Around the Institute

Everything Comes Down to Ethics at the Aspen Ideas Festival

June 30, 2017  • David K. Gibson

David K. Gibson is here to guide readers through the experience of attending the 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival and Spotlight Health. 

Every year toward the end of the festival, I search for a grand theme. It’s usually a word or phrase that has been voiced in seemingly unrelated sessions: a buzzword, an existential modifier, a validation. In my head, I imagine a video supercut of the kind that sometimes shows up on social media, like this compilation of the cliché movie line, “It’s showtime!” (In the imaginary AIF version, it’s Vivek Murthy instead of Eddie Murphy.)

In past years, I’ve heard endless instances of “crowdsourced,” “empowerment,” and “disruption.” “Hope” was fashionable for a while. “Sustainable” is always a winning adjective, applicable across a wide variety of nouns. “Big data” was a big star one year, and “learn to code” could serve as the official AIF mantra. This year, more than any other single thing, the theme has been moderators referencing the musical Hamilton in a question to panel participants.

But in close second, there’s ethics.

Ethics haven’t been hiding in years past. Ethics — either business ethics or live-your-best-life ethics — is a popular topic, since we all want to believe that we are good people acting in good ways. This year, however, it’s clear that ethics isn’t just some feel-good add-on; it’s a necessary component of any way of thinking or plan of action. It’s a roman numeral in any good business plan. A statement of corporate values may now have as much value as a trademarked tagline.

Our tech industry hasn’t really spent a lot of time thinking about ethics, and that’s a serious problem for the industry and for society at large. Genetic engineering demands medical ethics in a way that perhaps no other medical technology ever has. Philanthropic foundations, some argue, need to do an ethical reassessment. Politicians and police, journalists and jurists, scientists and social media managers all work in systems that crumble without a solid ethical foundation. Even robots need ethics, Asimov and Terminator being obvious points of cultural reference.

Kitty Boone, Executive Director of the Aspen Ideas Festival, also (not coincidentally) pulled together the schedule for the festival’s “Moral Commitments, Moral Choices” track. I grabbed her elbow in the lobby of Paepcke and asked her about ethics. “It’s here, in everything,” she said, running through a list of sessions that, on the surface, were straightforwardly about something else. She didn’t have time for a more philosophical answer; she was off to introduce “Deep Dive: Machines and Morality.”

Around the Institute
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June 29, 2017 • David K. Gibson