For Immediate Release: March 15, 2017
Contact: Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director - 207-358-9785

Ethics by Algorithm and Morality by Machines: Free Inquiry Tackles Issues in Technology


Free Inquiry, the leading journal of secular humanism, takes on the crucial concerns about automation, already deeply entrenched in so much of the developed world and rapidly expanding into all areas of society. As our dependence on automated systems, robots, and artificial intelligence accelerates, a tightening tangle of ethical questions compels us to seriously consider what it means to give so much of ourselves over to the machines.

Yale bioethicist Wendell Wallach leads off with an excerpt from his new book A Dangerous Master: How to Keep Technology from Slipping Beyond Our Control. Wallach points to automated systems ranging from military vehicles to critical infrastructure, and warns that even the engineers responsible for building these systems are incapable of predicting their errors and upheavals — and that we underestimate these dangers at our peril.

Philosophy professor Ryan Jenkins focuses on the morality of autonomous weapons, noting that while a machine’s “lack of a mental life” means it cannot suffer as a human soldier does, it also removes its ability to comprehend the complex ethical considerations of whom it does and does not kill. Writes Jenkins, “The advent of targetable, unaccountable, relatively costless, and widely available lethal violence could be one of the worst inventions in the history of humanity.”

On the coming driverless-car revolution, ethicist Patrick Lin discusses the “terrible decisions” that these vehicles will be faced with, as algorithms are left to make ethical choices about who is “better” to crash into and injure or kill, when accidents are unavoidable.

Philosopher David Koepsell considers the rise of nanotechnology — tiny machines built at the molecular level — arguing that a strong ethical framework for its development is needed now, before inefficiencies delay benefits and avoidable mistakes increase the risks of catastrophe.

James Hughes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies advocates for “morality AI’s,” secular ethics assistants to be “woven into our environment and exocortices … allowing us to choose consciously to achieve levels of moral consistency that are currently impossible for most.”

Also in this issue: Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, encourages the nonreligious to combine its political efforts to win a seat at the policymaking table; Janet L. Factor explains that women’s equality (and a woman in the presidency) poses an existential threat to the religious right; and Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsay speculate over whether the Overton Window - the lens through which we determine what political ideas are acceptable and unacceptable - has been shattered by social media.

All this, and much more is available now in the April/May issue of Free Inquiry. Subscribe in print or on the web at

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Free Inquiry is a bimonthly magazine, published by the Center for Inquiry in association with the Council for Secular Humanism, featuring thoughtful and provocative commentary from such leading political and social commentators as Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, and Russell Blackford. Launched in 1980, Free Inquiry has a paid circulation of approximately 34,000 worldwide.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at