Monday, July 24, 2017

Apple CEO Tim Cook on Purpose and Ethics in Technology


For MIT's (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) 2017 graduation, Apple Computers' CEO Tim Cook was asked to give the commencement speech. As a fellow information technologist, I wanted to see what he would say to the next generation of technological engineers. He provided an inspiring speech that encouraged the graduating students to pursue a career in technology because technology can serve the higher purpose of humanity. You can watch the full speech on YouTube.

The Speech

He began with this: "When you work towards something greater than yourself, you find meaning; you find purpose." He said that he had searched for a higher purpose in his life; he tried many things, including religion. He then spoke of the value and importance of humanity and how technology is improving life. He told a story of one of his Apple shareholders' meetings where he explained to one shareholder that his company's focus was not necessarily on the RIO (return on investment) of a technology but that its focus was "the right thing to do." He also stated that while some people fear artificial intelligence's becoming more human-like, his concern was the humanity's thinking was becoming more machine-like: devoid of values, compassion, and concern for consequences. He concluded with "There is so much on the internet to make you not get caught up in the trivial things of life...stay focused on what really matters."

In the speech, Cook made sure to mention the importance of the humanities to the science and math graduates. I am glad that Cook values the humanities. I value them as well, including philosophy. Unfortunately, several philosophical problems arise when the claims in his speech are investigated more deeply. I would like to make the point that his comments about Apple's disregarding the ROI of technologies make it clear that he is not making subjective (opinion) claims, rather he is making claims that are objectively true for everyone- they are true whether anyone believes them or not. He believes that his and his company's valuing of ROI over human life would be objectively wrong. In order for any of his claims to be objectively true and have any meaning outside of the individual, the different claims must all have a grounding in reality, but he mentioned at the beginning of his speech that he rejected the only source for such grounding. Let's see what the implications of such rejection are.


In his search for meaning and purpose, he discarded the only possible source to ground meaning and purpose: God. A few months ago, I wrote a post on the importance of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the Image of God. This doctrine is what gives intrinsic human value its ontological grounding (foundation in reality). That grounding allows for human value to be objective (meaning that it is true whether someone or anyone believes it or not). In order for his moral appeal to use technology to make this world a better place for humanity, humanity must have objective value. The Image of God also provides the grounding for humans being morally responsible creatures- if they violate objective morality, then they are guilty of something that is objectively wrong because they had the free choice to do what was right yet they chose not to. By tossing God to the side in his search for meaning and purpose, Cook has tossed aside any possible grounding for finding objective meaning or objective purpose. All he has left if what he feels is meaningful and purposeful, but nothing that truly is either.

Objective Morality

In order for people to violate objective morality, objective morality must exist. By pushing God away, Cook has also rejected any foundation for objective morality. Cook implies throughout his speech that it is wrong to not use technology to make life better for humanity. However, if there is no foundation for there being objective right and wrong, then those students who choose to use technology for "evil" do nothing wrong. What they choose to use technology for is a matter of opinion; if they feel like using it to help humans, they can; if they feel like using it to hurt humans, they can. There is nothing objectively right or wrong about either decision if there is no foundation for objective right and wrong. It is all a matter of opinion, and you can "take it or leave it."


If God is not part of the equation, then no ultimate purpose exists either. There would be no ultimate goal for humanity to be working towards- no unmoving standard by which to judge progress, regress, or stagnation. Humans can set personal goals, but those do not exist beyond themselves. They may also set family, group, or cultural goals, but those will disappear with the disappearance of the family, group, or culture. And ultimately, with the extinction of humanity, all achieved human goals will be for naught. Without God, no human-based purposes will survive humanity's extinction. There is no ultimate purpose to be working towards nor one to be violated. Even if a naturalist wanted to define "good" as "an act gets one closer to the goal" (an effort to avoid the necessity of God for objective morality), there is no ultimate goal to judge what is "good" and what is "evil," so without God, we have no ultimate purpose and still no objective morality. Thus Tim Cook's appeal to the goal of improving life for humanity is grounded in nothing more than his own opinion.

Values and Consequences

Without any of the previous three grounded in reality, then Cook's concern about "people thinking like computers- without values or compassion. without concern for consequences" is not really a big deal. Compassion is not a virtue if the subject of the compassion has no intrinsic value, and if there is no objective good, then a "virtue" is no different than a "vice" (they would be synonymous, at best, and meaningless, at worst). In the same vein, "help" and "hurt" are also no different from each other (same implications). The concern for consequences is reduced to a concern for merely undesired natural effects of a natural cause on natural objects with no intrinsic value.

Trivial Things of Life?

When Cook's claims are investigated philosophically, we discover that they have no foundation in his worldview at all. Without God, humans have no value, no purpose, and no meaning, which is a pretty depressing and cynical way to see the world. But if God does not exist, reality is depressing and cynical. Considering his worldview has no way to ground anything that he said, it is no wonder to me that Cook concluded his speech discouraging the students from giving into the cynicism of the internet. If they do, no doubt it is because they have discovered the truth of such a worldview. Cook wants them to believe that his claims are objective features of reality. Ironically enough, Cook, at a commencement speech for a celebration of acquisition of great knowledge, has just told the world to believe several useful fictions. The cause of cynicism is not the "trivial things of life," but the reality of the worldview he promoted from the introduction of his speech.


Now, if Cook is wrong and God does exist, then what he said has full grounding and should be accepted. Cook really did give a great speech that I agreed with (because I believe God exists [for numerous scientific, philosophical, historical, and experiential reasons given on this blog], thus everything Cook claimed has grounding in reality). But by rejecting God, he undermined his whole speech before he even got started. He wanted to deny the Christian God yet appeal to what only the Christian God can provide- Tim Cook wanted to have his Apple pie and eat it too.

To Dig Deeper Into These Issues See These Other Posts:

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