Moralizing Technology
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Moralizing Technology

Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things

Peter-Paul Verbeek

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eBook - ePub

Moralizing Technology

Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things

Peter-Paul Verbeek

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Technology permeates nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Cars enable us to travel long distances, mobile phones help us to communicate, and medical devices make it possible to detect and cure diseases. But these aids to existence are not simply neutral instruments: they give shape to what we do and how we experience the world. And because technology plays such an active role in shaping our daily actions and decisions, it is crucial, Peter-Paul Verbeek argues, that we consider the moral dimension of technology. Moralizing Technology offers exactly that: an in-depth study of the ethical dilemmas and moral issues surrounding the interaction of humans and technology. Drawing from Heidegger and Foucault, as well as from philosophers of technology such as Don Ihde and Bruno Latour, Peter-Paul Verbeek locates morality not just in the human users of technology but in the interaction between us and our machines. Verbeek cites concrete examples, including some from his own life, and compellingly argues for the morality of things. Rich and multifaceted, and sure to be controversial, Moralizing Technology will force us all to consider the virtue of new inventions and to rethink the rightness of the products we use every day.

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Mediated Morality
Our daily lives have become intricately interwoven with technologies. Cars enable us to travel long distances, mobile phones help us to communicate, medical devices make it possible to detect and cure diseases.1 Life has become unthinkable without sophisticated technology. Contrary to what many people intuitively think, these technologies are not simply neutral instruments that facilitate our existence. While fulfilling their function, technologies do much more: they give shape to what we do and how we experience the world. And in doing so they contribute actively to the ways we live our lives (cf. Verbeek 2005b).
Cars, for instance, do not only take us from A to B. They also lengthen the radius enclosing our most frequent social contacts. They help to determine how far we live from where we work. And they organize how we design cities and neighborhoods. Mobile phones make it easy to contact each other but also introduce new norms of contact and new styles of communication. By making it possible to detect specific diseases, medical diagnostic devices do not simply produce images of the body but also generate complicated responsibilities, especially in the case of antenatal diagnostics and in situations of unbearable and endless suffering.
This active contribution of technologies to our daily lives has an important moral dimension. First of all, the quality of their contributions to our existence can be assessed in moral terms. Some roles played by technology can be called “good” and other roles “bad”—even if it is not possible to blame technologies for the “bad.” And second, by helping to shape human actions and experiences, technologies also participate in our ways of doing ethics. Speed bumps, to use a favorite example of Bruno Latour, help us make the moral decision not to drive too fast near a school. Ultrasound scans help us to ask and answer moral questions about the lives of unborn children. Energy-saving lightbulbs take over part of our environmental conscience. Coin locks on supermarket pushcarts remind us to return each cart neatly to its place (Akkerman 2002). Turnstiles tell us to buy a ticket before boarding a train (Achterhuis 1995). Current developments in information technology show this moral significance more explicitly. With the development of ambient intelligence and persuasive technology, technologies start to interfere openly with our behavior, interacting with people in sophisticated ways and subtly persuading them to change their behavior, as I will discuss extensively in the final chapter of this book.
Even though the fact usually remains unnoticed, technologies appear to have moral significance. Latour even states that those who complain about the alleged moral decay of our culture are simply looking in the wrong direction. Rather than looking only to humans, we should start to recognize that nonhuman entities are bursting with morality. This is a challenging observation. Mainstream ethical theory, after all, does not leave much room for such a moral dimension of material objects. Ethics is commonly considered to be an exclusively human affair. The claim that technological artifacts can have morality immediately raises the suspicion that one adheres to a backward form of animism, which equips things with spirit. Material objects do not have minds or consciousness, they lack free will and intentionality and cannot be held responsible for their actions; therefore they cannot be fully fledged parts of the moral community, the argument goes. At the same time, though, technologies do help to shape our existence and the moral decisions we take, which undeniably gives them a moral dimension. The time has come, therefore, to develop an ethical framework to conceptualize this moral relevance of technology. How can we do justice to the moral dimensions of material objects?
Further, addressing the moral significance of technology is not only a challenge for ethical theory. It also has important implications for doing ethics. Both the use and the design of technology involve ethical questions that are closely related to the moral character of technological artifacts. How can users deal with the ways in which technologies mediate moral decisions and help to attribute responsibilities and instill norms? How can designers anticipate the future moral roles of their designs, or even “build in” specific forms of morality? Is it desirable at all that designers get to play such a role? How can designers and users of technology bear moral responsibility for technologically mediated actions? What forms of moral discourse could accompany the use and design of moral technologies?
Ethics and Technology
Technologies and ethics have always had a complicated relationship. While many technologies have obviously relieved humanity from misery and toil—like penicillin, agricultural equipment, surgical instruments, heating systems for buildings—many others have received negative evaluations. Nuclear weapons, for instance, have caused destruction and suffering to such a degree that it is hardly possible to see any beneficial aspects to them. Even the birth control pill, which is widely used and has played a tremendous role in the emancipation process—not only for women but also for gays and lesbians, because of its disconnection of sex and reproduction (cf. Mol 1997)—is still contested in some conservative religious circles because it interferes with the allegedly “natural” course of things.
In philosophy, various approaches to the ethics of technology have developed, which differ radically from each other. In its early days, ethical approaches to technology took the form of critique (cf. Swierstra 1997). Rather than addressing specific ethical problems related to actual technological developments, ethical reflection on technology consisted in criticizing the phenomenon of “Technology” itself. Classical approaches in the philosophy and ethics of technology were rooted in fear regarding the ongoing fusion of technology and culture and aimed to protect humanity from technology’s alienating powers. They saw the technologization of society as a threat to human authenticity and to the meaningfulness of reality. People would come to exist only as cogs in the machine of a technologized society, reduced to the function they have in the apparatus of mass production (cf. Jaspers 1951), while reality would have meaning only as a heap of raw materials available to the human will to power (cf. Heidegger 1977b). Technology was approached not in terms of specific artifacts that help to shape our everyday lives but as a monolithic phenomenon that is hostile to the human world.
Gradually, however, philosophers developed the field of “ethics of technology,” seeking increased understanding of and contact with actual technological practices and developments. Rather than placing itself outside or even against the realm of technology, ethics now came to address actual ethical problems related to technology. Applied subfields emerged, like biomedical ethics, ethics of information technology, and ethics of nanotechnology. Those who work in these subfields investigate specific moral problems that are connected to the design, use, and social impact of technologies. Moreover, ethics became more interested in the process of technology development. Subfields like engineering ethics and ethics of design came into being, explicitly directed at the practice of technology development. Over the past decades, applied ethics has seen an explosion of journals directed at specific domains of technology, ranging from ethics of information technology to “nano-ethics” and from bioethics to engineering ethics.
There are good arguments, though, that the current connection between ethics and technology does not yet go far enough. Paradoxical as it may seem, many ethical approaches to technology still have too little contact with technology itself and its social and cultural roles. Quite often the ethics of technology takes a position toward technology that is just as externalist as that of the early critique of technology. At the basis of both approaches is a radical separation between the realms of technology and society. Engineering ethics, for example, focuses strongly on issues of safety and risk: the realm of society needs to be protected against the risks generated in the realm of technology, and engineers have to blow the whistle when they discover immoral practices or negative consequences of specific innovations. Often-cited case studies concern the roles of engineers in the development of the exploding space shuttle Challenger and the Ford Pinto with a gas tank that ruptured in collisions at 25 mph (Birsch and Fielder 1994). Much of computer ethics, to give another example, focuses on issues of privacy, also approaching technology as a potential intruder in the realm of human beings. Technologies are approached here in a merely instrumentalist way: they fulfill a function, and if they fail to do this in a morally acceptable way, the whistle should be blown. The central focus of ethics is to make sure that technology does not have detrimental effects in the human realm and that human beings control the technological realm in morally justifiable ways.
What remains out of sight in this externalist approach is the fundamental intertwining of these two domains. The two simply cannot be separated. Humans are technological beings, just as technologies are social entities. Technologies, after all, play a constitutive role in our daily lives. They help to shape our actions and experiences, they inform our moral decisions, and they affect the quality of our lives. When technologies are used, they inevitably help to shape the context in which they function. They help specific relations between human beings and reality to come about and coshape new practices and ways of living. To use the example of the cell phone again: this is not just a functional instrument that helps us to talk to other people wherever we are and wherever they are. Once they fulfill this function, cell phones directly help to generate new ways of communicating and interacting. They create new ways of dealing with appointments; long-term planning becomes less necessary if everybody can be reached everywhere anytime. They generate new styles of communication, especially through texting functionality, which even gave rise to a new “language” (Crystal 2008). And they help to redefine the boundary between public and private by inviting people to have private conversations in public, because the presence of the person with whom one is communicating appears to be nearer than the presence of the persons in one’s immediate environment.
The moral relevance of technology is closely related to this active contribution of technologies to human practices and experiences. On the one hand, a concrete instance of technological mediation can be assessed in moral terms: it can be morally good or bad. Langdon Winner’s analysis of some low-hanging overpasses on parkways in Long Island (New York) giving access to the beach is a good example here. Architect Robert Moses deliberately built these overpasses so low that buses cannot use the parkways, implicitly limiting access to the beach for African Americans who could not afford cars of their own. On the other hand, the phenomenon of technological mediation lays bare how technologies also contribute to the moral actions and decisions of human beings. Technologies contribute actively to how humans do ethics. A good example here is genetic diagnostic tests for hereditary forms of breast cancer. Such tests focus on mutations in the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, which can predict the probability that somebody will develop this form of cancer. Carriers of such mutations (mostly women, but men can also develop breast cancer) are presented with the choice to do nothing and run a high risk of developing breast cancer; to undergo regular testing so that cancer can be detected at an early stage; or to have a preventive double mastectomy (cf. Boenink 2007).
The discovery of such mutations, therefore, transforms healthy people into potential patients. Moreover, this form of genetic testing translates a congenital defect into a preventable form of suffering; by choosing to have your breasts amputated, you can prevent any development of breast cancer. When this technology is used, therefore, it organizes a situation of choice. This choice is complicated, because it involves a new category that is introduced by this new technology: between health and illness, genetic testing introduces the area of being “not-yet-ill.” The very fact that this technology makes it possible to know that it is very likely that a person will become ill, added to the possibility of preventively removing organs, makes this person responsible for his or her own disease. Thus the technology of genetic testing creates a moral dilemma and also suggests ways to deal with this dilemma.
This example shows that medical technologies can mediate the moral decisions that both medical doctors and patients make, by organizing situations of choice and suggesting the choice that should be made. Such technological mediations have at least as much ethical relevance as preventing disasters or finding responsible ways to deal with risks. By mediating our actions and experiences, technologies help to shape the quality of our lives and of our moral actions and decisions. To deal adequately with the moral relevance of technology, therefore, the ethics of technology should incorporate the phenomenon of technological mediation.
This requires that ethical theory broaden its scope. Rather than approaching ethics and technology as belonging to two radically separate domains, one human and the other nonhuman, we should keep the interwoven character of the two spheres at the center (cf. Latour 1993). It is a mistake to locate ethics exclusively in the “social” realm of the human and technology exclusively in the “material” realm of the nonhuman. Technologies are social too, if only because they contribute to moral decisions—and human beings belong to the material realm too, since our lives are shaped in close interactions with the technologies we are using. Only by crossing the divide between these spheres can the ethical dimensions and relevance of technology be understood.
Crossing this divide is not an easy task, though. Taking seriously the moral relevance of technological artifacts requires that ethical theory move beyond its classical assumption that morality necessarily is a solely human affair, because technologies lack consciousness, rationality, freedom, and intentionality. How can we morally assess the impact of technologies on the quality of our lives? And how can we do justice to the manifold ways in which technological artifacts actively mediate moral practices and decisions?
Technological Mediation
In order to understand and analyze the moral significance of technologies, we need to first get a clearer picture of the mediating roles that technologies play in our daily lives. During recent decades, philosophy of technology has increasingly paid attention to the impact of technological artifacts on the life-world of human beings (Borgmann 1984; Winner 1986; Ihde 1990; Ihde 1993; Ihde 1998; Latour 1992b; Latour 1999). As opposed to classical approaches, which were mainly focused on understanding the conditions of “Technology” taken as a monolithic phenomenon, the philosophy of technology has started to approach technology in terms of the actual material objects that help to shape human actions and experiences.
Various authors have analyzed specific aspects of the social and cultural roles of technologies. The work of the North American philosopher Don Ihde, for example, focuses on the perceptual and hermeneutic implications of technology by analyzing how specific perceptual technologies help to shape how reality can be experienced and interpreted. To mention a few other contemporary philosophers of technology: the German American philosopher Albert Borgmann analyzes how use of technological devices affects the quality of human engagement with reality; the French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour has studied the hybrid character of human-technology associations and their implications for understanding society; and the US political philosopher Langdon Winner has investigated the political relevance of technological artifacts.
As I have explained elsewhere (Verbeek 2005b), the positions that have developed can be augmented and integrated into a philosophy of “technological mediation.” The philosophical analysis of technological mediation—particularly the “postphenomenological” approach in this field—will prove to be an important key to understanding the moral significance of technology. For that reason, it merits a separate introduction here.2
Phenomenology—in my elementary definition—is the philosophical analysis of the structure of the relations between human beings and their lifeworld. From such a perspective, the central idea in the philosophy of mediation is that technologies play an actively mediating role in the relationship between human beings and reality. Technological mediation can be studied without reverting to the classical fear that technology will determine society, but also without marginalizing the role of technology to mere instrumentality. Rather, it focuses on the mutual shaping of technology and society.
A good starting point for understanding technological mediation is Martin Heidegger’s classical analysis of the role of tools in the everyday relation between humans and their world. According to Hei...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Copyright
  3. Title Page
  4. Contents
  5. Preface
  6. 1. Mediated Morality
  7. 2. A Nonhumanist Ethics of Technology
  8. 3. Do Artifacts Have Morality?
  9. 4. Technology and the Moral Subject
  10. 5. Morality in Design
  11. 6. Moral Environments: An Application
  12. 7. Morality beyond Mediation
  13. 8. Conclusion: Accompanying Technology
  14. Notes
  15. References
  16. Index
Normes de citation pour Moralizing Technology

APA 6 Citation

Verbeek, P.-P. (2011). Moralizing Technology ([edition unavailable]). The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)

Chicago Citation

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. (2011) 2011. Moralizing Technology. [Edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press.

Harvard Citation

Verbeek, P.-P. (2011) Moralizing Technology. [edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. Moralizing Technology. [edition unavailable]. The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.