being, the living image of God himself. The image finds, and must always find anew, an ever deeper and fuller unfolding of itself in the mystery of Christ, the Perfect Image of God, the One who reveals God to man and man to himself. (par 105)

In accepting the dignity of every human being while acknowledging their differences, disciples of Jesus are compelled to serve one another in Christian neighborly love. As Catholic Social Teaching presents, every person participates in an integral and solidary humanism; in other words, by following our faith (i.e., all Catholics) and reason (i.e., all believers and nonbelievers alike), we are lifted up individually and communally.

Facebook as a company has received significant benefit from this technical revolution. Facebook’s valuation is $550 billion at the writing of this article. The company’s phenomenal growth is an excellent example of the unique characteristics of businesses in the digital age. Today’s digital enterprises, like Facebook, Uber, AirBNB, and others, are unlike businesses in any other era, because the web allows them to provide services to millions of customers around the globe—nearly instantaneously—without significant investments in manufacturing plants, employee headcount, and product distribution systems. While some gained with the success of Facebook, others gained relatively little. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee calls this a “winner-take-all” reality in The Second Machine Age. As they point out, when inexpensive tax preparation software became available to consumers, then taxpayers no longer depended on their neighborhood tax preparers—a loss of work. The few companies providing taxpayer software enjoyed the winner-take-all results.

Facebook, Uber, AirBNB, and others do not require their own manufacturing plants, international offices, or hourly middle class employees as multinational/industrial era corporations of an earlier time. Effectively, their operations like other advertising, crowd sharing, and subscription based types of internet enterprises create a connectedness that generates services and income without many of the traditional employer-employee or producer-customer relationships. Facebook’s digitally generated web platforms reaching across the globe give it power and influence in local communities without the same relationships and experiences required in traditional economies.

The rapid adoption of new technology is putting stress on workers and non-workers alike that seeps quickly their families and community lives. On the one hand, we benefit from the new advances as consumers; on the other hand, we feel overwhelmed by changes that we experience as producers–workers. In immediate terms, change in technology has already far surpassed our growth in human development; unless, like some futurists, you believe in transhumanism, the interfacing of technology and the human being, leading people to greater physical and mental powers. This has its own set of profound issues since it would change the nature of humanity itself.

The digital age has produced web giants, automation that far exceeds consumer needs, and machines that can outperform physically and mentally their human builders. Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ has shared his own anxiety about a world dominated by technological advancements, leading to challenges to human work as we have known it:

We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favored a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on the economy “through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §32) In other words, “human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs” (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §32). To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society (par 128).

In 1891, in the midst of the industrial revolution and its negative externalities—unsafe working conditions, poverty wages, child labor, and the fostering of class divisions—Pope Leo XIII voiced his concern for workers in the encyclical Rerum Novarum. His teaching addressed the relationship between capital and labor, the rights and responsibilities of each, the role of private property, and the importance of charity. Rerum Novarum speaks directly to the virtues because, by our humanity, we search for truth, the good, and the beautiful. The encyclical, relying on St. Thomas Aquinas, recognizes the human person as inclined to the virtuous life and capable of growing in perfection with the help of God:

From contemplation of this divine Model, it is more easy to understand that the true worth and nobility of man lie in his moral qualities, that is, in virtue; that virtue is, moreover, the common inheritance of men, equally within the reach of high and low, rich and poor; and that virtue, and virtue alone, wherever found, will be followed by the rewards of everlasting happiness (para. 24).

Economic thought and the nature of man

The Catholic Church has repeatedly criticized both socialism and capitalism for philosophical, political, and anthropological stances that deny human dignity, whether it is socialism’s atheistic historical materialism or capitalism’s maximization of beneficial outcomes for the many occasionally at the cost of the denial of dignity for the few. This is the challenge that society will increasingly face as automation, robotics, and AI continue along their path of exponential growth.

Mark Lutz and Kenneth Lux have traced the philosophical development of utilitarian thinking that is fundamental to capitalism and pointed out its flaws in Humanistic Economics: The New Challenge. In the end the capitalism of the last two centuries understands men and women as hedonistic creatures who act out of self-interest—that is, respond to rewards and punishments—without espousing a transcendent human nature that includes social participation, other-directedness, and personal self-denial. While the authors use Abraham Maslow’s theory of hierarchical needs to describe human development as the movement towards the self-actualized person; as Catholic readers, one should substitute Christian neighborly-love, self-mastery, and sacrifice. Christians find themselves happiest when they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and manifest this relationship in their spiritual life and neighborly love. Lutz and Lux contribute to the discussion and reflection about work and technological development today, because they realize that economic man and woman have become emptied of transcendent characteristics—virtues—in this short-term, market-driven capitalist world. Darwin, Marx and Freud—pivotal figures in our modern understanding of the human being—dismiss God-talk when they explain the human mind. In a hyperbolic extension, economist Jeremy Bentham’s pain and pleasure dichotomy is magnified in Freud’s understanding of the “pleasure” principle. Every human behavior is reduced to satisfying himself or herself, and altruism and other-worldly aspirations play no part in what it means to be a human being.

Economic thinking, according to Lutz and Lux among others, has come to identify the human being as a creature of wants and not needs; this thinking has permeated business, politics, and education. Following Hobbes and Machiavelli, the classical economist Alfred Marshal accepted the idea that it is our passions that direct us. The focus on pleasure is reworked by Marshal in The Principle of Economics (1890) into “satisfaction,” “costs,” and “benefits.” While we often use cost-benefit analysis in our decision-making to our general benefit, we can also make mistakes in the variables that enter into our calculation or even manipulate the selection, measurement, and definition of the variables leading to “garbage in, garbage out.”

In contrast, John Ruskin, an 18th century economist, believed men and women do not follow the behavior of rats or swine, and spoke about the motive power of the soul: “…the force of this very peculiar agent, as an unknown quality, enters into all the political economist’s equations, without his knowledge, and falsifies every one of their results.” Neoclassical economics focuses on self-interest, and consequently all human behaviors are based on self-interest alone.

Riches, honor, and pride were the primary motivators of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) in his early life. Saint Ignatius’ family supported King Ferdinand V of Spain, and Ignatius in his youth lived as a page in the royal court. He would take on the dress, manners, and reputation of the proverbial swashbuckler by all accounts, and his focus was on temporal rewards. The Autobiography of Saint Ignatius, dictated by him to Father Luis Gonazalez, SJ, points out Ignatius’ struggle with self-interest and a lack of a clear transcendent purpose:

Up to his twenty−sixth year the heart of Ignatius was enthralled by the vanities of the world. His special delight was in the military life, and he seemed led by a strong and empty desire of gaining for himself a great name. The citadel of Pampeluna was held in siege by the French. All the other soldiers were unanimous in wishing to surrender on condition of freedom to leave, since it was impossible to hold out any longer; but Ignatius so persuaded the commander, that, against the views of all the other nobles, he decided to hold the citadel against the enemy.

The history continues with the wounding of Ignatius in the ultimate defeat and the subsequent tortuous surgeries and rehabilitation. At this time of immobility and involuntary convalescence, he discovered that on the one hand his meditations on a life of military honor and royal prestige would console him, but this consolation would later dissipate; yet, on the other hand, during and long after his meditations on Christian discipleship, he remained consoled—feeling joyful, tranquil, and at peace.

Saint Ignatius recognized that he had desires and emotions that brought consolation or desolation when musing upon them. The economist John Ruskin also recognized our human capacity to make choices with our reason and at times deny our apparent self-interest. We are not rats or swine. Lutz and Lux call it the dual-self. Economists have traditionally attempted through the use of indifference curves to report how much of a good or service one will sell at a particular price or relative to another good or service. However, they error by failing to acknowledge certain goods are required and have no good alternatives, e.g. food and water. They are incommensurable; one can make this argument for shelter and education, too. Lutz and Lux also argue that employment is a need, not a desire.

Technology, humility, and virtue

The technological advances of automation, robotics, and AI cannot be inherently bad; it is our decision-making and uses of them that will result in good or evil. Martin Ford has presented a trenchant view of the future of work in this new age in Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. He refers to a previously unpublished article written by MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener at the request of the New York Times. The article was written in 1949 as The Machine Age, but not until May 20, 2013 were sections published in the New York Times:

The new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

We must be willing to deal in facts rather than in fashionable ideologies if we wish to get through this period unharmed. Not even the brightest picture of an age in which man is the master, and in which we all have an excess of mechanical services will make up for the pains of transition, if we are not both humane and intelligent…Finally the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do.

Moreover, if we move in the direction of making machines which learn whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

How do we respond to today’s technology? Ignatius found that every person has involuntary experiences, and these occur in groups of people as well. We have energies within us to respond to these experiences. We can respond to these experiences by moving downward, away from God with a decrease of faith, hope, and love or by moving upward with an increase in these virtues. When the person or community moves toward God the result is consolation, when the person or community moves away from God, the result is desolation.

When a person or group of people moves from one good to another, reasonable thinking and behavior give them peace. Often, it is at this point that the evil one attempts to trip us up with fallacious or emotion-laden thinking. When the person moves from bad to worse, the evil spirit simply allows the downward movement while the good spirit prods the conscience with guilt, remorse, and confusion. The resulting decision-making is based on reason and the authoritative will of God—Holy Scripture and Church teaching.

The second type of discernment is a question of choosing between the good and the better. The good spirit leads to the better choice and the resulting consolation is long-lasting (as in the case of Ignatius’ vocational discernment). The evil spirit entices one from making better choices by trying to present even better apparent goods, leading to confusion. Since neither the original good choice nor original better choice are evil, the principle means of making this decision is the use of one’s reason. Holy Scripture and Church teaching do not object to either choice. Individual and communal retreats are useful in this case.

In both types of decision-making, instances of the discernment of spirits, the use of reason is part of the activity. Even if they have no faith in God, business men and women, the setters of public policy, educators, and the rest of the population necessarily require reason to make sound choices. The present technological revolution will require communal reflection and thoughtful discussion to protect our humanity from serious social and economic dislocations. Today in the United States, we have a lower number of employed people relative to the general population than at any other time in American history; in addition, the real income of the American worker is lower than in the 1990s. While there are fantastic and useful consumer benefits with today’s technological bounty, according to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, the data shows greater inequalities in wealth, skills, and opportunities. The bounty overall has increased but the spread between the haves and have nots is skewed. You no longer have a large middle class, but you find the great majority of people challenged economically and under stress while a smaller and smaller percentage of the population possesses super wealth.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee, following the arguments of economist John Maynard Keynes, describe the processes that will lead to technological unemployment: inelastic demand (a satiated population), rapid change, and income inequalities. A market-driven economy needs consumers, and to avoid technological unemployment the consumers would have to maintain their demand for more, possess the ability to adapt to new types of employment, and have adequate income that allows them to consume. The present data points to serious challenges in the not too distant future because machines will continue to change the nature of work at an accelerated rate.

The leaders of business, labor, government and religion need the virtues to make good decisions with regard to automation, robotics, and AI—given their potentially widespread impact on the nature of work and its social importance. Josef Pieper in the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance explains:

We have insisted, it is true, that, since the end of society is to make men better, the chief good that society can possess is virtue. Nevertheless, it is the business of a well-constituted body politic to see to the provision of those material and external helps “the use of which is necessary to virtuous action.” Thomas Aquinas, On the Governance of Rulers, 1, 15 (Opera omnia, ed. Vives, Vol. 27, p. 356).

On the one hand, the primary virtue of prudence will not condone foolishness in responding to the socioeconomic demands of the moment (e.g., accepting these developments without discussion and planning); on the other hand, prudence will not condone a cowardly rejection of technology as a dastardly monster. Prudence is part of the good and prudence requires fortitude at times, not a spineless acceptance of the “inevitable” to avoid troubling the experts and perhaps mistakenly making choices with socially harmful effects. Prudence and the good always go together. A sacrificial, self-denying act for the right reasons is good and prudent—they are simultaneous. E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economies as if People Mattered questioned the metaphysical and psychological foundations of neo-classical economics. He spoke of intermediate technology for the Third World, but the advances of technology in the First World may also require a self-imposed gradualism for the good of people.

The explosive development of automation, robotics, and AI requires a dedicated focus on the role of conscience—our spiritual life—to help us respond to the challenges we face as producers and consumers. The way forward is seeking out what is true in our human experiences, which directs us to the good. We who are Catholic (that is, believers in the transcendent—God) have faith, hope, and love to support our truth seeking, but we can work with non-believers, who recognize their “conscience” and possess a sense of awe. We all need to care for each other as the second machine age takes off. St. Ignatius’ understanding of discernment will support us in this effort. He, too, understood the dual-self, and the good or evil that can result from our decisions.


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About Father George E. Schultze, SJ 4 Articles
Father George E. Schultze, SJ is President-Rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California, where he is also Associate Professor of Moral Theology. He has an undergraduate degree in Industrial and Labor Relations from Cornell, a MBA from the Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in Social Ethics from the Univ. of Southern California. Prior to entering the Society of Jesus, he was a National Labor Relations Board Agent and a member of the National Labor Relations Board Union.

5 Comments

  1. Blockchain ~~ Mark of the Beast (where “~~” = “enables).

    That’s what you *really need to be focusing on.

    Go ahead and laugh (while you can).

  2. I agree with Pope Francis when technology outstrips the human norm there is chaos. Now I have difficulty with this statement… “The Church sees in men and women, in every human being, the living image of God himself.”

    If women are made in the image of God why are they continually placed in lesser roles? Ex: Women are restricted from the Priesthood. All church decisions are made by old men who have messed everything up!

    • Don’t be grotesquely shallow, not to mention insulting. Trading in caricatures reveals you’re not pursuing honest answers. If you don’t know what a divinely endowed ontological distinction means, grow up and learn.

  3. Everything composed made a great deal of sense. But,
    what about this? suppose you were to create a awesome headline?

    I ain’t saying your content isn’t good, but suppose you added a title that makes people want more?
    I mean Economics, Technology, and Virtue – Catholic World Report is kinda plain. You could look at Yahoo’s home page and note
    how they write news headlines to get viewers to open the links.
    You might add a video or a related pic or two to get people
    excited about everything’ve got to say. Just my opinion, it might bring your blog a little
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  4. As a retired electrical engineer who formerly designed computers, let me point out that the important thing to know about AI is that it doesn’t exist. Computers (a pile of electrical circuits) do not make and never will be able to make value judgments. Therefore, they do not and never will be able to “think” any more than a light bulb that illuminates a painting can contemplate beauty.

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