A Rawlsian approach to distribute responsibilities in networks

Science and Engineering Ethics 16 (2):221-249 (2010)
Due to their non-hierarchical structure, socio-technical networks are prone to the occurrence of the problem of many hands. In the present paper an approach is introduced in which people’s opinions on responsibility are empirically traced. The approach is based on the Rawlsian concept of Wide Reflective Equilibrium (WRE) in which people’s considered judgments on a case are reflectively weighed against moral principles and background theories, ideally leading to a state of equilibrium. Application of the method to a hypothetical case with an artificially constructed network showed that it is possible to uncover the relevant data to assess a consensus amongst people in terms of their individual WRE. It appeared that the moral background theories people endorse are not predictive for their actual distribution of responsibilities but that they indicate ways of reasoning and justifying outcomes. Two ways of ascribing responsibilities were discerned, corresponding to two requirements of a desirable responsibility distribution: fairness and completeness. Applying the method triggered learning effects, both with regard to conceptual clarification and moral considerations, and in the sense that it led to some convergence of opinions. It is recommended to apply the method to a real engineering case in order to see whether this approach leads to an overlapping consensus on a responsibility distribution which is justifiable to all and in which no responsibilities are left unfulfilled, therewith trying to contribute to the solution of the problem of many hands.
Keywords Responsibility  Problem of many hands  Wide Reflective Equilibrium  Procedural ethics  Engineering ethics  Socio-technical networks
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DOI 10.1007/s11948-009-9155-0
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