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What is it all for?

by James L. Gumnick

The following headlines are of great significance. The first is from the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 8, 1987: "Harvard will seek $30 million for program on Business Ethics." Note that $30 million precedes the word, "Ethics."

Later in the same source, but on July 10, 1988, the scope of ethical consideration expanded: "Harvard program for study of Professional Ethics aims to Advance Scholarly Research in the field." On July 20, 1988, there was a companion clipping: "Harvard Business School requires Ethics Course." In the New York Times on September 23, 1990, a book review was presented for a book, Universities and the Future of America, by Derek Bok, President of Harvard. The review, "The Conscience of the Campus," points out:

"The second reform Mr. Bok proposed in this book involves fostering students' moral development and sense of social responsibility through courses in applied ethics, programs of community service, clear codes of conduct and high ethical standards for university decision making."

There is a new wave of ethical concern in America. For further evidence, here expressed in negative terms, let us quickly view one other headline. From the Chronicle of Higher Education, February 24, 1988: "Failure of Colleges to Teach Computer Ethics is Called Oversight with Potentially Catastrophic Consequences." The author, Deborah G. Johnson, claims:

"The lack of attention to ethics in the curricula is symptomatic of an overall problem with the way colleges and universities teach computer science . . . As an indictment of our undergraduate education, students don't know much about the ethical questions, and they don't know much about their profession at all."

In 1903, the year in which the airplane was invented, H.G. Wells wrote a novel entitled Food of the Gods. The book described the impact of a product called Herakleophorbia or Boom Food on growth, first in animals, then in human beings. The food produced a giant form of human being, and these giants suffered great persecution. One of the most striking occurrences in the book to me was when one of the giant children, in the face of his feelings of being a misfit, asked, "What is it all for?" As a teenager, the question was one I could empathize with. "What is it all for?" "Why are we here?" "What's it all about?" Even today, these are the grand questions raised in a concern for ethics. Nowhere do they have more bearing than in the fields of science and technology, so capable of making giants, and possibly misfits.

When we ask these kinds of questions, I am thrown back to the ancient Greek philosophical search for the good life, or the way of life rooted in the word "ethos" -- our modern "ethics." When we ask what is good and what is bad, the basis of comparison -- by this method -- is our culture, or our value set. What is it all for? Different cultures have different answers. Different answers spring from different sets of values. Different sets of values lead to different courses of action, different pathways, but the one that makes most sense to me when considering science and technology is the teleological approach.

Teleology deals with achieving ends and choosing means to achieve such ends. In the summary statement for this Symposium, I paraphrased an old adage, "If you care not where you are going, any path will take you there." Conversely, if you care where you are going, you had better attend to the path you choose. In a simplistic way, that is the essence of the teleological approach to values. In an old document, called the Baltimore Catechism, once a major teaching device for Roman Catholics, the question was raised, "Why did God make me?" Sounds a little like, "What is it all for?" The answer in the Catechism was: "To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him in the next." This statement represents a value set -- knowledge is valued, love is valued, service is valued, and not to be ignored, happiness is valued. More to the point, this is an example of a purposeful answer to the fundamental "why" question. It is presumed that life has a purpose. If life has a purpose, a value set can be based on definitions of "good" as those means that lead to achieving the desired end or purpose. Evils are those things preventing the achievement of purpose. Ignatius Loyola, who adapted the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas to a way of life, put it simply when he said that in assessing worldly things and actions, we should: "Use them if they help, avoid them if they hinder." Again, teleology!

Let's try out the teleological approach I am recommending by using some test cases. I was once an experimental physicist, so let's try some thought experiments to see what we can come up with. At best, I will have provided you with the ultimate criteria for assessing values. At worst, I will have provided you with another tool to use to figure out, "What is it all for?" I'll consider two areas that are of special significance in my experience: the space program and energy.

The Space Program

How often has it been said that we can put a man on the moon, but we can't solve traffic jams and transportation problems; or we can put a man on the moon, but we can't eliminate crime? We can put a man on the moon, but we can't solve our housing problems, or the homeless problem, or the poverty problem, or this month, it is the deficit problem!

The reason we can put a man on the moon, but cannot solve these other problems, lies in the ease or difficulty of applying our teleological ethical principle -- use if it helps, avoid if it hinders. In decision making, we need to know our purpose. Putting a man on the moon is a neat, clear, unambiguous goal. Like many technological goals, it is precise. When NASA was created and given the moon mission, there was a well defined organizational goal -- put a man on the moon! Other goals are more difficult to define. Improve housing, but what kind, for whom, where, when, how much? Social problems are all tough to define and solutions are tough to generate.

Even when a goal is well defined -- put a man on the moon -- it has more far reaching consequences. The things we must do to reach the mission itself impact other parts of society. For example, committing vast resources diverts them from other uses and diverts national attention from other compelling problems. It is on this basis that Walter A. McDougall, in The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, says that the race toward space has had a negative effect on American values. He argues:

"The founders of our space program saw space technology as a kind of apotheosis that would uplift all of society. But as I see it, big government control of the effort has led on all levels to inefficiency, corruption, and the actual warping of such traditional American values as free enterprise and individual self-reliance."

The unanswered question when the NASA mission was first defined was, "What does putting a man on the moon do for our larger national mission?" In fact, what is that larger national mission? If we don't know how a well-defined specific goal fits in the larger context, we have trouble applying Loyola's maxim -- use if it helps, avoid if it hinders. This result is an interesting one in which a good act, from one point of view, can be not so good from another point of view. Values can conflict with each other, and hence, there is a need for them to be compared and ordered. To apply the teleological approach effectively, values must be part of a value system, an ethic, or a culture.


Interestingly, humankind has always had an energy problem, but our energy problem today is different because it lacks clear definition. Is our problem oil; or is our problem oil imports; or is our problem oil in the Middle-East? Is our problem gasoline; or is our problem automobiles; or is our problem lack of mass transportation; or is the problem -- oops -- a social problem of our cities?

In the mid-1970s, when our energy problem became gravely acute, the solution initially focused around the idea of "Project Independence." We set as our goal being independent of foreign sources of energy. We created a Department of Energy and embarked on means to achieve the goal, including research and development of renewable resources, fossil fuels, atomic power, synthetic fuels, conservation, and solar energy. During this era, the leader of the OPEC cartel, when asked what the price of a barrel of oil would be in the future, replied "a few dollars less per barrel than your cost of producing synthetic fuels."

In energy technology, our goal became diffuse, and Loyola's rule -- the teleological approach -- became impossible to apply. We abandoned our goal of energy independence through research, development and education, and opted to "let the free market prevail." Today, we face solving the problem through war in the Middle-East. "If you care not where you are going, any path will get you there," but lack of purpose often leads to a very uncomfortable, ethically questionable, place.

What is it all for?

Having examined clear missions and confused missions in science and technology, let me return to the basic question, "What is it all for?" While we know very little yet about the potentialities and the destiny of life in the universe, in speculating about these matters, we follow a great tradition. We are in the company of such great thinkers as Pascal or Newton, and by letting our imagination wander among the stars, we too may hear whispers of immortality as they did. As Freeman J. Dyson says in his book, Infinite in all Directions, "The greening of the universe will always remain, like the vision of the American Revolution which Blake saw with his prophet's eye, an unfinished story." With this in mind, I will close with my own views about our purposes and destiny.

One of my favorite readings on the role of humankind in achieving its destiny is Lecomte du Nouy's book, Human Destiny. About technology he says:

"Man must be made to understand that mechanical transformations he has introduced in his environment and his adaptation to them will mean either progress or ruin according to whether or not they are accompanied by a correlative improvement in his moral attitude."

So what does an "improvement in moral attitude" require? Here, I think Dyson again provides a key insight:

"Mind . . . has established itself as a moving force in our little corner of the universe. Here on this small planet, mind has infiltrated matter and has taken control . . . What will mind choose to do when it informs and controls the universe? That is a question which we cannot hope to answer. When mind has expanded its physical reach and its biological organization by many powers of ten beyond the human scale, we can no more expect to understand its thoughts and dreams than a Monarch butterfly can understand ours . . . In contemplating the future of mind in the universe, we have exhausted the resources of our puny human science. This is the point at which science ends and theology begins."

For me, the basic premises of a teleological approach to "what it is all for" are:

1. We have a unique and distinct human nature with intelligence, consciousness, and language. Insofar as we know, we are the only such life form in the universe.

2. We are here for a purpose, individually and collectively. We should attempt to determine that purpose and strive to achieve it.

3. I believe that purpose is to achieve personal and social perfection. There exists a natural law; a set of rules with sanctions that can guide us toward that perfection, and that set of rules and sanctions is discoverable by all reasonable, serious thinkers.

4. Whatever our beliefs we all have far more in common than our differences, but our differences are many, and merit being resolved together.

5. Our ultimate destiny might well be to spread consciousness, or mind, throughout the universe. Before striving to achieve that goal, however, we had better see to our survival here on earth.

6. We are all something greater than the beasts, but less than the angels thus far.

7. Find your dream and your destiny. Pursue it to the best of your ability. In my mind, that is the answer to the giant question, "What is it all for?"