Even some of the most powerful tech companies start out tiny, with a young innovator daydreaming about creating the next big thing. As today’s tech firms receive increased moral scrutiny, it raises a question about tomorrow’s: Is that young person thinking about the tremendous ethical responsibility they’d be taking on if their dream comes true?
Greg Epstein, the recently appointed humanist chaplain at MIT, sees his new role as key to helping such entrepreneurial students think through the ethical ramifications of their work. As many college students continue to move away from organized religion, some universities have appointed secular chaplains like Epstein to help non-religious students lead ethical, meaningful lives. At MIT, Epstein plans to spark conversations about the ethics of technology—conversations that will sometimes involve religious groups on campus, and that may sometimes carry over to Harvard, where he has held (and will continue to hold) the same position since 2005.
I recently spoke with Epstein about how young people can think ethically about going into the tech industry and what his role will look like. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Isabel Fattal: Tell me a bit more about what you see as the purpose of your new role, particularly as it relates to the ethics of technology.
Greg Epstein: I’ve been the humanist chaplain at Harvard since 2005. In these 14 or so years of experience that I've had, the single biggest thing I think we as humanists and human beings need to look at when we’re training young leaders today is the need for more attention to human values in science, technology, and business. The world is being reshaped before our eyes, and we’re not ready on campus, because we don’t have an ethical footing from which to teach. At MIT I feel like I’m being given an opportunity to offer a perspective and to help students determine their own perspective.
Fattal: How would you advise students working with technology to think about ethical dilemmas?
Epstein: One of the things that I would start with is to say, “When you’re thinking it through, whatever you do, do not think these things through isolated and alone—you must be part of some kind of broader community in order to make reasonable, effective moral decisions.” A lot of the young men who are taught to be entrepreneurs are trying to become a kind of superhero, to go and solve the world’s problems on their own, and to receive ticker-tape parades and the admiration of the masses for doing so. That mentality is one of the things that is most dangerous in our contemporary ethical life. You have relatively well-meaning people in many cases with at least half-decent ideas who end up inflicting so much damage.
Fattal: It’s probably really hard to tell someone just starting out in their career to make choices that might get in the way of their making a profit. How do you think about getting students to see that longer-term goal?
Epstein: Privilege is losing its luster. People are more interested in figuring out how they can be of service to others and how they can be the solution to society’s problems than anything else. I'm talking to nuclear engineers, artificial-intelligence engineers, math geniuses, chemists, and physicists who really want to use their skill sets to make the world better. They don't necessarily know how. But they’re looking for a hub to bring together like-minded people to become friends with one another in the interest of being a more powerful moral community. There’s a real need right now to bring these students together. Each of these students that meets with me feels isolated. They’re all really surprised to see that there are these clusters of people like them who want to do something ethical with their gifts.
Fattal: There seems to be a general sense lately that tech has crossed a kind of ethical line. Are you seeing that mindset in the students you work with at MIT?
Epstein: Yes—we’ve crossed a red line. These companies have reshaped the world for better and for worse. We have to fix them. It’s not a coincidence that when I first got to Harvard, about 15 years ago, the gravitational pull on most of my students was from investment banking, and now it is Silicon Valley, technology, and social media. That is the gravitational pull. They no longer aspire to work at Goldman Sachs. They want to be Elon Musk. And Elon Musk will be the first to tell you that there can only be one Elon Musk.
Fattal: Why can there only be one Elon Musk?
Epstein: I’m not an expert on Elon Musk. But I do think that while it must be flattering for him to see so many gifted young people on campuses like Harvard and MIT idolizing him and worshipping him as a hero, if I were him I would also be a little bit concerned about the idea that we’re making any one individual in this day and age into a hero to be worshipped, particularly a white male, given that we’ve had dozens of years of Hollywood movies to tell us that white men will save the world, when in fact we can’t and we won’t. We, too, just as much as anybody, if not more so, need to be part of bigger, broader, collective structures, and we need to be part of empowering people who don’t look like us and who weren’t socialized like us.