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The Ethics of Technology: Methods and Approaches by Sven Ove Hansson

Our daily lives are affected by new technologies at an ever increasing rate. It is becoming more and more important to assess future technologies from an ethical point of view, and to do this before they are introduced on a massive scale. Such assessments require systematic use of many different kinds of knowledge.

In this important new book, an international team of leading experts in the field provides the first comprehensive treatment of the methods available for ethical assessments of technologies and their social introduction. The book explores how information from empirical research can be used in ethical analyses of technology and includes chapters showing how ethical analysis can shed light on topics such as privacy, risk, sustainability, dual use, gender issues, justice, international technology transfer, and the responsibility of engineers. It provides an invaluable resource for students in the philosophy and ethics of technology, science and technology studies, applied ethics, bioethics, business ethics and the ethics of computing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783486588
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 03/17/2017
Series: Philosophy, Technology and Society Series
Pages: 278
Sales rank: 895,044
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sven Ove Hansson is Professor of the Philosophy of Technology at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden. He is a past president of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. His many publications include The Ethics of Risk (2013), Social and Ethical Aspects of Radiation Risk Management (2013, co-edited with Deborah Oughton), Norms in Technology (2013, co-edited with Marc J. de Vries and Anthonie W.M. Meijers), David Makinson on Classical Methods for Non-Classical Problems (2014), and The Role of Technology in Science: Philosophical Perspectives (forthcoming).

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The Ethics of Technology

Methods and Approaches

By Sven Ove Hansson

Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.

Copyright © 2017 Sven Ove Hansson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78348-659-5


Theories and Methods for the Ethics of Technology

Sven Ove Hansson

Before we delve into the various approaches and research methods in the ethics of technology, it is useful to reflect on what we mean by the two key terms "ethics" and "technology." That is the subject of the next two sections. We will then turn to the relationship between the ethics of technology and the ethical theories that are taught in philosophy departments. Should the ethics of technology be conducted as an application of these theories, or should we choose some other way to systematize our investigations? Principlism and reflective equilibria are two of the main alternatives. The chapter closes with a discussion of the role of normative statements in the ethics of technology and the relationship between ethical analysis and ethical activism.


Although the word "technology" is of ancient Greek origin, it did not become widely used in European languages until it began to be used in the early nineteenth century to denote knowledge about the skills and devices of craftspeople (Hansson 2015). For instance, in 1829 the American physician and scientist Jacob Bigelow (1787–1879) published a book titled Elements of Technology, in which he delineated the subject matter of technology as "the principles, processes, and nomenclatures of the more conspicuous arts, particularly those which involve applications of science" (Tulley 2008; Sebestik 1983). In a similar vein, the 1909 Webster's Second New International Dictionary characterized technology as "the science or systematic knowledge of industrial arts, especially of the more important manufactures, as spinning, weaving, metallurgy, etc." (Tulley 2008).

The more precise delineation of the word "technology" seems to have been influenced by the curricula of the new engineering educations that emerged in Europe in the early nineteenth century. Originally, these were schools for young craftsmen in the towns. Therefore, their education had its focus on the tools, machines, and work processes employed by this class of people. For the most part this excluded the tools, machines, and processes that were used by farmers and farm workers, women, and members of the "higher" professions such as pharmacists and surgeons. The usage of the word "technology" followed the same pattern. We still do not consider farming, fishing, cooking, cleaning, pharmacy, dentistry, or surgery as technological occupations, although they involve equally extensive and sophisticated use of tools and machines as many of the occupations so classified. And importantly, in discussions on the ethics of technology, these activities are usually not included (though perhaps they should).

In the nineteenth century, "technology" denoted systematic knowledge about tools and their use, just as "biology" denotes systematic knowledge about living creatures. However, this changed in the English language in the first half of the twentieth century. Increasingly often, "technology" referred to the actual tools, machines, and procedures, rather than to knowledge about them. The earliest example of this usage recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a text from 1898 about the coal-oil industry, according to which "a number of patents were granted for improvements in this technology, mainly for improved methods of distillation" (Peckham 1898, p. 119). Today this is the dominant meaning of the word in English. As Joost Mertens noted, "In English usage, 'technology' normally refers to instrumental practices or their rules and only exceptionally to the scientific description, explication or explanation of these practices" (Mertens 2002). In the second half of the twentieth century, this usage became increasingly common in other languages, such as French, Spanish, German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages. (Several of these languages also have a shorter word such as the French technique and the German Technik that refers to the actual tools, machines, and practices.)

In more recent years, the meaning of "technology" has been expanded in a way that seems to have followed the development of curricula in engineering schools. With the introduction of computer and information technology, a wide range of programming and other software-related activities became recognized as technological. Similarly, following the development of biotechnology, many activities based on biological knowledge are now considered technological. However, there are still activities, such as farming and surgery, which we do not usually call technological although they have as much focus on the use of tools and machines as most of the areas that we call technological.

It is important to note that "technology" does not only refer to material objects such as tools, machines, buildings, and computers, but also to the social practices that are associated with these objects. For instance, aeronautical technology does not just cover the physical equipment used in air traffic. It also includes the skills, practices, and rules involved in the use of that equipment. The social embedding of the hardware is part and parcel of what we mean by technology. If we restrict our attention to the physical objects per se we cannot understand the impact they have in society — in particular not the ethical aspects of that impact.


In all probability, thoughts and discussions about what is morally right and wrong antedate written history by many thousands of years. In most of human history, religion was the major vehicle for a coherent account of morality, and for a large part of the world's population, it still is. But in academic contexts, the dominant approach to morality is that provided by a secular discipline, moral philosophy.

Moral philosophy has a strong emphasis on the search for comprehensive basic principles for morality. It is dominated by the idea that our moral thinking needs the support of a moral theory, an account of the fundamental principles on which all our ethical judgments should be based. Two of the most important groups of such theories are the utilitarian and the deontological ones. In utilitarian theories it is assumed that the goodness or badness of alternative courses of action can be measured with some number, and that acting rightly consists in choosing an alternative with a maximal degree of goodness. According to deontological theories, morality is based on a set of duties or obligations, and acting rightly consists in fulfilling one's duties. Both deontological and (in particular) utilitarian theories come in many variants, and there are also several additional classes of moral theories, such as those based on rights and on contractual relationships.

There is also another type of ethical discourse that starts out from the practical ethical issues arising in various areas of human activities, mostly areas constituted by the activities of a profession. The oldest such area-specific ethical tradition is medical ethics that dates back to antiquity. Some of the issues alluded to in the Hippocratic oath are still topics of importance in today's medical ethics. The engineering profession also has a fairly long tradition of ethical discussions. Codes of ethics for engineers were already written in the early twentieth century (Davis 2001). However, it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that these fields were established as subjects of specialized studies. Several other branches of area-specific ethics got off the ground in the same period, including research ethics, business ethics, and computer ethics. These developments were mostly initiated by members of the respective professions, but beginning in the 1970s moral philosophers have become increasingly involved. In the 1970s, the term "applied ethics" emerged as the established designation of what I have called here "area-specific" discourses on ethics (Beauchamp 2003, p. 1).

In some of these disciplines, the discourse has been considerably expanded when professional ethicists entered the debate. For instance, nonphysicians studying ethical issues related to health and disease have brought up topics that do not concern the professional conduct of physicians. The term "bioethics" is often used to indicate a wider range of topics than those centering on the physician-patient relationship (Reich 1995). Similarly, the ethics of technology has grown out of engineering ethics from which it differs in adding perspectives on technology other than those of engineering. But, in spite of these broadenings beyond professional affairs, the system of "applied ethics" disciplines is still remarkably dominated by a number of professions whose members have felt a need to clarify and take joint responsibility for their professional duties. With few exceptions, area-specific ethics has only risen to importance as a consequence of such professional involvement. (Arguably, animal and environmental ethics are the most prominent exceptions.) In consequence, these disciplines cover only a small fraction of the human activities that have ethical issues in need of investigation and systematic discussion (Hansson 2009). Welfare provision, social insurance, and foreign aid are examples of areas with at most a rudimentary ethical discussion. Among the virtually unchartered territories on the ethical map we also find important subareas of the ethics of technology. Rescue services, radiation protection, and traffic safety are among the most prominent of these (see Sandin 2009 and Hansson 2007; 2014a for some inroads into those areas). In the ethics of technology there is no lack of unexplored areas, lying open for pioneering work.


What does the term "applied" in "applied ethics" signify? It can be instructively compared to other applied disciplines. In applied mathematics, a mathematical theory is used to solve some problem outside of pure mathematics. The theory itself is not changed or significantly extended in the process of its application (Kopelman 1990). Similarly, applied physics makes extensive use of physical theory but does not aim at contributing to its development. In the same way, applied ethics can be seen as a discipline, or collection of disciplines, in which moral theory is used as a tool to solve moral problems in various practical areas. Some moral philosophers have indeed furthered that approach. Bernard Gert (1982, p. 51) defined applied ethics as "the application of an ethical theory to some particular moral problems or set of problems." The most renowned proponent of this view is Peter Singer, who advocates the use of utilitarian moral theory to determine what is right and wrong in bioethics and other areas of applied ethics. However, most researchers in the various areas of applied ethics, including the ethics of technology, do not seem to concur (Beauchamp 1984; MacIntyre 1984; Pihlström 1999).

There are at least three serious problems with the idea that area-specific ethics should consist in the application of an ethical theory. The first of these is the theory choice problem. There are quite a few moral theories around, and despite centuries of discussion moral philosophers have not managed to agree on which of them is right. To put it somewhat bluntly, moral philosophers tend to agree that one of the available moral theories is the one and only, correct theory. However, they do not agree on which that theory is. Therefore, the project of basing practical ethics on moral theory faces essentially the same problem as that of basing it on religion. Proponents of different religions tend to agree that there is one particular religion to which we should turn for guidance on moral and other issues, but they disagree on which that religion is. For applied ethicists, the prevailing disagreement on which is the right moral theory can make the approach of "applying moral theory" seem arbitrary. This is in sharp contrast to applied mathematics and physics, both of which build on thoroughly validated theories that are not subject to serious doubt.

The second problem is the derivation problem. For a moral theory to be useful in the intended way for applications, it would have to provide sufficient information for determining what is right and wrong in the various practical cases that applied ethicists are expected to analyze. When we have the facts of a case, it should be possible to combine these facts with the theory in question and derive univocally a determinate answer to our moral questions. However, this type of derivation does not usually work in practice since fundamental moral theories have surprisingly little to say on the problems that are the focus in applied ethics. This has become particularly evident in biomedical ethics. Experience shows that the moral theory a philosopher adheres to has little or no predictive power for her standpoints on concrete bioethical issues (Kymlicka 1993; Heyd 1996). You can for instance find a utilitarian and a deontologist who agree on most of the ethical issues in health care, although they have different underpinnings for their standpoints. Similarly, two adherents of the same moral theory can disagree vehemently on practical moral issues since they apply it in different ways. The reason for this is that moral theories operate on an abstract level, and most practical moral problems cannot be connected in an unequivocal way to principles or standpoints on that level. For instance, deontologists can disagree on what duties we have and how they should be interpreted, and utilitarians can disagree in multifarious ways on the utilities of different outcomes (Hansson 2014b). The upshot is that even if we manage to choose one of the many available moral theories as the basis for applied ethics, that theory will not provide us with clear-cut answers to our ethical questions. This, again, is very different from the application of mathematical or physical theories that are essentially devoid of such ambiguities.

Thirdly, we have the moral novelty problem. Ideally, moral theories are thought of as timeless. If there is a unique, correct moral theory, then a sufficiently sagacious ancient thinker should — in principle — have been able to discover it. But the timelessness of moral theories can be put to serious doubt. Developments in human society unceasingly provide us with moral novelties, that is, new problems that cannot be solved with the existing moral theories. Some of the most pressing problems in modern medical ethics, such as brain death and human enhancement, require considerations of issues that had not been covered in previously presented moral theories. The problem of moral novelties is also pervasive in the ethics of technology, due to its strong focus on new and emerging technologies, some of which have aspects that preexisting moral theories do not cover. This can be seen, for instance, from the discussions on information technology, virtual reality, space travel, and biotechnology, all of which refer to issues not foreseen in preexisting moral theories. Here as well we can note a stark contrast to mathematical and physical theory, both of which have a strong claim to timelessness.

Applied ethics is far from the only applied discipline that fails to satisfy the strict definition of application referred to above. Most forms of applied science include the creation of genuinely new theory, for the simple reason that the theories developed in the basic sciences do not suffice for solving the applied problems. This is true, for instance, of applied linguistics and applied psychology. Arguably, application in the strict sense of using a theory as a tool without changing it is only possible if the theory in question is broad and exceptionless enough to cover unaided a whole area of knowledge. Major mathematical and physical theories answer to that description, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. As we have seen, a strong case can be made that ethical theory in its current form is not suitable for pure application.

This does not necessarily mean that we should give up the term "applied ethics," but we may have to define it differently than what we did above. The word "apply" also has the more general meaning of putting something to use. The ethics of technology is certainly ethics put to use, and the same is true of medical ethics, research ethics, etc. If application is interpreted in this way, as putting to use, then the term "applied ethics" is uncommitted on what role — if any — moral theory should have.


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Table of Contents

Preface / Preview / 1. Introduction: Theories and methods for the ethics of technology Sven Ove Hansson / Part I Perspectives / 2. Ethics of sustainability – an analytical approach Christine Rösch / 3. International technology transfer Anthony I. Akubue / 4. Technology and distributive justice Sven Ove Hansson / 5. Phenomenological approaches to technological ethics Robert Rosenberger / 6. Profession as a lens for studying technology Michael Davis / Part II Tools / 7. Case study methodologies Gertrude Hirsch Hadorn / 8. Ethical tools Payam Moula and Per Sandin / 9. Responsibility analysis Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist / 10. Privacy analysis – privacy impact assessment Stefan Strauß / 11. Ethical risk analysis Sven Ove Hansson Part III Emerging technologies / 12. Ethics of emerging technologies Philip Brey / 13. Designing differently: Toward a methodology for an ethics of feminist technology design Diane Michelfelder, Galit Wellner, and Heather Wiltse / 14. Value-sensitive design and responsible research and innovation Judith Simon / Part IV Ethical reflections
15. The ethics of doing ethics of technology Sven Ove Hansson / List of contributors / Index

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