Ethical principles for assessing new technologies

Technologies and technology systems have deep and pervasive effects on the human beings who live within their reach. How do normative principles and principles of social and political justice apply to technology? Is there such a thing as “the ethics of technology”?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is an overriding fact about technology that needs to be considered in every discussion of the ethics of technology. It is a basic principle of liberal democracy that individual freedom and liberty should be respected. Individuals should have the right to act and create as they choose, subject to something like Mill’s harm principle. The harm principle holds that liberty should be restricted only when the activity in question imposes harm on other individuals. Applied to the topic of technology innovation, we can derive a strong principle of “liberty of innovation and creation” — individuals (and their organizations, such as business firms) should have a presumptive right to create new technologies constrained only by something like the harm principle.

Often we want to go beyond this basic principle of liberty to ask what the good and bad of technology might be. Why is technological innovation a good thing, all things considered? And what considerations should we keep in mind as we consider legitimate regulations or limitations on technology?

Consider three large principles that have emerged in other areas of social and political ethics as a basis for judging the legitimacy and fairness of a given set of social arrangements:

 A. Technologies should contribute to some form of human good, some activity or outcome that is desired by human beings — health, education, enjoyment, pleasure, sociality, friendship, fitness, spirituality, …

B. Technologies ought to be consistent with the fullest development of the human capabilities and freedoms of the individuals whom they affect. [Or stronger: “promote the fullest development …”]

C. Technologies ought to have population effects that are fair, equal, and just.

The first principle attempts to address the question, “What is technology good for? What is the substantive moral good that is served by technology development?” The basic idea is that human beings have wants and needs, and contributing to their ability to fulfill these wants is itself a good thing (if in so doing other greater harms are not created as well). This principle captures what is right about utilitarianism and hedonism — the inherent value of human happiness and satisfaction. This means that entertainment and enjoyment are legitimate goals of technology development.

The second principle links technology to the “highest good” of human wellbeing — the full development of human capabilities and freedoms. As is evident, the principle offered here derives from Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities and functionings, expressed in Development as Freedom. This principle recalls Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures:

Mill always insisted that the ultimate test of his own doctrine was utility, but for him the idea of the greatest happiness of the greatest number included qualitative judgements about different levels or kinds of human happiness. Pushpin was not as good as poetry; only Pushkin was…. Cultivation of one’s own individuality should be the goal of human existence. (J.S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought : 454)

The third principle addresses the question of fairness and equity. Thinking about justice has evolved a great deal in the past fifty years, and one thing that emerges clearly is the intimate connection between injustice and invidious discrimination — even if unintended. Social institutions that arbitrarily assign significantly different opportunities and life outcomes to individuals based on characteristics such as race, gender, income, neighborhood, or religion are unfair and unjust, and need to be reformed. This approach derives as much from current discussions of racial health disparities as it does from philosophical theories along the lines of Rawls and Sen.

On these principles a given technology can be criticized, first, if it has no positive contribution to make for the things that make people happy or satisfied; second, if it has the effect of stunting the development of human capabilities and freedoms; and third, if it has discriminatory effects on quality of life across the population it effects.

One important puzzle facing the ethics of technology is a question about the intended audience of such a discussion. We are compelled to ask, to whom is a philosophical discussion of the normative principles that ought to govern our thinking about technology aimed? Whose choices, actions, and norms are we attempting to influence? There appear to be several possible answers to this question.

Corporate ethics. Entrepreneurs and corporate boards and executives have an ethical responsibility to consider the impact of the technologies that they introduce into the market. If we believe that codes of corporate ethics have any real effect on corporate decision-making, then we need to have a basis in normative philosophy for a relevant set of principles that should guide business decision-making about the creation and implementation of new technologies by businesses. A current example is the use of facial recognition for the purpose of marketing or store security; does a company have a moral obligation to consider the negative social effects it may be promoting by adopting such a technology?

Governments and regulators. Government has an overriding responsibility of preserving and enhancing the public good and minimizing harmful effects of private activities. This is the fundamental justification for government regulation of industry. Since various technologies have the potential of creating harms for some segments of the public, it is legitimate for government to enact regulatory systems to prevent reckless or unreasonable levels of risk. Government also has a responsibility for ensuring a fair and just environment for all citizens, and enacting policies that serve to eliminate inequalities based on discriminatory social institutions. So here too governments have a role in regulating technologies, and a careful study of the normative principles that should govern our thinking about the fairness and justice of technologies is relevant to this process of government decision-making as well.

Public interest advocacy groups. One way in which important social issues can be debated and sometimes resolved is through the advocacy of well-organized advocacy groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, or Greenpeace. Organizations like these are in a position to argue in favor of or against a variety of social changes, and raising concerns about specific kinds of technologies certainly falls within this scope. There are only a small number of grounds for this kind of advocacy: the innovation will harm the public, the innovation will create unacceptable hidden costs, or the innovation raises unacceptable risks of unjust treatment of various groups. In order to make the latter kind of argument, the advocacy group needs to be able to articulate a clear and justified argument for its position about “unjust treatment”.

The public. Citizens themselves have an interest in being able to make normative judgments about new technologies as they arise. “This technology looks as though it will improve life for everyone and should be favored; that technology looks as though it will create invidious and discriminatory sets of winners and losers and should be carefully regulated.” But for citizens to have a basis for making judgments like these, they need to have a normative framework within which to think and reason about the social role of technology. Public discussion of the ethical principles underlying the legitimacy and justice of technology innovations will deepen and refine these normative frameworks.

Considered as proposed here, the topic of “ethics of technology” is part of a broad theory of social and political philosophy more generally. It invokes some of our best reasoning about what constitutes the human good (fulfillment of capabilities and freedoms) and about what constitutes a fair social system (elimination of invidious discrimination in the effects of social institutions on segments of population). Only when we have settled these foundational questions are we able to turn to the more specific issues often discussed under the rubric of the ethics of technology.

Ethics as culture

Gabriel Abend has recently published The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics, a remarkable book on what seems initially to be a small subject — a history of the academic field of business ethics. I say “seems”, because in Abend’s hands this topic turns out to be a superb subject for the emerging field of the sociology of culture. (I should explain that the subject might seem small to a philosopher, because the discipline of business ethics is low-prestige within philosophy and is generally regarded as too applied to count as “serious” philosophical ethics. For Abend, however, it is an important subject precisely because it is “applied” and because the activity to which it pertains is highly consequential in the contemporary world and the world of nineteenth century capitalism as well.)

Michele Lamont is often cited as the person who gave new impetus to the sociology of culture in the past decade (e.g. in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Classlink, link). (Lamont is one of the editors of the Princeton series in which this book appears). Lamont has given new energy to the study of how cultural values structure ordinary life in a variety of settings, and also has provided some powerful examples of how to approach this problem empirically. And Abend brings such great detail of focus to his investigation that his study sets a new standard for what is required in a study of public culture. One of the intellectual antecedents of Abend’s approach is the micro-sociology of Erving Goffman. Like Goffman, Abend is interested in tracing the public manifestations of a cultural epoch — not the subjective experience that may underly it.

What Abend wants to understand is the actual history of the field of business ethics. He isn’t trying to discover the patterns of behavior that are found among businessmen, or the ethical ideas they embrace. Rather, he wants to tease out the material and ideological content expressed by professional “business ethicists”, largely found in schools of business. What has been the public expert discourse on business ethics over the past century, and what framing assumptions about the ethical field does this discourse presuppose?

The book scrutinizes the content of business ethicists’ understandings and prescriptions — taking into account their context, the audiences they were addressed to, and the cultural repertoires they drew upon. … Much like sociologists and anthropologists of science, I am interested in the tools, devices, technologies, methods, and tactics business ethicists came up with and avail themselves of. Manuals of proper behavior, success manuals, pamphlets, biographies, obituaries, typologies, illustrations, and codes of ethics are not neutral, interchangeable containers of information. They are social things, with particular causal histories and social functions, and whose particular modes of operation, modes of existence, and materiality must be analyzed as well. (11)

He correctly observes that there are three levels of ethics that can be considered from a sociological point of view:

First, there is the level of behavior or practices. … Second, there is the level of people’s moral judgments in the least, and societies’ and social groups’ moral norms and institutions. … In this book I introduce a third level, which up to now has not been recognized as a distant object inquiry: the moral background. (17)

His interest throughout the book is with the third level, the moral background. This refers, essentially, to the frameworks, concepts, and principles of reasoning that people have in mind when they think ethically or normatively.

Moral background elements do not belong to the level or realm of first-order morality. Rather, they facilitate, support, or enable first-order moral claims, norms, actions, practices, and institutions. (53)

Moral background includes six kinds of topics, according to Abend:

  1. Kinds of reasons or grounds that support first order morality
  2. Conceptual repertoires
  3. what can be morally evaluated
  4. what counts is proper moral methods in arguments
  5. whether first order morality is assumed to be objective
  6. metaphysical conceptions about what there is and what these things are like. (18)

He compares the moral background with the meta-scientific beliefs that scientists bring to the study of nature or society.

What is it that members of a scientific community share, exactly? For one, they likely share many social and demographic characteristics. That helps account sociologically for their having become members of that community in the first place. More important, they have common epistemological and ontological intuitions, dispositions, or assumptions. They agree on how you go about answering a scientific question, and what kind of evidence and how much of it you need to corroborate a hypothesis. (28)

This focus is particularly interesting to me because it provides additional leverage on the problem of offering a vocabulary for the background conceptual resources that are a necessary part of all social cognition. As has been noted several times in earlier posts, there is an important body of conceptual and factual presuppositions that human beings unavoidably use when they try to make sense of the world around them. And the framework itself is only rarely available for inspection. So it is a valuable contribution when sociologists like Abend, Gross, or Lamont are able to pinpoint the content and structure of such systems of tacit cognitive framework in action.
The discussion of conceptual repertoires is particularly detailed and helpful. Abend defines conceptual repertoires as “the set of concepts that are available to any given group or society, in a given time and place” (37). He makes the valid and important point that conceptual schemes are culturally specific and historically variable; “this repertoire enables and constrains their thought and speech, their laws and institutions, and, importantly, the actions they may undertake” (37). He offers as examples of moral concepts ideas like these: “dignity, decency, integrity, piety, responsibility, tolerance, moderation, fanaticism, extremism, despotism, chauvinism, rudeness, …” (38), and makes the correct point that ideas like these show up in some cultural and historical settings and not in others. So the realities that can be “seen” and experienced by historically situated people depend on the schemes or repertoires they have available to them in those settings. (The topic of conceptual schemes has come up frequently here. Here are a few earlier discussions; linklink, link.)

Abend finds two thematic sets of beliefs and concepts that largely serve to characterize most approaches to business ethics, which he refers to as “standards of practice” and “the Christian merchant.” The first approach works on the assumption that ethical standards like honesty are good for business, all things considered, and that the function of business ethics writings and teaching is to help business people come to see that their interests dictate that they should conform, even when there are strong incentives to do otherwise. The second principle argues that there are higher moral standards that govern behavior, and that prudent adherence to rules of honesty does not get to the heart of business ethics. Broadly speaking the first approach is scientific and consesquentialist (JS Mill), while the second is theological and deontological (Kant). (In Kant’s memorable phrase, “tell the truth though the world should perish.”)

Abend demonstrates that the field of business ethics is substantially older than it is usually thought to be, extending back at least a century. To demonstrate this point he makes interesting use of Google’s Ngram tool (link), a research tool based on Google’s massive collection of scanned books, and finds that the phrase “business ethics” begins to take off around 1900, passing “commercial morality” in 1912 and “business morality” in 1917. All the other phrases go into a sustained decline in books from 1920 forward, while “business ethics” takes off.

The Moral Background is a major contribution to the emerging field of cultural sociology. Especially important among the virtues of Abend’s research is his ability to work through a huge body of historical material from the subject — the founding of various business schools, speeches by public officials about business scandals, the utterances of pro-business organizations like chambers of commerce, newspaper cartoons about business scandals, philosophical writings about ethical theory — and to find meaning in these disparate sources that point back to the “moral backgrounds” from which they emanate. This is a truly gigantic task of intellectual integration, and Abend’s book sets a high bar for future studies of the cultural meaning of intellectual, practical, and normative social realities.

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