Utilitarianism and Libertarianism During Accelerating Technological Change
Law is the concrete embodiment of philosophy. Among other things, law provides the rules for a group of individuals to coexist in society and achieve greater things than each could achieve alone. As technology becomes a greater factor in our lives, any inconsistencies in or shortcomings with the formulation or execution of law will only be more prominent, so I’ve been thinking about the issues surrounding the implementation of current laws and creation of new laws in the context of accelerating technological change.
For example, take the issue of privacy. The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution states that the individual should be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures from the government. Our e-mail accounts can be considered our ‘homes’ and therefore be protected by these privacy safeguards. But what happens if your e-mail exists on the ‘Cloud’ in a distributed form on many servers that straddle geographical, jurisdictional, state, and even national boundaries?
As someone who usually thinks in terms of the ‘Singularity,’ I wanted to consider the two overarching philosophical outlooks of Utilitarianism and Libertarianism with respect to accelerating technological change and creation of new laws. I will consider these two outlooks in turn and then consider how they apply in particular to insurance and patents related to genomics. This is particularly relevant since our society is heading rapidly towards a $100 genome and personalized medicine.
Utilitarianism is simple, elegant, and intuitive and states that we should act to maximize happiness so that the net amount is as positive as possible. Unfortunately, it is inadequate on two main accounts: (1) fungibility of happiness and (2) individual liberty.
To illustrate these, I will consider the short story “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” written by Ursula K. Le Guin. Omelas is a utopian city (we know where this is headed, since the terms utopia and dystopia are more often than not synonyms than antonyms in literature) where the heaven the citizens enjoy is contingent upon the suffering of a child in the locked windowless room.