- Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things. by Peter-Paul Verbeek
Peter-Paul Verbeek’s Moralizing Technology is in many respects a continuation of his 2005 book What Things Do. In that work he inquired into ways to think about technological devices in a philosophically and empirically sound manner. Now he expands his inquiry by developing ways to assess ethically technological mediation in human perception, action, and praxes. This step is highly relevant as technological artifacts, networks, and arrangements greatly shape our lives. Understanding things becomes truly pertinent only when it is combined with thinking about moral orientation in design and production.
Verbeek calls his approach “postphenomenological.” In brief, this means that he follows the phenomenological lead of analyzing human engagement in the lifeworld in light of intentionality (directedness of consciousness), but does not limit intentionality solely to human consciousness. Verbeek argues that intentionality is (almost) never purely human but constituted in a compound of human awareness and artifacts. His work draws from many sources. In the postphenomenological move he follows Don Ihde. He also takes his bearings from STS—especially Bruno Latour’s philosophically refined form of it. The vibrant Dutch scene in philosophy of technology forms the background of his discussions. Verbeek still engages in conversation with more traditional phenomenological philosophy of technology (e.g., Martin Heidegger and Albert Borgmann) but consistently does so in a manner that aims to show a way beyond the older perspectives.
Verbeek argues for an a-modern and non-humanist position in ethics [End Page 265] of technology. He follows Latour in showing how the modern approach of analyzing the world into human (societal, voluntary) and natural (“given,” causally determined) has never matched the world we live in. Humans and things are mixed; human agency, within the world is always “hybrid.” The conscious giving of meaning by humans is always intertwined in a context of things—”physical” and human-made. For example, prenatal ultrasound scanning creates a novel hermeneutic and moral situation for expectant parents, for the health care professionals who offer ultrasound tests, and for policymakers. When our perceptions of a fetus are mediated by ultrasound technology, pregnancy comes to be seen a new light—for instance, visual images invite us to interpret the fetus as an individual separate from its mother. Moreover, in a larger sense there never was “a fetus as such” but always a fetus that we got to know through technological mediation, however rudimentary. In addition to this hermeneutic hybridization, humans acting with and among technological devices form hybrid forms of praxes, action, and agency.
Verbeek’s “non-humanism” refers to his line of argument that ethics needs to cast off its humanist bias. In modern times ethics has, to a great extent, focused on the choices of a conscious human subject. Based on his account of hybrid agency Verbeek argues: “Moral action is a practice in which humans and non-humans are integrally connected, generate moral questions, and help to answer them” (p. 38). Looking at praxes and practices also leads to the realization that ethics isn’t mainly about disconnected choices but more crucially about larger arrangements that explicitly—or most often implicitly—answer the question “How to live?” This is the question of classical ethics, familiar for us from Aristotle and the Stoics. Verbeek indeed proposes reappropriation of ancient ethics. This he does following Michel Foucault’s thinking on ethics, as developed in Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976, 1984). Centrally, for Verbeek ethics of technology addresses this classical question in the form “What kind of subjects do we want to be?” Things, and practices composed of them, are material manifestations of morality, and they shape, or at least affect, who we become. The design of things needs to be done in awareness of this inherent moral significance of technology.
Verbeek builds up his approach well. Yet in some places the positions he wants to overcome look a bit like straw men. For example, the Kantian transcendental view of moral autonomy is somewhat more...