Is marketing moral?

Recapturing an ethic of human dignity

September 3, 2019

You may notice a new tool on your Facebook profile in the coming months. A few weeks ago, the social media giant launched a new privacy tool called “Off-Facebook Activity.” This new tool gives you more control over the data that is captured and stored—from sources outside of Facebook—regarding your online activity. Currently, Facebook is able to track your internet activity, gathering valuable data, even when you are not using the platform, through the use of tracking pixels. This new privacy tool allows you to delete this personal data after a period of 48 hours.

In our digital age, companies share data about us with platforms in order to gain valuable insight into things like shopping, reading, and viewing habits. This data is used to strengthen predictive advertising products and improve user services. This common practice isn’t limited to Facebook, as other technology giants like Google, Twitter, and a host of others employ these methods to micro-target and craft ads to better suit us and, in the end, increase profits for both the advertiser and platform.

Several of the major ethical issues that often go unnoticed are: how the data is captured, what we are aware of when using these services, and how the data is used to influence our behavior in the real world. As we enter into this new world of hyper-accurate marketing, both users and marketers need to adopt a higher standard for ethical advertising than: “I should, just because I can.” Christians rightly recognize that there is a higher calling than just basic consent—we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31).

Tailoring to consumers

One of the hallmarks of the American society is capitalism. While this system has many dangerous flaws that can be exploited for ungodly and dehumanizing ends, it has also ushered in great wealth for our society. In the 21st century, capitalism’s growth has largely been fueled by the ability of companies to market services and products directly us as consumers. Our modern advertising can be incredibly personalized and accurate because of the data collected about us, rather than the old one-size-fits-all approach.

Today, when we sign up for new online services or use smart devices, we always sign or acknowledge some type of consent for data exchange. For a device to be “smart” like many of our appliances, speakers, and phones, the company requires a certain level of data collection about you in order to personalize or improve your experience. In this data exchange, we receive higher quality tools and services. But is the data captured on us always used to improve our experience or with our best interest in mind? Some privacy advocates argue that companies are collecting more data about a user than is needed for the proposed service.

This abundance of data is collected, analyzed, and used to create a shadow text of information—the predictive analysis based on the collected data—about a person including their environment, behavior, psychology, etc. This can be used to sway elections, manipulate customers, and even fuel movements. These predictions are not bad in themselves, but they can be exploited by companies and marketers who treat us as mere data points. We need to step back and ask some fundamental questions about how we use these tools and wield the power at the end of our cursors.

A greater calling

So is marketing morally permissible? It can be if pursued with the right intentions of honoring the humanity of those that we are seeking to introduce to our services, content, and products. I have worked in communications for nearly a decade, and the ability to share God-honoring, edifying content and products with a wide range of people is one of the biggest highlights of my career. But rather than reducing the morality of an act to our ability to do it, we, as Christians, should pursue the higher calling of honoring the image of God found in every human being, even our perceived enemies. We can ask questions about the nature of the data collected, how these companies have procured it, and how our decision to utilize these tools will edify our neighbors and their lives. We need to be thoughtful about the methods we use to market products and harness the power of these predictive data-based tools to help our fellow brothers and sisters instead of treating them as a means to our ends.

Recapturing an ethic of human dignity is not a difficult task, but it is a constant battle since many of the tools we use today are designed to exploit our neighbors in the name of the bottom line. We should champion the dignity of every individual, including their privacy, instead of relegating them to a box to be checked, a vote to be counted, or the dollar in their bank accounts.This may mean choosing not to use a predictive tool or a new marketing scheme designed to exploit the user. It may mean losing a percentage of growth in our click through rate, page views, and inventory sold. The question isn’t “Can we?” Instead, we need to ask ourselves, “Should we do it?” If, in doing so, we lose in this life by championing the dignity of our fellow image-bearers, we can rest in the promise that there are untold riches to come in the next (Matt. 6:19-21).

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24