When Technologies Makes Good People Do Bad Things: Another Argument Against the Value-Neutrality of Technologies

Science and Engineering Ethics 20 (2):329-343 (2013)


Although many scientists and engineers insist that technologies are value-neutral, philosophers of technology have long argued that they are wrong. In this paper, I introduce a new argument against the claim that technologies are value-neutral. This argument complements and extends, rather than replaces, existing arguments against value-neutrality. I formulate the Value-Neutrality Thesis, roughly, as the claim that a technological innovation can have bad effects, on balance, only if its users have “vicious” or condemnable preferences. After sketching a microeconomic model for explaining or predicting a technology’s impact on individuals’ behavior, I argue that a particular technological innovation can create or exacerbate collective action problems, even in the absence of vicious preferences. Technologies do this by increasing the net utility of refusing to cooperate. I also argue that a particular technological innovation can induce short-sighted behavior because of humans’ tendency to discount future benefits too steeply. I suggest some possible extensions of my microeconomic model of technological impacts. These extensions would enable philosophers of technology to consider agents with mixed motives—i.e., agents who harbor some vicious preferences but also some aversion to acting on them—and to apply the model to questions about the professional responsibilities of engineers, scientists, and other inventors

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David R. Morrow
American University

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