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Technology and the Matter of Morality (NWO-VENI)


The research project ‘Technology and the Matter of Morality’, funded by NWO (the Dutch scientific granting agency; innovative research program, ‘veni’ scheme), focuses on the morality of technological artifacts. During the past decade, many analyses have been made of the influence of technological artifacts on the actions and experiences of human beings. Up to now, such analyses have mainly functioned in descriptive settings. Technology and the Matter of Morality will deploy them in a normative setting. 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 will serve as a starting point. 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, in which the matter of morality is material as well, will be made fruitful for engineering ethics. If technological artifacts are morally charged, technology design is ‘ethics by other means’, designers materialize morality. The project will investigate 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. It will do so in continual relation to the domain of information and communication technologies.

Duration: August 2004 – March 2008