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Can there be ethics in things?

Ethical implications of technological mediation explained by Verbeek

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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