Pluriformity and the Shape of Moral Experience

March 10, 2014

What are we to make of all the great plurality of objects, events and viewpoints displayed before us in the world? We are each spectator to an eclectic parade of sometimes wildly differentiated phenomena. The fact we have such textured experience of the world was the stubborn metaphysical perplexity of ancient philosophers. Recall the famous line attributed to Heraclitus (by Plato), “One never steps into the same river twice.”1 The river we step into on Saturday is not the same river on Sunday, at least not in any material sense, and yet it is the same river to the extent that it represents the place the river occupies. His river metaphor illustrates the truth that broad and unrelenting fluctuations to reality are also direct contributors to its ongoing permanence. The river is what it is by virtue of its material flow and its being the location of such flow. For Heraclitus, the plurality of human experience does not represent omnipresent novelty, but rather life’s interconnectedness and unity. What interests him about difference, in other words, is its implicit sameness.

What concerns us, however, is whether this apparent plurality is so extensive it justifies tacit acceptance of pluralism. Clearly the more modern impulse is to answer “yes.” Unable to find unity in diversity, sameness in difference, moderns tend to oversimplify plurality and difference by presuming them intrinsic goods. The great modern value of individuality is itself a cherishing of isolated uniqueness, of doing all one can to make oneself “stand out from the crowd.” Divergence with antiquity is here at its most pronounced, for it isn’t unity that interests the modern, but token plurality, an enshrining of diversity for diversity’s sake. Of course, among the most detrimental consequences of this outlook is pluralism’s drift into moral relativism, from mere observation of pluralities to relativizing the moral truths of those pluralities.

If these comparative sketches between ancient and modern moral experience are accurate, and I think they are, then modern moral pluralism represents a unique challenge to traditional understandings of moral order. Moderns need reminding of what imbues plurality with significant meaning. To this point Oliver O’Donovan offers in Resurrection and Moral Order (hereafter RMO) perhaps the most compelling Christian ethical treatment of pluralism in recent memory. The apparent plurality of moral viewpoints is redressed by the real unity wrought by an original, sustaining and completing Power that renews and orders the moral order. At stake is nothing less than the moral order itself, for if we cannot distinguish a unifying truth to all pluralities then morality itself becomes a socially fragmented sphere of competing interests.

Of special interest to O’Donovan is the agent’s relation to their “moral field.” When confronted by the moral field, agents are invited to interpret that field. The moral field sets a context for free action and thus furnishes the final determination (this side of Judgment) of what the action means. Some of what we encounter will strike us as routine, while some utterly novel. Whether Smith throws a baseball striking a batter out or throws a baseball through a neighbor’s window depends entirely on the context of his pitch. An obvious comparison but nonetheless important—the freedom of an act depends largely on context and its rightness on the form of that context.

Determinacies of the moral field alert us, thinks O’Donovan, to two dominant ways of interpreting and overcoming novelty within the moral field, one by drawing upon experience of the past, and the other by anticipating the future. Before treating them in turn it is worth noting that novelty is undetectable without memories of the past. Every novelty emerges from the past and is, as it were, colored by it. Yet modernity’s chronic historical amnesia leaves agents increasingly prone to ignorance of antecedents. Newness defines the present at every passing moment and thus anxieties wrought by the fragmentariness of our moral experience become all the more perplexing. Under these conditions, claims O’Donovan, even the agent himself becomes a plurality, “a sequence of dissociated roles and responses evoked by the shifting self-transforming meanings of the world.”2

Bearing this in mind we return to the two ways of overcoming novelty in the moral field, either by (i) drawing on experience of the past or (ii) anticipating the future. In the former, agents act as their forbearers have acted and hope that despite their temporal separation some form of continuity is achieved enabling modest management of contingencies. We might loosely call this the “conservative” posture. And yet, although this view has much recommending it, including the illuminating prowess of wisdom, “we are left with the problem that knowledge of the past cannot simply be transformed into knowledge of the present.”3 Which “pasts” will we select, for example, and which criteria will we use to decide between them all? “The only way to tame the unknown is to come to know it,” and conservatism does not adequately bridge the gulf between subject and novelty. But neither does the second approach, for that matter. Without rehearsing the well-understood limitations and self-contradictions of consequentialism, it is enough to say here that the future is eligible for anticipation only if its latent possibilities have been pre-decided and thus no longer really new to us, “for it will be the state of things which we ourselves . . . have chosen.”4

Neither the past nor future is limitless or “open” to interpretation. We reflect upon the past and deliberate upon the future with varying degrees of tentativeness, much like a young child taking his first clumsy steps into ambulation. Actions must be thinkable, and to be thinkable they must be confined to distinct limits immune to openendedness. “Only if we are endowed with a vision of what it is in the world which measures change and so stands beyond it, can we dare to encounter change.”5 The Bible calls this discerning “vision” wisdom, “the perception that every novelty . . . manifests the permanence and stability of the created order, so that, however astonishing and undreamt of it may be, it is not utterly incommensurable with what has gone before.”6 X is similar to and dissimilar to Y because both variables are configured into a wider web of moral intelligibility. Wisdom is what apprehends and then puts that intelligibility to use, making vast pluralities appear more like narrow unities. And on this point O’Donovan is again instructive: “The plurality of situations and events which characterizes the experience of history, the fact that every event is ‘new’ and different from every other, can be seen as a pluriformity in the world-order, which is a capacity for different things to transpire and succeed one another within a total framework of intelligibility which allows for their generic relationships to be understood.”7 Wisdom applied to the moral order transforms incomprehensible plurality into comprehendible pluriformity. And this in part explains why moral pluralism must be false.

Pluriformity describes the manner of reality’s moral presentation, and wisdom facilitates understanding of that presentation. Many of our contemporaries, however, do not see permanence as the necessary site of novelty. Moderns tend not to perceive reality in the Heraclitian sense but as an ever-novel “space” for introducing and reintroducing still greater novelties. There is perhaps no greater illustration to this attitude than the rapid proliferation of technology. It is commonly believed that, from a moral point of view, technology’s “form” is simply what we make of it, becoming what it is by virtue of our invention and use. But this overlooks the pluriform shape technology takes within human affairs. The Internet, for example, is both similar and dissimilar to past technologies. It helps connect people but does so without analogue; it captivates attention and yet endlessly distracts; it is “cyberspace” yet place to conduct one’ daily affairs. Reduction of reality to a sequence of novelties jettisons wisdom in favor of unmitigated “progress” as a moral ideal, the prevailing criterion of modern life. The principal moral question is not “how shall we use technology?” but “what form does technology take among us?”

To complete the idea, let us try to illustrate the usefulness of this concept more vividly. Smith and his wife are informed by physicians that the first phase of fertility treatments is not likely to result in conception. The couple should instead consider either IVF or surrogacy as an alternative. Knowing enough about IVF to be aware of its considerable moral drawbacks, they explore the potential of surrogacy and solicit the “services” of a womb-candidate. Pause here. At this stage many will consider the moral implications of their decision in purely consequentialist terms: Do the ends of our acts justify the means? A biological child is desired above all, therefore methods of implementation do not figure into the deliberations. But if Smith and his wife shared some provisional grasp of reality’s pluriform nature, then their deliberations would instead begin with reflection upon past experience, the significance of life processes, or still other relevant implications. The novelty of surrogacy as a medical technique will not overwhelm their moral sensibilities. Sexuality, conception, pregnancy and childbirth all have a wider, richer logic.

Should one feel a definite lack of the wisdom even to initiate this seemingly complex line of reasoning, they may take solace in the truth that if anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask of God who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).

1 Surviving fragments of Heraclitus’ writings strongly suggest that the fundamental meaning of his river metaphor is that some things stay the same only by changing.

2 Ibid., 185.

3 Ibid., 186.

4 Ibid., 187.

5 Ibid.,188.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

Matthew Arbo

Matthew Arbo has a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Edinburgh, currently serves as a research fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC, and has taught at Southeastern, Midwestern, and Southern Seminary in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He has formerly held a bioethics fellowship at the Paul Ramsey … 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