Sven Ove Hansson


Sven Ove Hansson

Three approaches to technology and ethics

1. Introduction

The connection between ethics and technology is obvious and increasingly so. Many of the major public discussions on ethics in the previous century had a strong focus on technology: nuclear warfare, responsibility for the possible effects on future generations of nuclear waste and global warming, biotechnology, the use of various new medical technologies, privacy in the computer society, etc. Other issues are emerging such as new forms of surveillance, nanotechnology, etc.

The purpose of this contribution is to discuss on a more fundamental level the relationship between technology and ethics as a discipline. Technology is ony one of several areas for specialized ethics. Other such areas are medicine, business, and scientific research. Current approaches to the ethics of these and other special areas can be divided into two categories that are partly overlapping. I will call them professional ethics and applied ethics. In what follows I will first describe these two approaches and then describe a third approach that I consider to be more promising,.

2. Professional ethics

The first approach is professional ethics, the ethics of professions. As moral philosophers we have to acknowledge that most of the current discussion on ethical issues in technology and other social practices has its origin in activities of concerned professionals and professional societies. The oldest tradition is that of the medical profession, which has been concerned with ethical issues since antiquity. The Hippocratic oath is still in use after 2400 years.

The variant of professional ethics that is most relevant to technology is of course engineeering ethics. As a discipline, it is much younger than the ethics of the medical profession. Before the second part of the 20th century, discussions on engineering ethics were few and scattered Admittedly, some ethical codes for engineers are older than that. A well-known example is the code of ethics adopted in 1912 by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE). However, it was mainly devoted to the business relations of the practicing engineer. Issues such as safety that are central in modern engineering ethics were only mentioned in passing.

After World War II, engineering ethics gained prominence in close association with research ethics, largely as part of the response to the Hiroshima bomb. Several ethical codes for scientists and engineers were adopted in the years after the war. Activities in this area receded in the 1950s and 1960s, but increased again in the 1970s as part of a new awareness in public discussions of the possible negative consequences of technology. New ethical codes were then developed by professional societies throughout the world. Most codes of engineering ethics still have the same structure as the codes adopted in the 1970s. They have a focus on the individual engineer’s responsibilities towards colleagues, employees, costumers, and the public. They also have a strong emphasis on direct and indirect effects of technology on safety and the environment,

In the same period, several other approaches to ethical issues in technology emerged, such as technology assessment (and its variants risk asssessment and environmental risk assessment).

The characteristic features of professional ethics – including engineering ethics –can be summarized as follows:

1. They have as subject-area the ethical responsibilities of a particular profession, such as medical doctors, research scientists, engineeers, accountants, business leaders, etc.

2. They have as practitioners primarily members of the respective profession, typically members who are active in various professional societies

3. They operate largely by rule-setting, typically in the form of ethical codes for how members of the profession should behave.

4. They are largely untheoretical, i.e. the rules for behaviour are postulated rather than presented as the result of extended analysis and argumentation.

This appoach has advantages. Professional ethics, conducted in this way, is directly relevant to the professionals involved, and their own participation in its development is certainly an important quality. Professional ethics, and the development of ethical codes, can also be an important factor in the professionalization of a social activity that needs to be conducted in a competent and reasonably standardized fashion.

However, there are also disadvantages:

1. Important subject-areas are not covered.

We need ethical discussions also about social areas that do not have strong professions who want to develop an ethical code.

2. The selected subject-areas are treated one-sidedly from the perspective of an individual member of a specific profession.

Hence, the ethics of healthcare have been treated primarily from the perspective of health professionals. As a consequence of this, the perspective of patients has not always been high-lighted enough. This became clear to me when I joined a medical TA committee for the assessment of treatment and prevention and obesity. My task was to deal with the ethical issues. When I contacted the patients’, they brought up a number of important ethical issues, mostly connected with how obese persons are received in health-care, that were not mentioned spontaneously by physicians.

Another consequence of the focus on health professionals’ perspectives is that ethical issues in health care management and health insurance management have often been neglected, although the most important priority decisions in health care are made by managers and administrators. Similarly, engineering ethics deals with the responsibilities of engineers, but there are many important ethical issues in technology that do not arise primarily in the activities of engineers. The responsibilties of an ethical person in an unethical organization have been discussed in detail in engineering ethics, not least in relation to whistle-blowing, but organizational perspective such as that of a socially responsible corporation have received little attention.

3. The rule-setting approach only solves the easy problems.

Ethical codes are useful reminders of ethical aspects that members of a professional should take seriously, and they provide a language in which ethical requirements can be discussed with reference to general principles. This is in itself valuable, but the more difficult cases are almost invariably dilemmatic situations in which the different parts of a code give contradictory advice. Hence, many codes urge engineers to be loyal to their employers and also to protect the safety of the public. It is not difficult to find cases in which these two recommendations cannot both be fully satisfied.

4. Due to its atheoretical appoach, professional ethics does not contain analytical tools for critical analysis of norms or for the development of new normative standpoints.

The atheoretical approach tends to codify established social norms, rather than encourage a critical analysis of these norms. This is particularly important in relation to the cultural lag in the reception of new technologies. When new technologies are introduced in society, we often do not have socially accepted norms for the regulation of their use. What we then need is a thorough analysis of possible consequences and possible moral approaches. Due to its lack of analytical tools, professional ethics does not have much to contribute here.

Before leaving professional ethics I should mention a related approach that can be called organizational ethics. Major organizations, in particular companies but also for instance universities and funding agencies, adopt ethical policies. This has become much more common in last decade or so, partly due to the movement for corporate social responsibility. Organizational ethics differs from professional ethics in the first two of the above characteristics. The subject-area is determined by the activities and decisions of the organization, and the perspective is that of decision-makers in the organizaton rather than members of a particular profession. The third and fourth characteristics are essentially the same. Organizational ethics is rule-setting and atheoretical in the same way as professional ethics.

3. Applied ethics

The second major approach is applied ethics. This is the term most frequently used by moral philosophers who come to the fields previously trodden by the professional ethicists. Most of the academic work is performed in healthcare and related fields. In fact, the term “applied ethics” is sometimes used, erroneously, as a synonym of medical ethics.

Moral philosophers often prefer the term “bioethics” to the older term “medical ethics”. The new term avoids the strong association that the older term has with the medical profession. The oldest recorded usage of the term “bioethics” according to the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1971. The second-oldest quotation given by the OED is from Hastings Center Studies 1973, and runs: “The discipline of bioethics should be so designed… that it will directly… serve those physicians and biologists whose position demands that they make the practical decisions.”

The characteristics of applied ethics can be summarized as follows:

1. The as subject-area consists of the fields that have been opened up by professional ethics, such as medicine, research, technology, accounting, andbusiness management.

2. Most of the practitioners have a background in moral philosophy, but some are professionals from the respective field.

3. It operates by analysing problems and developing and discussing alternative standpoints in moral issues.

4. The approach is largely theory-applying, i.e. fundamental ethical theory is applied to practical problems.

Applied ethics is in several respects an advance in relation to professional ethics. But there are still two major problemss. First, the subject-areas are still almost exclusively restricted to those that have their origin in professional ethics. (The major exception would be environmental ethics, but that area is often not counted as part of applied ethics.)

The second problem is that the theory-applying aprroach is still too limited and does not given enough scope for the innovative thinking needed when investigating the ethical problems of new social and technological phenomena.

“Applied ethics” has been defined as “the application of an ethical theory to some particular moral problem or set of problems”. It is instructive to compare it to other applied disciplines, such as applied mathematics. In applied mathematics, a mathematical theory is used to solve some problem outside of pure mathematics. The theory itself is not changed or significantly extended in the process of its application. Critics of the notion of applied ethics (and applied philosophy in general) have pointed out that such a procedure is seldom workable in philosopy. It does not seem to be a realistic procedure in any subdiscipline of philosophy to first develop a theory independently of its applications to any concrete issue, and then apply it to such concrete issues without revising or amending it. It is, for instance, not advisable to approach bioethics armed with a moral theory and with a strong conviction that it will solve all the problems that come up. Many of the problems that emerge from ethical studies of biomedical practice have at most weak connections with the choice between ethical theories such as different variants of deontology or utilitarianism.

The same argument applies to ethical studies of technology. If you want to understand the ethical issues involved for instance in the agricultural uses of biotechnology, then applying utilitarianism or deontology will not be of much help. The crucial isue here is how we see the relatioship between nature and technology.The analysis of that issue requires philosophical innovation rather than the application of existing moral theories.

3. A new approach

My starting-point for a new approach is very simple: Philosophy consists largely in reflection on the human condition. Since the human condition is constantly changing, so is the subject-matter of philosophy. Developments in human society and in human knowledge provide philosophy with new food for thought. New philosophical problems and problem-areas are created. Some of the old ones are elucidated in new ways whereas others become obsolete. It is easy to give examples of developments in the previous century that have had a deep influence on philosophy: the emergency of democracy, rasism and the holocaust, the threat of a nuclear war, the feminist movements, computers, destruction of the environment, neurobiology, biotechnology, etc.

Philosophy’s relationship with the empirical facts that it depends on is far from untroubled. Too often an anorectic attitude can be found: The need for nourishment from empirical facts is denied or underplayed, and such nourishment is only procured in insufficient amounts and in a disorderly manner. My diagnosis is that we philosophers are often too obsessed with the search for eternal truths. History shows that even the best results of philosophy from previous periods has become antiquated, or at least in need of amendment, not because it was bad but because new knowledge and a new social context require answers to new questions. To mention just two examples, 20th century physics has made classical theories on time and space almost irrelevant, and 20th century politics has had the similar effects on major segments of political philosophy. By now we should have learnt that the search for eternal truths is as futile in philosophy as elsewhere, but unfortunately, as a profession we are slow learners. Too often, attempts to produce philosophy with eternal validity have led to negelect of currently available knowledge so that the outcome as instead been philosophy that is obsolete at its moment of conception.

This applies to ethics as well. Our task, as I see it, is not to produce timeless ethics – we might just as well run after the end of the rainbow – but to develop moral theory in relation to our changing society. Since technology is a major medium of change, moral theory must then be developed in relation to technology and its ongoing changes.

From the viewpoint of diciplinary delimitation, this means that the division between fundamental and “applied ethics” should be given up. What we need is a unified approach in which theory-development takes place in much closer contact with the analysis of actual ethical problems in society. The unified ethical discipline can be summarized in the same format of four characteristics that we have used for professional and applied ethics

1. It has as subject-area all the problem-areas in modern society that require ethical analysis.

2. Its practitioners persons with a background in moral philosophy, who cooperate closely with natural, social and behavioural scientists.

3. It operates by analysing problems and developing and discussing alternative standpoints in moral issues.

4. It is theory-developing, i.e. it develops moral theory in the same process as actual moral problems are analyzed.

Obviously, the ethical analysis of technology should be one important part of such a unified ethical discipline. Instead of the term “engineering ethics”, with its strong focus on the perspective of the engineering profession, I propose that the relatively little used term “technoethics” be used do denote that area of research. As I have alreadyemphasized, since technology is pivotal in social change, moral philsophy cannot deal adequately with the ethical problems of our changing society without making technoethics a central aspect of the discipline, rather than the marginalized application area that it is today,

In the following three sections I will give three examples of technoethical research that we are presently conducting at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, namelythe ethics of traffic safety, the ethics of radiation protection, and the somewhat wider area of the ethics of technological risk.

4. The ethics of traffic safety

Pioneering project, which is astonishing given he importance. Due to lack of a professional group, applied ethics has not developed here. One of the best examples of how applied ethics has followed in the footsteps of professional ethics rather than breaking new ground – which is what we try to do.

A wealth of ethical issues.


Responsibitily ascriptions. Unsusually clear case of the need to distinguish between forwards- and backwards- looking responsibility.

The relation between goal-setting anc compromize between goals. A clash between two traditions. Figure.

Ethics of trafic and transportation research

5. The ethics of radiation protection

Also pioneer project. Some discussion by radiation protection professionals, but no real professional ethics.

Several ethical issues that we have just started to investigate.

Most importantly, individual vs collective risk. Vivid debate. Closely related to a central problem in moral philosophy, namely how to combine our moral intuitions that moral goods and bads should be weighed against each other with our other moral intuition that ethics should set clear limits and forbid wrongful actions unconditionally. Before us no connection between these two debates. The connection is mutually useful.

Indetectable effects

The ethical relevance of natural vs. anthropogenic cause. Very clear-cut since the effects are the same. Naturalness as argument in de minimis issue, but also more general issue.

6. The ethics of technological risk

Traditional ethics, deterministic setting

Technology studies force us to consider situations with risk and uncertainty.

Traditional moral theories not equipped to deal with risk. Utilitarianism. Deontological, Rights-based. Contract theory.

Need to search for combinations. Research ethics (and largely general medical ethics) employs a sort of utilitarianism-for-each-individual. Not applicable in general technological contexts, but need to go in that direction. Remains to be worked out.

6. Conclusion

- professional ethics is too limited in scope, and so is applied ethics that has only followed in its footsteps. A great need to break new ground.

- professional ethics is too limited in perspective (that of a professional group such as engineers)

- instead of the atheoretical approach of professional ethics and the theory-applying approach of applied ethics we need a theory-develooping approach.

The idea of developing timeless ethics in fundamental moral philosophy without contact with the special areas to which it will be applied, and afterwards applying these ready-made theories, is fundamentally wrong. The problems that we encounter when trying to apply traditional moral theories to problems of technological risk bear witness to this failure. The study of ethical issues in technology should not be an application area for moral philosophy. Instead, it should be one of its major source for renewal both in terms of theoretical clarification and social relevance.


Professional ethics

Organizational ethics

Applied ethics

The unified discipline

Subject area

Responsibilities of particular professions

Responsibilities of particular organizations

Responsibilities of particular professions

All problem areas in need of ethical analysis


Members of the respective professions

Decision-makers in the respective organizations

Moral philosophers

Moral philosophers

Mode of operation



Analysis and arguments

Analysis and arguments

Approach to theory