Technology and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L102-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2021, from

1. Attitudes to technology

The history of philosophy contains two broad moral appraisals of technology. The first, implicitly present in most normative theories prior to the Renaissance, is that technological change is socially destabilizing and therefore should be delimited carefully. Without social stability, it was argued, people die even under conditions where nature is abundant, and technological change easily undermines such stability. The second, characteristic of modern ethics, is that technological change is inherently beneficial because it enhances human welfare and autonomy. Here the argument is that people suffer more from the elements than from other human beings, and that they should therefore work together to conquer nature through technological progress. These two broad ethical views further reflect opposed ideals of human life: on the one hand, an ideal of social community subordinate to nature; on the other, human autonomy and freedom from natural constraint (see Technology, philosophy of).

Only within the modern period have questions of ethics and technology been examined in detail, with two approaches emerging. One grows out of the Continental or phenomenological tradition in philosophy, the other out of the Anglo-American analytical tradition (see Analytical philosophy; Phenomenological movement). Continental philosophers seek to evaluate technology as a whole while Anglo-American philosophers are oriented towards piecemeal assessments of particular technologies. Continental philosophers also commonly argue that traditional ethical theories are inadequate to the moral issues presented by modern technology, whereas Anglo-American philosophers have been more comfortable adapting existing utilitarian or deontological ethical frameworks (see Deontological ethics; Utilitarianism).

Citing this article:
Mitcham, Carl and Helen Nissenbaum. Attitudes to technology. Technology and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L102-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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