I am currently working on the research project Technology and the Matter of Morality, funded by NWO (Innovational Research Incentive, ‘veni’ grant), which focuses on the morality of technological artifacts and its implications for ethical theory and the ethics of design. The insight that technologies influence human actions – be it directly by steering behavior or indirectly by shaping experiences on the basis of which decisions are made – implies that technologies give ‘material answers’ to the ethical question ‘how to act?’. Technologies are morally charged. This conclusion challenges ethical theory. Within the predominant ethical frameworks, after all, it is not only difficult to assign moral agency to inanimate objects, but also to consider behavior resulting from technological mediation as ‘moral actions.’ In both cases the autonomy is missing that is required for morality. The project aims to meet this challenge by articulating a redefinition of moral agency and elaborating this to a ‘material ethics of technology.’ An analysis of the relations between the early and the late work of Foucault serves as a starting point here: not only was Foucault one of the first to discern the moral charge of material artifacts; he also articulated a redefinition of ethics beyond the autonomous moral agent. The resulting perspective is also made fruitful for the ethics of design. If technological artifacts are morally charged, technology design is ‘ethics by other means;’ designers materialize morality. The project investigates how engineering ethics can be augmented in such a way, that this implicit moral decision-making of engineers could happen in a more explicit and systematic way.
In 2008, my NWO-VIDI project ‘Technology and the limits of humanity: the ethics and anthropology of posthumanism’ will start.