The Ethics of Technological Mediation

Where do we look when we’re looking for the ethical implications of technology? A few would say that we look at the technological artifact itself. Many more would counter that the only place to look for matters of ethical concern is to the human subject. Philosopher of technology, Peter-Paul Verbeek, argues that there is another, perhaps more important place for us to look: the point of mediation, the point where the artifact and human subjectivity come together to create effects that cannot be located in either the artifact or the subject taken alone.

Early on in Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things (2011), Verbeek briefly outlines the emergence of the field known as “ethics of technology.” “In its early days,” Verbeek notes, “ethical approaches to technology took the form of critique. Rather than addressing specific ethical problems related to actual technological developments, ethical reflection on technology focused on criticizing the phenomenon of ‘Technology’ itself.” Here we might think of Heidegger, critical theory, or Jacques Ellul. In time, “ethics of technology” emerged “seeking increased understanding of and contact with actual technological practices and developments,” and soon a host of sub-fields appeared: biomedical ethics, ethics of information technology, ethics of nanotechnology, engineering ethics, ethics of design, etc.

This approach remains, accordin to Verbeek, “merely instrumentalist.” “The central focus of ethics,” on this view, “is to make sure that technology does not have detrimental effects in the human realm and that human beings control the technological realm in morally justifiable ways.” It’s not that these considerations are unimportant, quite the contrary, but Verbeek believes that this approach “does not yet go far enough.”

Verbeek explains the problem:

“What remains out of sight in this externalist approach is the fundamental intertwining of these two domains [the human and the technological]. The two simply cannot be separated. Humans are technological beings, just as technologies are social entities. Technologies, after all, play a constitutive role in our daily lives. They help to shape our actions and experiences, they inform our moral decisions, and they affect the quality of our lives. When technologies are used, they inevitably help to shape the context in which they function. They help specific relations between human beings and reality to come about and coshape new practices and ways of living.”

Observing that technologies mediate perception, how we register the world, and action, how we act into the world, Verbeek elaborates a theory of technological mediation, built upon a postphenomenological approach to technology pioneered by Don Ihde. Rather than focus exclusively on either the artifact “out there,” the technological object, or the will “in here,” the human subject, Verbeek invites us to focus ethical attention on the constitution of both the perceived object and the subject’s intention in the act of technological mediation. In other words, how technology shapes perception and action is also of ethical consequence.

As Verbeek rightly insists, “Artifacts are morally charged; they mediate moral decisions, shape moral subjects, and play an important role in moral agency.”

Verbeek turns to the work of Ihde for some analytic tools and categories. Among the many ways humans might relate to technology, Ihde notes two relations of “mediation.” The first of these he calls “embodiment relations” in which the tools are incorporated by the user and the world is experienced through the tool (think of the blind man’s stick). The second he calls a “hermeneutic relation.” Verbeek explains:

“In this relation, technologies provide access to reality not because they are ‘incorporated,’ but because they provide a representation of reality, which requires interpretation [….] Ihde shows that technologies, when mediating our sensory relationship with reality, transform what we perceive. According to Ihde, the transformation of perception always has the structure of amplification and reduction.”

Verbeek gives us the example of looking at a tree through an infrared camera: most of what we see when we look at a tree unaided is “reduced,” but the heat signature of the tree is “amplified” and the tree’s health may be better assessed. Ihde calls this capacity of a tool to transform our perception “technological intentionality.” In other words, the technology directs and guides our perception and our attention. It says to us, “Look at this here not that over there” or “Look at this thing in this way.” This function is not morally irrelevant, especially when you consider that this effect is not contained within the digital platform but spills out into our experience of the world.

Verbeek also believes that our reflection on the moral consequences of technology would do well to take virtue ethics seriously. With regards to the ethics of technology, we typically ask, “What should I or should I not do with this technology?” and thus focus our attention on our actions. In this, we follow the lead of the two dominant modern ethical traditions: the deontological tradition stemming from Immanuel Kant, on the one hand, and the consequentialist tradition, closely associated with Bentham and Mill, on the other. In the case of both traditions, a particular sort of moral subject or person is in view—an autonomous and rational individual who acts freely and in accord with the dictates of reason.

In the Kantian tradition, the individual, having decided upon the right course of action through the right use of their reason, is duty bound to act thusly, regardless of consequences. In the consequentialist tradition, the individual rationally calculates which action will yield the greatest degree of happiness, variously understood, and acts accordingly.

If technology comes into play in such reasoning by such a person, it is strictly as an instrument of the individual will. The question, again, is simply, “What should I do or not do with it?” We ascertain the answer by either determining the dictates of subjective reasoning or calculating the objective consequences of an action, the latter approach is perhaps more appealing for its resonance with the ethos of technique.

We might conclude, then, that the popular instrumentalist view of technology—a view which takes technology to be a mere a tool, a morally neutral instrument of a sovereign will—is the natural posture of the sort of individual or moral subject that modernity yields. It is unlikely to occur to such an individual that technology is not only a tool with which moral and immoral actions are preformed but also an instrument of moral formation, informing and shaping the moral subject.

It is not that the instrumentalist posture is of no value, of course. On the contrary, it raises important questions that ought to be considered and investigated. The problem is that this approach is incomplete and too easily co-opted by the very realities that it seeks to judge. It is, on its own, ultimately inadequate to the task because it takes as its starting point an inadequate and incomplete understanding of the human person.

There is, however, another older approach to ethics that may help us fill out the picture and take into account other important aspects of our relation to technology: the tradition of virtue ethics in both its classical and medieval manifestations.

Verbeek comments on some of the advantages of virtue ethics. To begin with, virtue ethics does not ask, “What am I to do?” Rather, it asks, in Verbeek’s formulation, “What is the good life?” We might also add a related question that virtue ethics raises: “What sort of person do I want to be?” This is a question that Verbeek also considers, taking his cues from the later work of Michel Foucault.

The question of the good life, Verbeek adds,

“does not depart from a separation of subject and object but from the interwoven character of both. A good life, after all, is shaped not only on the basis of human decisions but also on the basis of the world in which it plays itself out (de Vries 1999). The way we live is determined not only by moral decision making but also by manifold practices that connect us to the material world in which we live. This makes ethics not a matter of isolated subjects but, rather, of connections between humans and the world in which they live.”

Virtue ethics, with its concern for habits, practices, and communities of moral formation, illuminates the various ways technologies impinge upon our moral lives. For example, a technologically mediated action that, taken on its own and in isolation, may be judged morally right or indifferent may appear in a different light when considered as one instance of a habit-forming practice that shapes our disposition and character.

Moreover, virtue ethics, which predates the advent of modernity, does not necessarily assume the sovereign individual as its point of departure. For this reason, it is more amenable to the ethics of technological mediation elaborated by Verbeek. Verbeek argues for “the distributed character of moral agency,” distributed that is among subject and the various technological artifacts that mediate the subject’s perception of and action in the world.

At the very least, asking the sorts of questions raised within a virtue ethic framework fills out our picture of technology’s ethical consequences.

In Susanna Clarke’s delightful novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a fantastical story cast in realist guise about two magicians recovering the lost tradition of English magic in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, one of the main characters, Strange, has the following exchange with the Duke of Wellington:

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.”

Strange’s response is instructive and the context of magic more apropos than might be apparent. Technology, like magic, empowers the will, and it raises the sort of question that Wellington asks: can such and such be done?

Not only does Strange’s response make the ethical dimension paramount, he approaches the ethical question as a virtue ethicist. He does not run consequentialist calculations nor does he query the deliberations of a supposedly universal reason. Rather, he frames the empowerment availed to him by magic with a consideration of the kind of person he aspires to be, and he subjects his will to this larger project of moral formation. In so doing, he gives us a good model for how we might think about the empowerments availed to us by technology.

As Verbeek, reflecting on the aptness of the word subject, puts it, “The moral subject is not an autonomous subject; rather, it is the outcome of active subjection.” It is, paradoxically, this kind of subjection that can ground the relative freedom with which we might relate to technology.


Most of this material originally appeared on the blog of the Center for the Study of Ethics and Technology. I repost it here in light of recent interest in the ethical consequences of technology. Verbeek’s work does not, it seems to me, get the attention it deserves.

6 thoughts on “The Ethics of Technological Mediation

  1. “We might conclude, then, that the popular instrumentalist view of technology—a view which takes technology to be a mere a tool, a morally neutral instrument of a sovereign will—is the natural posture of the sort of individual or moral subject that modernity yields. It is unlikely to occur to such an individual that technology is not only a tool with which moral and immoral actions are preformed but also an instrument of moral formation, informing and shaping the moral subject.”

    Thus, using a hand tool such as a chisel or a saw, as opposed to a power tool, to make something, is a moral decision; the constraints, time, lack of control imposed by the simple tool shape the experience of the subject. Handwriting a letter is different from typing an email. The power tool is instrumental, a means to an end, the hand tool and the skill and concentration and effort required to use it is a thing in itself. This is true only now, when we have a choice. Once, the hand tool was itself instrumental (as compared to what – doing nothing, just being?).

  2. Pope Francis is on this (from Laudato si): “It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society. The effects of imposing this model on reality as a whole, human and social, are seen in the deterioration of the environment, but this is just one sign of a reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life. We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.”

  3. “Verbeek argues for “the distributed character of moral agency,” distributed that is among subject and the various technological artefacts that mediate the subject’s perception of and action in the world.” And other subjects, too, presumably.

  4. I’m not familiar with Verbeek beyond the few articles I’ve read that mention him, so thanks for the introduction. I’ll put his latest on my list to read.

    There’s something to this approach of (let’s say) de-individualizing one’s perspective about technology. Heidegger exemplifies what can go so terribly wrong when authenticity serves as ground for critique. And maybe to a lesser extent, curmudgeonly Adorno exemplifies how boxed-in critique can become with one’s own tastes provide the metric.

    Nevertheless, with that critical tradition in mind, it seems just as important to recognize how the ground of virtue is itself changed, often rapidly by technological progress. The appeal of a vision of the good life as it was socially constructed within context of yesteryear (or even just a few months ago) is the persistence of some kind of basis, center or focus rather than just continually moving goal posts. It’s being able to stop looking at the Internet for two weeks without being paranoid that one’s terminology has become insufficiently progressive in the meantime (not that Critical Theory was ever much help there).

    This is the question for me now: where do we find our measure?

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