From the ethics of technology towards an ethics of knowledge policy

AI and Society (2007)
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My analysis takes as its point of departure the controversial assumption that contemporary ethical theories cannot capture adequately the ethical and social challenges of scientific and technological development. This assumption is rooted in the argument that classical ethical theory invariably addresses the issue of ethical responsibility in terms of whether and how intentional actions of individuals can be justified. Scientific and technological developments, however, have produced unintentional consequences and side-consequences. These consequences very often result from collective decisions concerning the way we wish to organise our economies and society, rather than from individual actions. It has been apparent for a long time now that it is not sufficient to construct an ethics of science and technology on the basis of the image of a scientist who intentionally wants to create a Frankenstein. Thus, as a minimum we would require an ethical framework that addresses both the aspect of unintentional side consequences (rather than intentional actions) and the aspect of collective decisions (rather than individual decisions) with regard to complex societal systems, such as the operation of our economy. We do not have such a theory available. More disturbing than the principle shortcomings of ethical theory are the shortcomings of conventional ethical practice with respect to technological developments. Below I will suggest how four different developments can illustrate these shortcomings, which centre around the fact that individuals in our society can simply not be held fully accountable for their individual role within the context of scientific technological developments. I will call these shortcomings of a theory (and practice) of individual role responsibility. This may help us to reflect on robotics too, insofar as robots may be perceived as replacements for “roles”. From there, I will argue why we have to shift our attention to an ethics of knowledge assessment in the framework of deliberative procedures.

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