Technology and ethics

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

2. Continental discussions

Within Continental discussions, Hans Jonas has made the most sustained argument for technology as a special subject of ethics. For Jonas, ethics in premodern times could reasonably allow technology to remain in the background because technology itself had no high moral purpose. Unlike politics or religion, for instance, technology was treated as a marginal aspect of human life, one limited in both power and effect. By contrast, during the modern period technology entered the foreground of human experience. According to Francis Bacon (1620), for instance, the inventions of printing, gunpowder and the compass have done more to benefit humanity than all politics and religion. Jonas believes that because of the Baconian evaluation of technology, ‘modern technology has introduced actions of such novel scale, objects, and consequences that the framework of former ethics can no longer contain them’ ([1979] 1984: 6). According to Jonas, ‘no previous ethics had to consider the global condition of human life and the far-off future, even existence of the race. These now being an issue demands… a new conception of duties and rights, for which previous ethics… provided not even the principles’ ([1979] 1984: 8).

The exact way in which technology engenders an epochal transformation of the human condition is, however, open to dispute within Continental discussions. Philosophers as diverse as Karl Marx, Max Scheler, José Ortega y Gasset, and Martin Heidegger all claim that modern technology has transformed the human condition and undermined traditional moralities. But about the particular ways in which technology has altered the human lifeworld there are major disagreements. With regard to appropriate moral responses there are still further disputes.

According to Marx (1867), for instance, ‘the modern science of technology’ undermines traditional skills and the satisfactions of craft production, placing workers under the control of large-scale, capitalist-owned factories in which labour functions have become equal and interchangeable. The new system of production destroys a traditional social ecology in which the ‘species essence’ of making things benefited all social classes. Under capitalism material production unequally benefits the upper classes. This disequilibrium can be corrected only by means of a social revolution in ownership of the new technologies. The Marxist ethical assessment of industrial technology thus points up the inadequacy of the modern economic order as a means for the social control of technology, because of the way participation in that order has been restructured by technological change (see Marx, K. §4).

According to Scheler (1915), the technological transformation of the lifeworld is more than an economic phenomenon; it is also the rise and dominance of a new ‘ethos of industrialism’ even among technical workers themselves. Such an ethos exalts utility and instrumental values such as efficiency over vital and organic ones such as love. This is an axiological disorder that calls for cultural reformation.

For Ortega (1939), however, inherent within the modern science of technology and the ethos of industrialization there arises a moral problem that cannot be addressed by means of either Marx’s social revolution or Scheler’s cultural reform. Modern scientific technology, in contrast with traditional crafts, radically increases what can be done without any corresponding enhancement of ideals about what should be done. In Ortega’s own formulation of the issue: in the pre-modern period, human beings acquired only very specific technical abilities, tightly coupled to particular uses, such as pottery for making pots. They never possessed any generalized technological powers. Now, however, human beings do possess technology in general without any clear idea of particular uses. To address this problem Ortega suggested a need to cultivate what he called ‘techniques of the soul’ such as yoga.

Undoubtedly the most influential European philosopher to address the issue of ethics and technology, even though he explicitly rejects the discipline of ethics as such, is Heidegger. Heidegger undercuts the distinction between science and technology, and argues that modern scientific technology or technoscience is not so much an ethos as a form of truth. This truth or knowledge reduces the world to Bestand or resources available for manipulation by a world-configuring, nihilistic destiny he calls Gestell. Heidegger seems at once to make ethical reflection more necessary than ever before and to destroy its very possibility (see Heidegger, M. §6).

One of Heidegger’s less controversial theses is the notion that science and technology are interpenetrating practices: the science of nuclear physics is as much the applied technology of cyclotrons and reactors as the technology of nuclear engineering is applied nuclear physics. To the extent that this is the case, the ethics of science tends to merge with the ethics of technology (see Heideggerian philosophy of science).

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