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Can there be ethics in things?

Ethical implications of technological mediation explained by Verbeek
Hello, everybody. Welcome to the third week of our MOOC. After having explored over the past week the idea of technological mediation, this week we will focus on its ethical implications. Can there be ethics in things? That will be the question that we will talk about. Now ethics is about the questions of how to act and how to live our lives. And, what are good ways to act? What are good ways to live life? The theory of technological mediation shows that technologies, in fact, influence our actions and influence the way we live our lives. They help us to answer those ethical questions. So this suggests at least that technologies are somehow ethically significant.
Take, for example, the coin lock supermarkets used to make sure that people return their carts to the place where they got it. There’s a clear norm in such a lock. The norm to the cart to the place where you picked it up. People have also argued that lady shavers have this gender stereotype, gender bias in them. Because some of their designs are such that you cannot open the ladies shaver when it stops functioning, it somehow stereotypes they users as beings who might not be interested or not even be capable of entering the interiors of their devices. So it stereotypes women as technologically not competent. That’s a value that can be in a technology.
Maybe a third example would then again be the example of ultrasound, that we used over the past week as well. Making an ultrasound scan of a fetus changes the relation between mother and child. In the old days, a doctor had to ask the mother what she felt and had to feel the baby through the belly of the mother. Whereas now the mother becomes the environment for the fetus and the fetus appears on the screen. The fetus also appears, in medical terms, as a potential patient about whose life the parents might need to make a decision. So ultrasound changes what a fetus is, what it means to expect a child, and raises all kinds of responsibilities for expecting parents.
But then, how to understand this ethics of technology? Normally, we see ethics as something human. So we do make a lot of mess in ethical theory if we make the claim that there can be ethics in things. Doing ethics, for instance, requires intentions. You cannot be held accountable for an unintended action. It requires freedom, and when you’re forced to do something, you cannot be held accountable either. So things do not have freedom and intention, how could they possibly qualify as a moral agent? We will not blame cars for car accidents, for instance. Moreover, behavior that was influenced by a technology cannot always be seen as a moral action.
Is slowing down near a school because there’s a speed bump on the road an ethical decision or just a steered behavior. So the question rises, does it make sense at all to consider technologies to be moral agents? Well, in fact from the perspective of mediation, this question is the wrong question. Because the question takes as its starting point, again, that split between humans and technologies, subjects and objects. And it is this split that we want to overcome with the very idea of mediation. From the perspective of mediation, you would say, no, things are not moral agents in themselves. They do not do ethics. But in fact, neither do humans. We always do it together.
Ethical actions and decisions are not taken in a vacuum, but within a context in which technologies inevitably play a role. Technologies mediate ethics, mediate morality. They inform our ethical choices, our ethical behavior and therefore, we need to deal with mediations in a responsible way, when we use design or implement technologies.
In this video we explain that technological mediations have an impact on how we act. This makes technological artefacts at least ethically significant. But what does it mean to mediate morality? Who or what has moral agency?
The approach of technological mediation has many implications for the ethics of technology. When ethics is about the question of ‘how to act’ or ‘how to live’, the phenomenon of technological mediation shows that technologies are ‘morally charged’: they help human beings to be moral agents. The technological mediation of the human-world relation has two dimensions, one concerning human perceptions and interpretations, the other human actions and practices. On the one hand, technologies help to shape human experiences of the world, and on the other they help to shape how humans act and live their lives. Both dimensions are morally significant, because they help to shape moral actions either ‘directly’ by influencing people’s behaviour, or ‘indirectly’ by shaping the perceptions and interpretations on the basis of which people make decisions. Coin locks in shopping carts stimulate people to return their carts to a central place, while sonograms make expecting parents responsible for the birth of a child with congenital abnormalities.

To what extent can technologies be moral agents?

The proposal to speak about technologies in ethical terms has raised a serious discussion in the philosophy and ethics of technology about the question of moral agency. This discussion revolved around the question to what extent technologies can be moral agents. Critics of a moral approach to things typically fear that ascribing moral agency to nonhuman entities would excavate human responsibility, because it could lead to absurd practices like blaming cars for traffic accidents. Moral agency can only be a human affair. (Peterson and Spahn 2011; Selinger 2012)
The approach of technological mediation does not make technologies moral agents in themselves, though. Only in the context of the relations human beings have with them can they help to organise people’s moral actions and perceptions. Moral agency is distributed over humans and things, as it were: if one of the two were missing, this type of agency could not exist. Each in their own way – distinct, but not separated – humans and things contribute to moral actions and decisions (cf. Verbeek 2011). Reducing ethics to an exclusively human affair leaves us with a drastically impoverished world. Because such an approach starts from a radical separation between subjects and objects, it forces us to choose between either reserving moral agency to the human domain or to claim that nonhuman entities can be moral agents as well. In the real world in which we all live, though, such purified subjects and objects do not exist. Actual moral actions and decisions take place in complex and intricate connections between humans and things, which have moral agency as a result rather than as a starting point. Such a hybrid approach to the relations between humans and things does not reduce human morality, but adds to it; it shows dimensions that normally remain underexposed. Making visible the moral significance of things does not undermine human responsibility by blaming cars for accidents, but rather expands the ways in which we can design, implement, and use technologies in responsible ways.
How do you think about technology and moral agency? Who are decision-makers? What type of behaviour should we steer? And in which direction? Just think about these questions for a moment and proceed to the next step for a discussion!


Peterson, Martin, and Andreas Spahn. “Can technological artefacts be moral agents?.” Science and engineering ethics 17.3 (2011): 411-424.
Selinger, Evan, et al. “Erratum to: Book Symposium on Peter Paul Verbeek’s Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.” Philosophy & Technology 25.4 (2012): 605-631.
Verbeek, Peter-Paul. Moralizing technology: Understanding and designing the morality of things. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
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Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

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