The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Traditionally philosophical discussions on moral responsibility have focused on the human components in moral action. Accounts of how to ascribe moral responsibility usually describe human agents performing actions that have well-defined, direct consequences. In today’s increasingly technological society, however, human activity cannot be properly understood without making reference to technological artifacts, which complicates the ascription of moral responsibility (Jonas 1984; Waelbers 2009). As we interact with and through these artifacts, they affect the decisions that we make and how we make them (Latour 1992). They persuade, facilitate and enable particular human cognitive processes, actions or attitudes, while constraining, discouraging and inhibiting others. For instance, internet search engines prioritize and present information in a particular order, thereby influencing what internet users get to see. As Verbeek points out, such technological artifacts are “active mediators” that “actively co-shape people’s being in the world: their perception and actions, experience and existence” (2006, p. 364). As active mediators, they change the character of human action and as a result it challenges conventional notions of moral responsibility (Jonas 1984; Johnson 2001).
Computing presents a particular case for understanding the role of technology in moral responsibility. As these technologies become a more integral part of daily activities, automate more decision-making processes and continue to transform the way people communicate and relate to each other, they further complicate the already problematic tasks of attributing moral responsibility. The growing pervasiveness of computer technologies in everyday life, the growing complexities of these technologies and the new possibilities that they provide raise new kinds of questions: who is responsible for the information published on the Internet? Who is responsible when a self-driving vehicle causes an accident? Who is accountable when electronic records are lost or when they contain errors? To what extent and for what period of time are developers of computer technologies accountable for untoward consequences of their products? And as computer technologies become more complex and behave increasingly autonomous can or should humans still be held responsible for the behavior of these technologies?
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