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How can we connect ethics and innovation in a fruitful way?

Verbeek explaining Guidance Ethics Approach
In this short video, I would like to introduce you to the basics of the ‘guidance ethics approach’. An ethical approach to technology that was developed on the basis of the ideas of the approach of technological mediation that we’ve been speaking about so often in this course. The key idea of the ‘guidance ethics approach’ is that we should not narrow down the ethical questions regarding technology to questions about ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Should we or should we not allow a technology to be introduced in society? This is a model that is quite often used, for instance, in biomedical ethics.
Quite understandably so, because there often it is indeed about making a decision about shall we or shall we not accept a technology or an intervention that can be also very risky. In the field of technology things are slightly different, because there are typically also options for a redesign of the technology or an alternative implementation of technology in society. At the same time it’s sometimes also hard to predict how technologies will have an influence on society and even how they might affect the ethical frameworks from which in the future we might evaluate these technologies. So we need an ethics that takes into account this intricate connection between humans, technologies and the world that has this central place in a mediation approach.
Where technologies are mediators, where technologies help to shape, how human beings are in their world, how they behave, how they engage in social practices, but also how the world is there for us, how we interpret, how we understand the world, how we make decisions in that world. You could say there are three key features of the ‘guidance ethics approach’. First of all, ‘guidance ethics’ wants to be an ethics from inside, not from outside. It wants to focus on a complement and not an assessment. It doesn’t want to place itself outside of technology assessing whether we should or should not introduce a technology in society. But it wants to stand next to it.
It wants to accompany it, as it were, to look it straight into the eye, you could say, to understand how these technologies might affect society in order to derive the ethical issues and the questions from that very impact that technology could have on society. Now, the second I always like to say is ‘positive ethics’, not ‘negative ethics’. And by that, I do not mean that it is always in favor of an innovation. Not at all. It can also be very critical, maybe even also negative sometimes.
But ‘positive ethics’ means that we do not want to focus on setting the limits and making sure that nothing will happen that we do not want, but that we rather want to focus on shaping the conditions for what we do want. How can ethics also be focusing on values, on the things that we value in society and take these values into the ethical questions, the ethical decisions to be made about technology? And third of all, it’s also, you could say, a ‘bottom up’ form of ethics. Not a ‘top down’ form of ethics. It’s not an ethics done by experts only and where experts have their ethical analyzes that they apply to technology.
It’s an ethical approach that you typically conduct with people that are experiencing the impacts of technologies. The professionals, the citizens. And in that sense it’s a form of ‘professional ethics’, ‘stakeholder ethics’ or even ‘citizen ethics’ to, continue the line of citizen science. Where citizens start to be engaged in doing scientific work. You can also say that citizens can perfectly be engaged in doing ethical work. So in this ‘guidance ethics approach’ we typically follow three steps, three stages. And the first step always is about getting acquainted with the case, getting acquainted with a specific technology in a specific context. So typically, if you conduct a ‘guidance ethics session’, you want to have some experts around the table, at least one.
And typically an expert that has a lot of knowledge about the technology and an expert that has a lot of knowledge about how the technology could be implemented in a practice. And on the basis of that closer understanding of technology, you can really accompany the technology and you can try to guide it. And then you move into step two, which is the dialog step. Where you typically do three things. First of all, you try to identify the actors that are engaged, involved somehow in the functioning of the technology, people who experience the impacts of the technology, who have to to work with it. And then you try to anticipate the effects that the technology could have on these actors.
The mediations, if you want, what could this technology start to do in our society? To end in step 2 with an identification of the values that are at stake because of these effects. And what you want to do then is typically to end with three, maximum four, key values, central values that are at stake when this technology could be introduced in society. And having these specific type of effects, which could also be really unexpected effects which you could get on the table with a a good session with people who will try to think through the potential implications. So with these values, you move to step three. Which is all about identifying options for action.
The values are not being identified to have this standard to say ‘yes or no’, we do or we do not want the technology. The values are the input for action. First of all, towards the technology for a redesign of the technology that is more in line with the key values that are identified. Second, it’s about the environment of the technology. How could we reorganize the environment? Which could mean how do we need rules or regulations? How do we need supporting technology? What is needed in the environment of the technology to keep up these values? And third, it’s the user.
How can we equip the user, help the user with education, communication to make sure that also through the user these values are in place. So it’s really a basic kind of procedure. It’s not a highly theoretical construct. It’s really a tool to empower people in practices. The people who do experience the impact of technology to raise ethical questions. And not only to raise them, but also to bring them into practice somehow.


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In this video, we explain the Guidance Ethics Approach. This approach makes it possible to connect ethical reflection to the design, implementation and use of new technologies. Rather than giving ethics the role to assess whether a technology is acceptable or not, it lets ethics accompany a technology in the various stages of its life cycle. After anticipating the potential impacts of technology on human beings and society, the method identifies the values that are at stake, in order to find creative and critical ways to connect these values to a responsible design of the technology and its environment, and to the ethical empowerment of users.
Ethical reflection is often associated with ‘assessment’. Medical ethics, for instance, typically focuses on ‘ethical assessment’, often executed by medical-ethical committees that evaluate proposals for research or intervention in order to approve or reject them. In the ethics of technology, though, the focus can also be on ‘accompaniment’. Its relevance is not only to be found in the approval or rejection of technologies, but also in the guidance of their development, implementation and use: precisely in this interplay between technology and society, values are at stake that need to be identified and taken into account in the practices around technologies. The recently developed ‘Guidance Ethics Approach’ (Verbeek and Tijink 2020; see figure) is one manifestation of this new type of applied ethics. In this approach – which takes inspiration from the approach of citizen science (Vohland 2021) and from positive design (Desmet and Pohlmeyer 2018) – ethical reflection is taken to the actual practices in which technologies are being used by citizens and professionals. In a three-step approach, it aims to (1) analyse the technology in its concrete context of use; (2) anticipate the potential implications of this technology for all relevant stakeholders, in order to identify the values that are at stake in these implications; and (3) translate these values into concrete action perspectives regarding the technology itself (redesign), its environment (regulation, reconfiguration) and its users (education, communication, empowerment).
Guidance Ethics aims to be an ethics ‘from within’ rather than ‘from outside’: it does not seek to find a distant position for ‘technology assessment’ but rather a close connection to guide the technology in its trajectory through society. Also, it aims to do ethics ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’: instead of letting ethical experts apply existing ethical approaches to a technology, it invites professionals and citizens to voice the ethical concerns they encounter in their everyday dealing with the technology. And, third, Guidance Ethics is a form of ‘positive ethics’ rather than negative ethics. This does not imply that the approach always has a positive evaluation of new technologies, but rather that its primary focus is not on defining the boundaries of what we do not want, but on identifying the conditions for what we do want. Along these lines, guidance ethics incorporates philosophical insights in the relations between technologies, human beings, and societies, and connects them to actual practices around technologies.

Read more:

An ethical dialogue about technology with perspective on ethics: Guidance Ethics Approach – ECP | Platform voor de InformatieSamenleving
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Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

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