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Sunday, December 19, 2021

On and beyond artifacts in moral relations: accounting for power and violence in Coeckelbergh’s social relationism

Tollon, F., Naidoo, K. 
AI & Soc (2021). 


The ubiquity of technology in our lives and its culmination in artificial intelligence raises questions about its role in our moral considerations. In this paper, we address a moral concern in relation to technological systems given their deep integration in our lives. Coeckelbergh develops a social-relational account, suggesting that it can point us toward a dynamic, historicised evaluation of moral concern. While agreeing with Coeckelbergh’s move away from grounding moral concern in the ontological properties of entities, we suggest that it problematically upholds moral relativism. We suggest that the role of power, as described by Arendt and Foucault, is significant in social relations and as curating moral possibilities. This produces a clearer picture of the relations at hand and opens up the possibility that relations may be deemed violent. Violence as such gives us some way of evaluating the morality of a social relation, moving away from Coeckelbergh’s seeming relativism while retaining his emphasis on social–historical moral precedent.

From Conclusion and implications

The role of artificial intelligence or technology more broadly in our moral landscape depends upon how this landscape is conceived. The realist theory posited by Torrance which seeks to defend the view that moral concern is grounded objectively comes up short in its capacity to function as an explanatory framework which sufficiently accounts for changing moral sensibilities. On the other hand, Coeckelbergh offers a social-relational theory which, in contrast, argues that moral concern should not rest on the properties of individual entities but on the relations between them. While this view better allows for the consideration of social–historical information about relations, it seems to imply a sort of moral relativism and its focus on how things appear makes it blind to the reality of relations. Crucially, Coeckelbergh’s account cannot make sense of the role of power to the extent that it plays out in social relations and curates moral possibilities.

By drawing on an Arendtian and Foucauldian notion power as an attempt to control a situation and assessing the ways it may function in relation to moral situations, we understand how its presence makes relations morally interesting. Not only this, but a view of power also allows us to identify certain social-relational dynamics as violent. We have described violence as a restriction of potentiality, marking the end of a power relation. As we have discussed in relation to technology, this characterisation of social-relational dynamics gives us some basis to say of certain actions or relations that they are morally permissible or impermissible. This assessment retains Coeckelbergh’s emphasis on analysing social–historical relations, while allowing for some degree of moral judgement to be made.