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Is Your Cellphone Destroying Your Morals? Devices, Distraction and the Impossible Ethics of Modern Life

It isn’t that texting and driving is dangerous per se. If we were perfectly capable of doing both flawlessly, this danger would instantly disappear. Yet, we know that the danger of texting and driving exists precisely because of the fragility of our attention. The consequences of distracted driving loom large: According to one source, “Text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.”

The reasons for this lay in the recesses of a brain stunningly ill-suited to multitasking. Yet, what is useful about this example is that it highlights with searing severity the moral risks and costs of an increasingly distracted mind.

As multitasking now defines modern life, a hugely important question emerges: What will an increasingly distracted brain mean for ethics?

We’ll Forgive Psychopaths, but You? Not Really

We readily admit that ethics requires, at the least, a certain kind and quality of thinking. Exactly the kind of thinking required is an area of deep disagreement. And yet, ethics and bioethics especially have turned away from thinking about the moral capacity of persons. That is, unless you are a psychopath.

Psychopathy and criminalization is the one place where bioethics cares deeply about the mind – and the mind’s capacity for ethical decision-making in particular. Are psychopaths morally responsible for their heinous crimes? For neuroethics, in particular, issues such as psychopathy, defining brain death, or the ethical capacities of children are meaty brain-related ethical puzzles. And yet, there is little attention beyond those areas to the increasing incompatibility between the kinds of moral reasoning that we ask of people and the states of mind that modern life produces.

But a mountain of evidence has birthed strong reasons to be skeptical about the quality of our moral decisions in the context of modern life. Given known problems of moral narcissism, implicit bias, and faulty memory, we were never pristine moral agents. Even ethicists aren’t that ethical. Yet, emerging research suggests that the brain’s fundamental incapacity to multitask makes tasks that demand multitasking prone to failure.

In The Distracted Mind the authors suggest that “Our cognitive control is really quite limited: we have restricted ability to distribute, divide, and sustain attention; actively hold detailed information in mind; and concurrently manage or even rapidly switch between competing goals.” Given the limits of such control, we are forced to reconsider the complex moral decision-making that we require, say, clinicians to perform in clinical settings.

The very kinds of decisions that comprise much of clinical ethics exemplify exactly the tasks for which we are apparently profoundly inept. And if such tasks are challenging for clinicians, imagine the galactic burden placed on patients when thrown into consent processes. We expect patients to perform ethical pyrotechnics in clinical contexts where patients are overwhelmed with grief, anxiety, and shock.

And yet, digital distractions loom large. The attention economy (the competition by advertising, internet and media companies for attention) means that we now live in a social context where individuals are unusually subjected and addicted to digital stimulation. Technology’s role in driving constant interruption produces real consequences for complex kinds of thinking actions. People are on phones in traffic, at work, while watching movies, and while using a second cell phone.

While research shows that we are mired in a nearly perpetual digital distraction, tech is not the only source of distracted minds. Sleep-derived clinicians must now make hard decisions in ever-shrinking time windows while balancing portfolios of ever-increasing demands. Between the compressions of efficiency-seeking organizations and the penumbra of digital stimuli, ought we engineer an ethics that presumes distraction? If we are increasingly compromised moral subjects, do we have an obligation to design a different kind of ethics?

Ethics for an Imperfect Self

If texting dramatically compromises even highly experienced drivers, imagine what a distracted brain could mean for other kinds of mental actions that rely on attention, precision, and patience. Yet, much of our foundational thinking about morality, obligation, and duty stems from the imprints of ancient moral philosophy. Our expectations of people as moral actors have changed little from medieval notions about virtue. Our modern brains contend with a world differs profoundly from that of Aristotle. To be clear, ancient philosophers did appear to address the importance of creating a society conducive to moral reflection (See Nicomachean Ethics). However, could Aristotle have predicted that much of humanity would live in unremitting worlds of mental distraction?

Much of ethics suffers from problematic assumptions of pristine, shimmering moral subjects with boundless time and mental space to make moral decisions. In other writing, I suggest that systems offer ways of ethical thinking that focus on creating supports in moments of known limitation. Given all that we now know about human behavior since the time of Aristotle, perhaps bioethical interventions ought to presume a highly compromised moral subject. Thinking first with our vulnerabilities as moral subjects not only leads to more precise kinds of ethical approaches but ones that are also more empathetic.

So, what does this all mean? Well, we know that several centuries after the industrial revolution, distraction is no longer a byproduct of modern life, but its defining feature. The implications may mean focusing on an ethics, not of who we ought to be or who we once were, but an ethics based on who we are now.

Mark Dennis Robinson

Mark Dennis Robinson

Mark Robinson joins the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School from the graduate program in bioethics at Harvard Medical School, where he is exploring a project about the intersection of technology and ethics. A graduate of the University of Chicago, he has a Ph.D. from Princeton University, where he held the Presidential Fellowship. He is also the author of a forthcoming book, "The Market in Mind: How Financialization Is Shaping Neuroscience, Translational Medicine, and Innovation in Biotechnology," about the ethical and scientific impacts of the increasing financialization of neuroscience (and of translational science and medicine in general) releasing April 2019 published by MIT Press.

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