In Defense of Technology Ethics, Properly Understood

One of the more puzzling aspects of technology discourse that I encounter with some frequency is the tendency to oppose legal, political, and economic analysis of technology to ethical analysis. Maybe I’m the weird outlier on this matter, but I just don’t see how it is helpful or even ultimately tenable to oppose these two areas of analysis to one another. (Granted, I have my own reservations about “tech ethics” discourse, but they’re of a different sort.)

I think I understand where the impulse to oppose law, politics, and economics to ethics comes from. In its simplest form the idea is that ethics without legal, political, or economic action is, at best, basically a toothless parlor game. More likely, it’s a clever public relations scheme to put up a presentable front that shields a company’s depredations from public view.

This is fine, I get that. But the answer to this very real possibility is not to deprecate ethical reflection regarding technology as such. The answer, it seems to me, is to move on all fronts.

What exactly do we think we’re aiming to accomplish with law, regulation, and economic policy anyway if not acting to address some decidedly ethical concern regarding technology? Law, regulation, and policy is grounded in some understanding of what is right, what is ethical, what is humane—in short, what ought to be. It’s not clear to me how such determinations would not be improved by serious and sustained reflection on the ethical consequences of technological change. If you set aside serious reflection on the ethics of technology, it’s not as if you get to now properly focus on the more serious work of law and policy apart from ethics;  you simply get to work on law and policy from a more naive, uninformed, and unacknowledged ethical foundation.

(As an example of the sort of work that does this well, consider Evan Selinger and Brett Frischmann’s Reengineering Humanity. Their book blends ethical/philosophical and legal/political analysis in a way that recognizes the irreducible interrelations among these fields of human experience.)

Moreover, most of us would agree that law and public policy do not and decidedly should not entirely encompass the whole scope of a society’s moral and ethical concerns. There is an indispensable role to be played by norms and institutions that exist outside the scope of law and government. It is unclear to me how exactly these norms and institutions are to evolve so as to more effectively promote the health of civil society and private life if they are not informed by the work of scholars, journalists, educators, and writers who deliberately pursue a better understanding of technology’s ethical and moral consequences. Technology’s moral and ethical consequences far exceed the scope of law and public policy; are we to limit our thinking about these matters to what can be addressed by law and policy? Might it not be that possible that it is precisely these morally formative aspects of contemporary technology that have already compromised our society’s capacity to enact legal and political remedies?

Perhaps the very best thing we can do now is to focus on the hard, deliberate work of educating and building with a view not to our own immediate future but to the forthcoming generations. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in another age, “The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating.”

(For a good discussion of Bonhoeffer’s view explicitly applied to our technological predicament, see Alan Jacobs’s reflections here.)

Lastly, while we wait for better policies, better regulations, better laws to address the worst excesses of the technology sector, what exactly are individuals supposed to do about what they may experience as the disordering and disorienting impact of technology upon their daily lives? Wait patiently and do nothing? Remain uninformed and passive? Better, I say, to empower individuals with legal protections and knowledge. Encourage action and reflection: better yet, action grounded in reflection.

Yes, by all means let us also resist the cheap instrumentalization of ethics and the capture of ethical reflection by the very interests that ought to be the objects of ethical critique and, where appropriate, legal action. But please, let’s dispense with the rhetorical trope that opposes ethical reflection as such to the putatively serious work of law and policy.

4 thoughts on “In Defense of Technology Ethics, Properly Understood

  1. Thanks for this; I found it a compelling argument for a point that I’m inclined to take the other side on.

    I had a few thoughts as I was reading it.

    This first is that I wonder whether there is a substantive difference between ethics and morality that could be drawn here. To be blunt, “ethics” has become for me tied to conversations about professional ethics and appropriate codes of behavior. It is an easier thing to discuss in a secular and neoliberal paradigm like we have in the United States. “Morality” strikes at something deeper: principles that transcend social context, perhaps. The EU’s focus on dignity as the basis of privacy, which I suspect draws ultimately on deep Kantian quasi-theological roots, gets past the ‘ethics’ question into something less contingent. I don’t think it’s an accident that this has led to stronger enforcement in EU privacy law. Political philosophy may do better drawing from morality than ethics?

    The second is that the importance of morality and ethics as a concern for civil society, as distinct fro business practices and the state, is very well taken. I love the Bonhoeffer quote, which I had not heard, and this squares well with my personal path. My question is what it would mean to take this line of reasoning seriously. How would one design a civil society institution around the morality of technology, given what we know today? I’ll admit that I’m part of a nascent, experimental group trying to do just this ( ) but at the moment we have good intentions without, precisely, a plan. I’d love to read more from you or others about what a civil society of ethical technology use would look like, in concrete terms.

  2. On the first point, I’d certainly agree that terms need to be clarified in any serious discussion of these issues. I’d say that you associations with “ethics” are probably not uncommon. It seems to me that clearing up semantic issues would go a long way toward advancing the conversation. I didn’t make any strong distinction between ethics and morals. But the distinction you draw needs to be acknowledged, especially in light of the secular/liberal paradigm within which these discussions unfold. This is, in my view, a critical aspect of the tech/society relationship that needs further critical attention. Taking a long view, I tend to see the modern technological project unfolding in symbiotic relationship with the modern liberal democratic project: both emerging in the space created by the bracketing of substantive accounts of the human person and what constitutes a good life.

    On the second, I’d say this is the million dollar question, the one that deserves our most serious attention and I’m glad for any effort, no matter how nascent, searching for answers and strategies. CSET, of which I’m the director, will also be working on this front. The best that I can offer, briefly, is that institutions need to become intentionally reflective about the explicit and implicit effects of technological change and how these variously interact with their stated goals and aims. Chiefly, this entails overcoming the idea that tech is basically a neutral tool. I’m definitely thinking about these issues and will continue to write about them here and elsewhere. I’ll keep an eye on your work as well, thanks for the link and the helpful reflections here!

  3. Tech may not “do” anything in and of itself, but it isn’t human, so isn’t expected to “do” anything (re: tech being neutral). That said, it isn’t “neutral” as a way to wave away its impact on human beings when being used by other human beings.

    For some reason, we demarcate between life on social media and “real life,” when both are symbiotic in the same human life. The same Bill of Rights, the same Constitution, et. al should apply to both.

    Or to use of any “technology” in the larger sense. Morality and ethics (both) should follow suit.

    E.g. A knife is “technology” and there are moral and ethical implications for using a knife that are pretty easy to understand. So equating any technology to knife usage, even if the implications of a different technology aren’t as obvious at first, could be useful.

    E.g. Thinking that any tech could be harmful, could be good, could be used ethically, and would have moral implications for the entirety of society from the outset.

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