Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Distributed Cognition and Distributed Morality: Agency, Artifacts and Systems

Heersmink, R. 
Sci Eng Ethics 23, 431–448 (2017). 


There are various philosophical approaches and theories describing the intimate relation people have to artifacts. In this paper, I explore the relation between two such theories, namely distributed cognition and distributed morality theory. I point out a number of similarities and differences in these views regarding the ontological status they attribute to artifacts and the larger systems they are part of. Having evaluated and compared these views, I continue by focussing on the way cognitive artifacts are used in moral practice. I specifically conceptualise how such artifacts (a) scaffold and extend moral reasoning and decision-making processes, (b) have a certain moral status which is contingent on their cognitive status, and (c) whether responsibility can be attributed to distributed systems. This paper is primarily written for those interested in the intersection of cognitive and moral theory as it relates to artifacts, but also for those independently interested in philosophical debates in extended and distributed cognition and ethics of (cognitive) technology.


Both Floridi and Verbeek argue that moral actions, either positive or negative, can be the result of interactions between humans and technology, giving artifacts a much more prominent role in ethical theory than most philosophers have. They both develop a non-anthropocentric systems approach to morality. Floridi focuses on large-scale ‘‘multiagent systems’’, whereas Verbeek focuses on small-scale ‘‘human–technology associations’’. But both attribute morality or moral agency to systems comprising of humans and technological artifacts. On their views, moral agency is thus a system property and not found exclusively in human agents. Does this mean that the artifacts and software programs involved in the process have moral agency? Neither of them attribute moral agency to the artifactual components of the larger system. It is not inconsistent to say that the human-artifact system has moral agency without saying that its artifactual components have moral agency.  Systems often have different properties than their components. The difference between Floridi and Verbeek’s approach roughly mirrors the difference between distributed and extended cognition, in that Floridi and distributed cognition theory focus on large-scale systems without central controllers, whereas Verbeek and extended cognition theory focus on small-scale systems in which agents interact with and control an informational artifact. In Floridi’s example, the technology seems semi-autonomous: the software and computer systems automatically do what they are designed to do. Presumably, the money is automatically transferred to Oxfam, implying that technology is a mere cog in a larger socio-technical system that realises positive moral outcomes. There seems to be no central controller in this system: it is therefore difficult to see it as an extended agency whose intentions are being realised.