A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Technoethics

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Technoethics

Marc J. de Vries (Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-022-6.ch002
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In this chapter it is argued that a multidisciplinary approach to technoethics is necessary to do justice to the complexity of technology. Normativity pervades all aspects of technology, including technological knowledge. As a consequence, ethical considerations should guide not only the production of artifacts, but also their design and the research that is needed to acquire knowledge about the artifact-in-design. Experts from different disciplines should cooperate to identify relevant ethical issues related to the various aspects of the reality in which the artifact will function.
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Introduction: The Complexity Of Technology

If there is one lesson that engineers and society in general have learnt about technological developments in the past decades, then that is its complexity. In earlier days, such as the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed that technology was simply a matter of getting the technicalities worked out, so that the products would function well. The market would then absorb all new products and there was always an interest for the latest gadgets. There was not yet any concern about environmental issues, nor were there economic constraints. There was not yet a need to set limits to technological developments by legislation, and aesthetical issues could easily be dealt with afterwards, once the product had already almost been completed. It was as the slogan of the 1933 Chicago World Fair suggested: Science Discovers, Technology Applies, Man Conforms. It was only later, since the 1970s, that industrial companies were confronted with critical consumers, governments that wanted to exert an influence on technological developments, economic constraints, and a growing concern about natural resources. Then it became clear that in technological developments a range of aspects has to be taken into account in order to bring about a successful product. Industrial companies have developed a whole range of methods to deal with this complexity, often formalized in ISO certification procedures (I have described these developments more extensively for the case of the research organization in the Philips Electronics company; see De Vries 2005ii). In all the aspects that create this complexity ethics is somehow involved. For instance, one can question what is ethically permissible when trying to please the customer, or when trying to conform to new legislation without too much effort. It seems, though, as if ethical debates still tend to be reduced to only a few aspects. Often this is the aspect of environmental effects. In other cases, such as in communication technologies, it is perhaps the aspect of privacy. It may seem as if other aspects are less relevant. In general one can state that ethical debates are often reduced to risks, and particularly to calculated risks. In that case the ethical debate is reduced to the numerical aspect of reality. In this chapter it will be claimed that a proper ethical debate needs to take into account reality in its full complexity. As a consequence, such a debate needs input from knowledge about these various aspects. In other words: contributions from different disciplines are needed to get a proper insight into the ethical considerations about new technological developments. A philosophical theoretical framework will be presented that is suitable for analyzing the complexity of technology and the range of disciplines that ought to contribute to ethical debates on technological developments.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Aspects (of reality): Different perspectives for analyzing the behavior of entities in reality, each of which has ‘laws’ (regularities) of its own nature.

Nanotechnology: The technology of building structures and artifacts by manipulating individual atoms and molecules.

Multidisciplinarity: Cooperation of experts from different scientific disciplines

Normativity (in knowledge): Reference to what should be rather than to what is.

Non-Reductionist Approach: The belief that laws in one aspect can not be reduced to laws in other aspects.

Complexity (of technology): The manifoldness of functioning in different aspects by artifacts.

Reformational Philosophy: An approach in philosophy that was initiated by the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd and that is inspired by Christian belief in the tradition of the 16 th century church Reformation.

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