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‘Materializing morality’ raises question of ethics in technology

By Zhang Wei | 2016-02-05 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Modifying human behavior through engineering design turns an ethical issue into a technological one, which suggests that designers must begin to act as social managers.


While the rapid development of technology creates a host of exciting possibilities and solutions to problems that have long plagued humanity, it also raises new moral and ethical dilemmas. The concept of “materializing morality” is a new trend in contemporary Western ethics of technology. It means embodying abstract ethical norms into the structure and function of technological artifacts through appropriate design, enabling technological artifacts to morally influence or regulate the user’s decisions and behaviors when they are being used.

To better understand what materializing morality means in practice, let us start with three real-life scenarios. One is traffic-control devices, such as speed bumps, we often see in the street. They are designed to encourage drivers to slow down when passing through pedestrian crossings. They are more colloquially named “sleeping policemen.” Next is the picture of a fly in the urinals at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, which has been touted as a simple, inexpensive way to solve the “splash back” issue and reduce cleaning costs. The last is the coin-operated shopping cart, a management innovation that induces customers to put the carts back to where they were, thus creating a favorable and well-organized shopping environment. 


Morality in design
To borrow from French science and technology studies scholar Bruno Latour’s “actor network theory,” materializing morality entails “writing” ethical norms into technological design, forming a “script” to guide human behaviors. Just as movie scripts govern the actions of actors, the scripts of technology, to some extent, can also “direct” human actions on the real-life stage.


Dutch philosopher of technology Peter-Paul Verbeek argued that ethics is the study of how human beings act and live, so when technologies are inherently moral entities, this implies that designers are doing “ethics by other means,” i.e. they materialize morality.

The concept was first articulated by Hans Achterhuis, a professor of systematic philosophy, and further developed by Verbeek. Verbeek established technology mediation theory as a firm theoretical basis for materializing morality. The theory argues that technology works as a form of mediation between humans and the world. It will change the way the world is presented to humans while reforming the way humans respond. Through such mediation, the initiative of people and the objectiveness of the world are reshaped.

Therefore, we can exploit the ethical elements intentionally or not incorporate them in design to reform the way people think and act.

In reality, the concept has been recognized and echoed in contemporary industrial design and society. For example, the notion of “persuasive technology” proposed by B. J. Fogg from Stanford University and the theory of “value-sensitive design” pioneered by Batya Friedman at the University of Washington are closely linked to materializing mortality.


Challenging humanistic ethics
Judging from the evolution of ethics studies, materializing morality further expanded the scope of research subjects. In modern times, Western ethics has become increasingly focused on humans instead of objects. Naturally, the rising paradigm of materializing morality poses a challenge to traditional humanistic ethics.

Humanistic ethics is problematic in two ways. First, the framework overlooks the moral existence of natural objects. Due to such negligence, human beings recklessly plunder the natural environment, causing severe pollution and ecological crisis. Second, it does not acknowledge artifacts as they are.

As a result, ethics only serves to educate human beings, while morality is left to regulate behavior. At the same time, the role technological artifacts can play is largely overlooked. Once incorporated with moral guidance, they are an equally effective means of reforming the way people act and live.

However, the introduction of objects brings new challenges to ethics. Academics have various answers in terms of the ethical role and status of objects as well as the rules human and objects should follow during interaction. As for technological objects, the relationship has yet to be resolved.

Currently, there are three viewpoints on whether objects have moral initiative. One camp firmly opposes such a notion, arguing that technology simply creates tools, and tools are devoid of any morality. They believe the manner in which technology is used determines whether or not its use is ethical.

On the other hand, researchers on machine ethics stand behind the moral initiative of inanimate objects, suggesting that artificial intelligence, such as robots, can be capable of initiative and intention similar to human beings and can be independent actors in morality.

The third opinion is more neutral. Scholars in this group believe artifacts do not have human morality, but neither are they neutral in value. Artifacts can influence the moral decisions and behavior of people.

At any rate, materializing morality offers a new mechanism and means to regulate human behavior. Moral self-discipline, education, laws and regulations are the usual tools used in this respect. However, for those who have low moral standards and fear no consequences, self-discipline or education seems trivial. Again, for those who act irrationally, punishment by law is after the fact and cannot prevent illegal events in time. More effective means are needed to supplement traditional practices.

Materializing morality might be the answer. It directly guides and alters human behavior through engineering design without requiring high ethical or legal awareness. Just like the speed bumps that slow drivers down, actors subconsciously respond to the technological guidance without former acknowledgement. 


In essence, modifying human behavior through engineering design turns an ethical issue into a technological one, which almost instantly suggests that designers must begin to act as social managers.
However, if engineers are given the right to manipulate human beings, it is possible they would abuse these rights for personal gain or bend technologies in favor of certain group, causing social injustice.

The concern is not new. Langdon Winner, a scholar of American science and technology studies, once said the bridges over the parkways on Long Island in New York City call into question whether public will has been replaced by the reasoning of engineers. This case prompted him to ponder how engineers should be supervised or restrained and how to safeguard the public interest, especially for disadvantaged groups, in the process of designing and planning. These are practical problems that materializing morality has to answer.

The limitations of materializing morality prevent it from completely solving the problems in the ethics of technology. In my opinion, the fundamental cure is to cultivate a sense of moral consciousness through “internalized morality.” Only by planting the seed of morality in human beings can they more likely act in accordance with social norms. If we only resort to external forces to modify and guide human behavior, morality will have the same shortcomings as laws and regulations. Though technologies are capable of exerting a type of moral pressure that is much more effective than imposing sanctions or trying to alter the way people think, they can probably work only on those who already have high moral standards in the first place.


Zhang Wei is from the College of Marxism at Central China Normal University in Hubei Province.