“Guns don’t kill people; people do.” That’s a common refrain from the National Rifle Association, but it expresses a certain view of our relations to the things we make that also affects our thinking about the scope of ethics. On this traditional view, human persons are moral agents, and artifacts, or products of technology in general, are just tools; they have no moral significance in and of themselves.
In his new book, Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Peter-Paul Verbeek, professor of philosophy at the University of Twente and Delft University, The Netherlands, argues persuasively that this traditional view is no longer tenable. Instead, we need to understand the moral role of technology as one of active mediation, and of ourselves as technologically mediated moral agents. Ultrasound, for example, isn’t just a matter of peeking into the womb; the fetus becomes a potential patient, the womb becomes an environment for moral decisions, and the parents become responsible for making these newly relevant decisions. In general, if “ought” implies “can”, and if what we can do is expanded and conditioned by technology, then the range and nature of moral decisions and actions must also be expanded and conditioned by technology, and the designing of technology itself can be seen explicitly as having an important moral dimension. In Moralizing Technology, Verbeek spells out this new view of the moral relevance of artifacts and some of its implications for moral subjects, technological design, and ethical theory.