Technology Is a Branch of Moral Philosophy

“Whether or not it draws on new scientific research technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.”

Or so argued Paul Goodman in a 1969 essay for the New York Review of Books titled “Can Technology Be Humane?” I first encountered the line in Postman’s Technopoly and was reminded of it a few years back in a post by Nick Carr. I commented briefly on the essay around that same time, but found myself thinking about that line again more recently. Goodman’s essay, if nothing else, warrants our consideration for how it presages and informs some of the present discussion about humane technology.

Technology, Goodman went on to write in explanation of his claim,

“aims at prudent goods for the commonweal and to provide efficient means for these goods. At present, however, ‘scientific technology’ occupies a bastard position in the universities, in funding, and in the public mind. It is half tied to the theoretical sciences and half treated as mere know-how for political and commercial purposes. It has no principles of its own.”

What to do about this? Re-organize the whole technological enterprise:

“To remedy this—so Karl Jaspers in Europe and Robert Hutchins in America have urged—technology must have its proper place on the faculty as a learned profession important in modern society, along with medicine, law, the humanities, and natural philosophy, learning from them and having something to teach them. As a moral philosopher, a technician should be able to criticize the programs given him to implement. As a professional in a community of learned professionals, a technologist must have a different kind of training and develop a different character than we see at present among technicians and engineers. He should know something of the social sciences, law, the fine arts, and medicine, as well as relevant natural sciences.”

Clearly this was a far more robust program than contemporary attempts to shoehorn an ethics class into engineering and computer science programs, however noble the intent. Equally clearly, it almost impossible to imagine such a re-organization. That horizon of opportunity closed, if it was ever truly open.

Regarding the virtue of prudence, Goodman wrote,

“Prudence is foresight, caution, utility. Thus it is up to the technologists, not to regulatory agencies of the government, to provide for safety and to think about remote effects. This is what Ralph Nader is saying and Rachel Carson used to ask. An important aspect of caution is flexibility, to avoid the pyramiding catastrophe that occurs when something goes wrong in interlocking technologies, as in urban power failures. Naturally, to take responsibility for such things often requires standing up to the front office and urban politicians, and technologists must organize themselves in order to have power to do it.”

There’s much else to consider in the essay, even if only in the vein of considering an alternative historical reality that might have unfolded. In fact, though, there is much that remains usefully suggestive should we care to take stock and reconsider how we relate to technology. That last line certainly calls to mind recent efforts by tech workers at various firms, including Google,  to organize in opposition to projects they deemed immoral or unjust.

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