But anticipation is not neutral. It involves making choices about how to view potential futures, and thus it requires its own ethical consideration. An ethics of anticipation faces two main challenges. The first challenge is linked to the nature of ethics itself. Ethics, understood as the scientific discipline that deals with moral principles, norms, and concepts, is a normative discipline. By contrast with other disciplines of the natural sciences, ethics aims at outlining how human beings/society ought to act and to be organised. When applied to science and technology, it is crucial to consider that technological developments can deeply challenge the way ethics as a discipline works and, consequently, might impact what is required of an ethical anticipation of scientific and technological development.
It is certainly clear that technological developments can improve one’s capacity to anticipate. An increase in computational power, for instance, might generate more fine-grained information about potential futures. But in several scientific areas, the changes could go deeper. Consider neuroscience and genomics, for example. Here, some technological developments might affect basic assumptions about moral agency and human freedom, and the corresponding capacity to bear responsibility. For example, reports of genetic predisposition and disruption of certain neural circuits have both been used by defence lawyers to explain and excuse criminal behaviours. An ethics of anticipation must therefore anticipate how such developments affect the core parameters of ethical reasoning.
The second challenge is about the way anticipation is done. An ethics of anticipation should cultivate the ability to shed light on the opportunities that advances generate. It should avoid one-sided focus on risks and mere precaution, because precautionary reasoning can prevent anticipation from deploying its full potential. Developing and applying an ethics of anticipation does not mean slowing down innovation and human development but supporting it towards enhanced sustainability and a more just distribution of goods, capabilities, and opportunities.
To face this methodological challenge, an ethics of anticipation should also consider the fact that every act of anticipation is confronted with different ways of conceptualising uncertainty. As discussed in the literature, there are three approaches to this. First, predictive anticipation, which aims to forecast the future based on probability calculation informed by the past (or the present). Adaptive anticipation, on the other hand, accepts the non-predictability of the future and uses it to emphasise the potential of both individuals and societies to adapt. This keeps the future radically open by focusing on conditions that can be encouraged to arise in the present. Finally, projective anticipation separates the future from the influence of the past: it overcomes determination by anticipating futures as something radically new and fundamentally different, showing no continuity with previous times.
Once aware of these parameters, all anticipation methods should be able to respect the following ethical criteria. First, anticipation needs to be practiced free of a sense of inevitability and aware of its inevitable preconceptions. It should be an opportunity to imagine a better world, evaluate it and decide whether that future is desirable or not. Second, choices made in anticipating must be carefully justified, as a contribution to avoid biases and unfair omissions. Third, it is necessary that anticipators always be able to account for the unforeseen, including radical disruption.
Properly considered, all of this can have an impact on the three guiding questions that GESDA addresses. As a matter of “who are we?”, increased knowledge relevant for the conception of moral agency will play a key role. This is the dimension in which what we call ethics will evolve. A world in which interaction with advanced autonomous systems becomes routine may challenge the traditional limitation of attributing moral agency to humans only. Moral agency represents a core aspect of human self-understanding, and an ethics of anticipation calls for scrutiny with regard to potential effects of future developments on that very concept. For instance, it will be increasingly important to clarify which capacities that autonomous systems may acquire in the future will determine agency in a meaningful sense. Also, it will be necessary to keep an eye on applications that may shift norms allowing to distinguish human from non-human and that may question moral agency.
With regard to “how will we be living together?”, technological and scientific advancements can be expected to have implications on the issue of determining limits of, and obligations within, what we might term the “moral community”. At the same time, it seems plausible that an increased understanding of natural diversity will influence the way human “normality” is perceived. For instance, such knowledge may influence the level of tolerance — both positively and negatively —, as diversity of “normal” human conditions, as far as genetic preconditions are concerned, becomes increasingly visible.