Do New Inventions Kill Old Liberties?
There is one aspect of modern science and machinery that nobody has noticed. It is quite new, and it is enormously important. It is this; that the very fact of using new methods makes it easier to fall back on old morals, especially if they are very immoral morals.
These prescient words came from the voluminous pen of G.K. Chesterton, one of the most prolific writers of the early 20th century. Through his countless essays, his Father Brown mystery stories, and his classic defense of the Christian faith, Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote on many issues and questions, all with an abundance of wit and good humor.
Even when Chesterton directly argued against people like H.G. Wells or George Bernard Shaw, he always conducted himself with respect for his opponents and a general joy in intellectual jousting. Chesterton knew how to argue without screaming, unlike many of our modern pundits, and without descending into a stream of ad hominem attacks.
Chesterton always remained skeptical of humanity’s ability to keep up with the pace of modern inventions. He constantly reminded his readers that just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done. His skepticism about unbridled scientism prompted him to oppose the then-popular theories of eugenics.
In his book Eugenics and Other Evils, Chesterton mounted a full-scale attack on the pseudo-science that would lead to forced sterilizations in many states in the U.S. This was years before it manifested itself in the more sinister and deranged forms that provided Adolf Hitler with a “scientific” basis for his hideous pursuit of a “pure” race. In fact, in Mein Kampf, Hitler even pointed to California’s eugenics program as a model to follow!
But in 1928, Hitler had not yet come to power. On February 4 of that year, Chesterton published a short article entitled “Modern Science and Immoral Morals,” in the Illustrated London News. The article was prompted by another story in the news at that time, which reported that “an obstinately silent tramp had been given shocks with an electric battery to make him speak.”
This prompted Chesterton to remark that no one seemed to be much bothered by this report. However, if the paper had said that the tramp had been hauled off to the Tower of London and tortured with thumbscrews, there would have been an uproar. The use of modern machinery obscured the basic immorality of the action. As Chesterton wrote, “Nobody would be allowed to torture with the old tools; it is much easier to use the new tools for the old tortures.”
Part of the problem is that new names (a new technology) can distract people from the basic questions of morality that are involved with the use of a new technology.
Think about the internet, Facebook, domestic phone-tapping by the NSA, drones, or facial-recognition programs as you read this quote from Chesterton:
When discovery is really new, or at an early stage, it always has this appearance of being either a toy or an entirely unfamiliar and unwieldy tool.
But the “toy” quickly morphs into a tool, and the use of the tool quickly outruns any philosophical reflection about the morality of the tool. It’s just so useful! By the time those in charge are called to testify before Congress to give an account for how they’ve been using the tool, it is probably too late to do anything about it. Chesterton noted that this is even more true when the tools of technology and science are controlled by governmental entities:
The new invention is not protected by the old liberty; so it falls under the old tyranny. Men venture, in the exact sense of the words, to take liberties with it, which they would never venture to take with an older thing in which the liberties had been long guaranteed. If we do not guard against this tendency, every addition to our luxuries will mean a loss of our liberties.
Are we trading “luxuries” for a “loss in our liberties”? If we do not ask questions of our technology, we set ourselves up to be “used” by technology. If the technology is being used by those with no morality, we create a vacuum that is easily filled by dynamic leaders who promise an abundance of luxuries, even while they take away our liberties.
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