So what if there were new circumstances arising in our age that changed everything about Catholic Social Teaching? CST has developed over the past 123 years to address issues not fathomed by Leo XIII in 1891. From medical research that claws at the fabric of human life to weapons that can be controlled by the mind, CST has provided Catholics with a compass by which we can stay close to the Catholic vein shot through this created world. And all the while, in these past 123 years, there has also been remarkable stability. That is… until the very near future.
You see, Catholic Social Teaching arose out of new circumstances facing the West. It was not that – all of a sudden – Pope Leo XIII divined some new revelation from a stone cherub at the Vatican. His was a response to the hundred years of philosophical, political and industrial revolutions which had turned Europe on its ear.
These were monumental changes that affect the way people related to God and morality, to their sovereigns and to each other, and to their own families as they struggled to learn how to make a living in the new industrialized world. Those who were successful, and there were many of those too found themselves among an aristocratic class that did not welcome them. Societal structures were falling apart in many ways all relatively at the same time. Guilds disappeared. Factories flourished. Fortunes were made and lost. A response was necessary, and thanks to the unique talents and interests of Pope Leo the Church, finally, responded.
Since the late pope’s 1891 document Rerum novarum, and despite the vicissitudes of history, things have stayed relatively stable for laborers. Inventions have come, advancements have driven progress, labor forces have had to shift, yes, but the human person has remained at the center of economic efforts through it all. Indications are that that’s going to change very soon.
Computers have been around for a while now, though really the multi-use computer is still relatively new. They started to be mass produced in the 80’s. The internet has changed things even more, but that is still new too. The smart phone revolution is in its infancy. And now robots have begun to take on more and more functions of everyday life. The imaginarium that was Isaac Asimov’s mind is coming to life and it is doing so within one generation’s lifespan. And this brave new world will mean drastic changes for global economies on a scale we have never seen before.
The changes that are coming are not a matter of having more robots than we have had in the past. Robots have been around for a while. Automation for very specific jobs has existed for decades now. The terrifyingly new thing is the level of the complexity and precision in these new robots, as well as the fact that we are beginning to see some of the first multi-use robots. That’s what is new. One robot that can do many things, without much or any training on our part.
As the video below argues pretty persuasively, we are looking at a change in economics (and so culture and politics I would say) like we have not seen since the industrial revolution. It will happen much more quickly than the last revolution and it will be even more drastic.
It will no longer be the case that with every new invention new jobs for humans are created. Within our lifetime, robots, once built, will not need humans to tell them what to do beyond a certain point. They will learn from their own observation, which will include the observation of other robots. It is conceivable that humans will be practically “unnecessary” for some industries.
Take the transportation industry for instance. Self-driving cars are already here. BMW has one. Ford is already delivering on a self-parking car. Google is testing fully automated cars today! It is not a matter of if we will have self-driving vehicles. It is a matter of when. And the when is very soon.
Where will that leave the taxi driver? Forget about Uber and Lyft. Fully automated drivers will take us wherever we desire. Who needs bus drivers or truck drivers or snow-plow drivers. Robots will do it all for us and they will do it better because, as the video below says, computers don’t text or fall asleep or get stupid. There are no federal laws banning drivers from driving over a certain number of hours. Robots don’t complain either.
That’s just one industry. What about all the others affected? Robotic pharmacists are conceivable, are they not? A robot can more efficiently and accurately keep track of your health insurance information, your complete medical history, cross reference every conceivable drug reaction all while ringing up your pack of M&M’s. Robots don’t get sick, they break down and then are fixed, eventually probably by other robots. Robots don’t give attitude to a grumpy customer, show up late or leave early. Robots can speak perfect Spanish, Burmese, Vietnamese and English to serve the diverse populations that exist just here in my Mid-America town.
Of course humans will still need to “plug” the robots in. Energy will for the foreseeable future be the limiting agent. And some industries will survive. I cannot imagine that humans will ever enjoy watching robot pitchers pitch to robot batters more than we enjoy the human version. Other forms of entertainment and contest will still survive. But even art is in danger according to the video below.
I’m not saying this is all a good thing. But I do think it is inevitable. For the majority of businesses, the price of electricity is far less than the minimum wage, FICA taxes and liability insurance. Business, the market, will go for the cheaper labor. That has been the testimony of human history.
So here’s the question. Would a business be violating CST if they did go for the robot? What will the Church’s response be? What will be the Catholic response to the topsy-turvy world made possible by the human imagination? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think they are important ones, and it would be good to start thinking about them.
Watch the video below and tell me what you think.