tendency to pose the problem of limits both in general and in relation to specific fields like genetics or artificial intelligence, assuming responsibility for certain deeply felt worries circulating in society, as we have seen in the last few decades of the 20th century and the start of this new millennium. These two tendencies actually embody the fundamental essence of our culture here in the West, which considers breaking boundaries as a “duty” and, at the same time, realizes the need to keep control. This tension between science and ethics is a distinctive feature of the ongoing battle between limits and no limits, both individually and as a society. We also experience a sort of internal struggle in which there is a simultaneous desire for what is boundless and a need to harness the tendency to go beyond the limit. A new and perhaps unexpected realm in which the question of setting limits has been increasingly to the fore over recent years (and even very recently with the war in Iraq), concerns the use of force in open conflicts. The majority of people have, it would seem, sided with the underdogs in this conflict, even insisting that the stronger side must only use as much of its staggering strike force as is strictly necessary, thereby setting the kind of limits that are extremely rare in past history. In a case like this there is likely to be plenty of room for ambiguity and uncertainty, because there is a strong tendency on
hand to confuse weakness with being in the right and on the other to associate power with being in the wrong. War is certainly an exemplary and emblematic realm connected with the two ideas we have just mentioned, viz. exceeding limits and placing constraints on any action being taken. The war with Iraq is particularly appropriate because it is the first real conflict after the end of the Cold War, a complicated struggle in which we, as observers, are witnessing a bit of everything. The 1991 Gulf War was characterized by heavy air raids and bomb attacks and plenty of “collateral damage” that often went unnoticed. In Bosnia and Kosovo, we witnessed some dramatic events involving attempts to actually wipe out
entire ethnic groups by means of widespread violence of unimaginable cruelty and mass rape. In Afghanistan we imagined a lot but actually saw very little. As regards Iraq, the simultaneous presence of various phenomena meant the war with Iraq was in many ways extremely complicated and contradictory: hypertechnological warfare, the use of maximum power, but also guerrilla warfare and strategic combat. We watched soldiers and civilians mixed together, direct confrontation between opposing armies, the importance of protecting the civilian population and avoiding collateral damage. Not to mention Medieval-style sieges and tank battles on the move. The overall picture is hard to read and full of contradictions, and however strange this might seem, at
this stage it can clearly be seen how a tendency to exceed limits constantly coexists with a sense of needing to draw the line. It has been said that America has fought this war with “one arm tied behind its back,” because it could not make unbridled use of its own might. And it has also rightly been pointed out that the world now has not one but two superpowers: the United States of America and public opinion, two great players capable of influencing each other’s actions. This means that even war is subject to the limits and constraints we have talked about, although obviously in an extremely tragic context. Technological progress is now creating a brand new realm in which there is a real contradiction between limits and no limits, freedom and abuse, democracy and control. This is the new world of the Internet, which, on one hand, is an exemplary case of involvement and access, but on the other creates plenty of opportunities for criminal activities and abuse that are beyond any real control. Just take how the Internet can be used for such brutal crimes as terrorism or pedophilia. How can we resolve these contradictions? There can be no doubt that we need to draw the line somewhere on these issues. But that does not get rid of the ambiguity. Setting a limit actually means reverting to rules and regulations. But, as always, the underlying issue is where the regulations are supposed to come from. Generally speaking, we think
that, if there are norms of some sort, they must have been set by some authority or other. This is most obvious when dealing with serious problems like the arms trade and fighting terrorism. This approach belongs to an idea of society based on some sort of social contract freely adhered to by members of the community, in the sense that we freely choose to be governed by some higher authority that controls our actions and ensure everybody enjoys the rights associated with democracy. This is a wellknown model handed down to us from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant and that leads to the birth of constitutions that we choose to conform to down the ages. But there is also another model broaching the question of the so-called “insurgence of regulations” in the philosophical line of thought of men like Hume and Hayek. The basic idea is that regulations are set by means of some sort of convention created and enforced by an iterative process of trial-anderror. This model implies that when new kinds of opportunities arise, for instance through Internet technology, there is often a wild phase that is hard to control with these new opportunities bursting onto the scene and altering the ethical background established by previously dominant forces. There is a moment when new opportunities run up against old limits. This is where the conflict we are witnessing comes from, and there are some people who believe that these clashes are at least partly inevitable, since human
beings are creatures of habit facing uncertain prospects. In this context there are really no authorities for enforcing the regulations due to the simple fact that these regulations cannot instantly come to terms with the distinctive features of the new situation, since they inevitably enshrine the wisdom of the past and not the present or future. Does this mean we are forced to pay the price of transition with all this entails in terms of errors and misdemeanors? Basically, yes. It means we need to identify regulations controlling newly emerging scenarios without stifling out new ideas or hampering new initiatives. It means there is no such thing as a free meal and there is inevitably a price to pay for anything new. Ideally, we need to maximize the benefits of innovation and minimize the costs. And we ought to realize that this is far from easy. But innovation does not necessarily imply justice. And it is only worth paying the price of this transition if its ultimate goals help spread justice and not injustice. How can we make a distinction between the two? The two ways of creating regulations I have outlined, as well as the idea of minimizing costs, presuppose a “near just” situation accompanied by socially acceptable conventions and practices. Only in this kind of setting we will be able to accept the social costs of change. On the contrary, if we start off by accepting that innovation takes place in an unjust
Published on Apr 30, 2003
Un approfondimento sul concetto di limite. Da un lato la propensione tutta umana a superare ogni confine attraverso uno sviluppo continuo de...