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Thursday, February 9, 2023

To Each Technology Its Own Ethics: The Problem of Ethical Proliferation

Sætra, H.S., Danaher, J. 
Philos. Technol. 35, 93 (2022).


Ethics plays a key role in the normative analysis of the impacts of technology. We know that computers in general and the processing of data, the use of artificial intelligence, and the combination of computers and/or artificial intelligence with robotics are all associated with ethically relevant implications for individuals, groups, and society. In this article, we argue that while all technologies are ethically relevant, there is no need to create a separate ‘ethics of X’ or ‘X ethics’ for each and every subtype of technology or technological property—e.g. computer ethics, AI ethics, data ethics, information ethics, robot ethics, and machine ethics. Specific technologies might have specific impacts, but we argue that they are often sufficiently covered and understood through already established higher-level domains of ethics. Furthermore, the proliferation of tech ethics is problematic because (a) the conceptual boundaries between the subfields are not well-defined, (b) it leads to a duplication of effort and constant reinventing the wheel, and (c) there is danger that participants overlook or ignore more fundamental ethical insights and truths. The key to avoiding such outcomes lies in a taking the discipline of ethics seriously, and we consequently begin with a brief description of what ethics is, before presenting the main forms of technology related ethics. Through this process, we develop a hierarchy of technology ethics, which can be used by developers and engineers, researchers, or regulators who seek an understanding of the ethical implications of technology. We close by deducing two principles for positioning ethical analysis which will, in combination with the hierarchy, promote the leveraging of existing knowledge and help us to avoid an exaggerated proliferation of tech ethics.

From the Conclusion

The ethics of technology is garnering attention for a reason. Just about everything in modern society is the result of, and often even infused with, some kind of technology. The ethical implications are plentiful, but how should the study of applied tech ethics be organised? We have reviewed a number of specific tech ethics, and argued that there is much overlap, and much confusion relating to the demarcation of different domain ethics. For example, many issues covered by AI ethics are arguably already covered by computer ethics, and many issues argued to be data ethics, particularly issues related to privacy and surveillance, have been studied by other tech ethicists and non-tech ethicists for a long time.

We have proposed two simple principles that should help guide more ethical research to the higher levels of tech ethics, while still allowing for the existence of lower-level domain specific ethics. If this is achieved, we avoid confusion and a lack of navigability in tech ethics, ethicists avoid reinventing the wheel, and we will be better able to make use of existing insight from higher-level ethics. At the same time, the work done in lower-level ethics will be both valid and highly important, because it will be focused on issues exclusive to that domain. For example, robot ethics will be about those questions that only arise when AI is embodied in a particular sense, and not all issues related to the moral status of machines or social AI in general.

While our argument might initially be taken as a call to arms against more than one fundamental applied ethics, we hope to have allayed such fears. There are valid arguments for the existence of different types of applied ethics, and we merely argue that an exaggerated proliferation of tech ethics is occurring, and that it has negative consequences. Furthermore, we must emphasise that there is nothing preventing anyone from making specific guidelines for, for example, AI professionals, based on insight from computer ethics. The domains of ethics and the needs of practitioners are not the same, and our argument is consequently that ethical research should be more concentrated than professional practice.