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4 Technology Ethics

In the first part of the course we talked about the internal domain of responsibility of science and technology enactors (mostly scientists and researchers). This was mostly a matter of profession ethics and good scientific practice. We have learned how to do one’s job well: by compliance to an ethos of professional practice which is mostly informed by virtue ethics (for example ancient Greek ethics, or Confucius). We compared the major two ethical theories: consequentialism (focused on outcome, interested in benefits) and deontology (based on duty, granting rights) by the example of animal experimentation. Moreover, we learned how to fill the reflection on means and ends of an action with normative arguments (values, golden rule, etc.). In order to do so, we looked at different “centrisms”, such as anthropocentrism, biocentrism, ecocentrism, holism. Equipped with these ethical strategies, we can proceed to the next level: The impact of science onto society and the environment in the form of technology, translated from and enabled by scientific knowledge.

4.1 Sustainability

In recent years, sustainability became a key concept in environmental and social politics, both on local and global levels. However, it is often not clear what is exactly meant by it and what it particularly implies. Let’s try to bring a bit of light into it. Please keep in mind that we do this because we want to understand it as the reason for reflecting on ethical aspects of S&T progress. The principles of sustainability will give us a framework for the evaluation of risks and benefits of S&T.

Goal of the class

This class sets the scene for the following classes. It is necessary to understand that evaluations of risks, responsibilities, desirable or undesired developments of science and technology proceed in professional realms (governance, commissions, academic and economic decision-making) in discourses among stakeholders on the basis of plausible principles of justice and fairness. In principle, the question is “How do we want to live, and how can we make sure that future generations also have the freedom to ask this questions and decide upon it?“. This is the idea of sustainability. Therefore,

  • actors in S&T development need to understand what sustainability implies and what it means in practical terms for their job,
  • it is useful to understand the paradigms and concepts of contemporary S&T governance and policy (which is currently sustainability) in order to play one’s role as practitioner and decision-maker successfully,
  • this class shall equip the future generation of S&T enactors with the skill to analyse the consequences of their decisions in terms of sustainability, so that related processes (in R&D, in industry, in economy) become, indeed, sustainable.

4.1.1 The Basic Idea

As the word sustainability suggests, it describes the ability of something (an event, an incidence, a development, a process, a phenomenon) to sustain, that means to keep itself proceeding smoothly and continuously without exhausting itself and without drifting towards decay or catastrophe. One of the oldest records of sustainability – without calling it as such – might be a statement by Mengzi (孟子):

不違農時,穀不可勝食也;數罟不入洿池,魚鼈不可勝食也;斧斤以時入山林,材木不可勝用也。穀與魚鼈不可勝食,材木不可勝用,是使民養生喪死無憾也。養生喪死無憾,王道之始也。[If the seasons of husbandry be not interfered with, the grain will be more than can be eaten. If close nets are not allowed to enter the pools and ponds, the fishes and turtles will be more than can be consumed. If the axes and bills enter the hills and forests only at the proper time, the wood will be more than can be used. When the grain and fish and turtles are more than can be eaten, and there is more wood than can be used, this enables the people to nourish their living and mourn for their dead, without any feeling against any. This condition is the first step of royal government.] (Mencius 1A3)

Mengzi’s three examples (agriculture, fishing, forestry) are crucial for the society and its survival. In this advice for a leader, he recognises that the most important factor for long-term social stability is to make sure that the applied techniques to generate food and exploit natural resources enable a steady recovery of resources so that they don’t run out. Natural balance and harmony – in good accordance with Chinese cosmology (Yijing), Daoism and Confucius’ teachings – must not be messed up since they are the basis for human life. With other words: Agriculture, fishing and forestry can only sustain when they are done in the right way. His three examples can serve as an illustration of three different notions of what is technology:

  • Husbandry (or agriculture) – This represents a system of knowledge as a guideline for action, with other words: science and technology as know-how and know-that,
  • Fishing nets – Here, technology means technical artefacts,
  • Axes and bills – As particular ways to cut wood in the forest, these stand for technology understood as techniques or procedural methods.

Science and technology, therefore, can be sustainable or not in view of their application and impact. Know-how (if not ignored) has the potential to manage activities in a way that they become more sustainable. Technical artefacts can be sustainable or not through their particular design and usage. Techniques and methods can be sustainable or not through the impact they have on the environment in which they are applied (landscapes, societies, social (sub-)systems, etc.).

Mengzi also gives a reason for the importance of sustainability: “This enables the people to nourish their living“. For him as an Confucian, that means above all that they have time to cultivate and follow their rituals (li). Only when their existential needs are fulfilled through knowingly sustainable production methods, they will have the temporal, mental and spiritual capacity to actively make their life quality better. This could be taken as an example for an anthropocentric view on sustainability. Grain, fish, turtles and the forest are not of interest for their own sake, but in view of their importance for human well-being. For modern approaches to sustainability aspects of technology, we have to keep in mind that technology is produced and developed by humans for human purposes. This, however, doesn’t make its assessment necessarily anthropocentric! Technological advancements clearly have an impact on all abovementioned spheres (society, environment, economy), either as direct or indirect effects, which can both be either intended or totally unexpected. Whether these effects are evaluated as positive or negative depends on how we apply ethical reasoning (which we will do in later classes of this course).

Finally, Mengzi also explains where (in which realm) sustainability is debated: “The first step of royal government“. Sustainability is a political task. Stakeholders in the discourse can be manifold from all kinds of institutions and organisations, but in the end it must be politically manifested in the form of decisions, action plans, agendas, regulations or laws. The underlying ideal is that politics’ priority is the governance of different interests and viewpoints in order to promote and support the well-being of the entire society and its environmental foundations. Politics is also the arena in which ethics leaves the academic surrounding of pure theoretical reflection and enters the stage of real-life relevance and pragmatic application.

4.1.2 Contemporary Definitions

In the Western world, the history of sustainability as an important principle is much shorter. After many centuries of a paradigm that suggested endless resources and unlimited exploitation of God’s creation (Earth as a gift of God to mankind), deeper systematic and scientific insights into nature and society facilitated a higher awareness for the vulnerability of the environment and the limits of exploitation. The first record of sustainability (in its German word, Nachhaltigkeit) is from a German forestry regulation in the middle of the 19th century. It explains how to maintain a forest in a sustainable way by finding the balance between cutting wood and letting trees grow.

In 1980, the World Conservation Strategy was produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and the United Nations Environment Programme. This first international attempt to apply sustainability on a political scale was driven by non-governmental organisations. Soon, this pressure led to political action: In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as Brundtland Commission, named after its chairman) produced the report Our Common Future with strategies for global environmental balance and a call for action in the face of progressing environmental destruction and pollution. Another milestone was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) – the Earth Summit – in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Here, conventions on climate change and biodiversity, guidelines of forest principles, a declaration on Environment and Development, and an extensive international agenda for action for sustainable development for the twenty-first century (Agenda 21) have been presented as major output. Sustainability was also a topic at the United Nation’s Millennium Summit in 2000 in New York, but with a slightly different focus than the others: major outputs were more focused on “human affairs” rather than the environment, such as the Millennium Development Goals concerning eradication of poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, child and maternal health, combating HIV and AIDS, and global partnership. Worth mentioning here is also the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002. Its report gives more details on what is understood as sustainability. The participants agreed upon a declaration that committed to ‘‘a collective responsibility to advance and strengthen the interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable development – economic development, social development, and environmental protection – at local, national and global levels“. The most recent noteworthy event was the 2015 Sustainable Development Summit in New York where the Agenda 2030 with its sustainable development goals (SDGs) has been introduced. These 17 SDGs specify fields in which action towards sustainability is of special importance. For each of them, various instances in politics, economy, S&T, and the global public have to work together in order to achieve the desired goals. For different professions and different actors, different fields are of  special significance. You may identify for your future job which of the areas your particular activity is affecting.


The definition from the 2002 summit – sustainability as a matter of society, environment and economy – can help us understand sustainability as a regime between different interests of different stakeholders – instances or people for which something is at stake.


There is the society with its members’ interest in a good quality of life (whatever that means), in education, community (family and friend life), and equal chances for everybody. Then, there is the economic system as a special field of human activity with its interest in profit and growth, but also in risk prevention and smoothly running processes. And, there is the environment with its interest (as far as we can state that) in an healthy ecosystem, biodiversity and the steady chance of recovery from impacts. All these spheres may have internal conflicts of interest, so that we can speak of social sustainability when all interests within society are met (the same for the other spheres). Our larger idea of sustainability, however, starts where the interests of different spheres overlap. The quality of human life, obviously, depends strongly on the health of the ecosystem, so that both instances (society and environment) have an interest in a balanced ecosystem. This can be achieved by following principles of environmental justice, for example resource stewardship (which is more than just resource management) on a local and global scale. Society’s and economy’s interests overlap in the call for business ethics, healthy work force (or human resources, to use this terrible term), protecting worker’s rights, and fair trade. Economy and environment share the demand for energy efficiency (not wasting sources of energy) and a profitable use of resources. In summary, we may express the principle thought of sustainability like this:

Sustainability means to govern human activities and decision-making in a way that current interests are met while the freedom of choices of future generations concerning the fulfilment of their needs is not diminished.

It is important to realise the two dimensions in which S&T have to do with sustainability: On the one hand, obviously, S&T progress enabled human activities that can now be identified as unsustainable, for example in the form of environmental destruction or social disruptions: S&T development as the problem. On the other hand, we are only able to understand what processes may be sustainable by scientific means, that means by research into environmental, social and economic processes. Moreover, many of these processes can be made sustainable by technological means, for example the improvement of existing technology or the invention of new techniques, artefacts and procedures: S&T development as the solution!

Let’s fill this scheme with a simple real life example (before we do that for the rest of the course with “technology”). In Taiwan, chewing betelnuts (檳榔) is very widespread. In view of society, we may ask “Is betelnut consumption sustainable?“, in economy we ask “Is betelnut business sustainable?“, and for the environment it is important to ask “Is betelnut cultivation sustainable?“. First, let us look at arguments that are related solely to the social realm. There is, obviously a desire to chew betelnuts, because there are certain pleasures or lifestyles associated with it, comparable to other addictions like smoking or the drinking alcohol. People who choose to chew betelnuts may claim it an element of their quality of life. However, the adverse health effects of betelnut consumption are well-known, for example bone decay (teeth and jar) and throat cancer. Members of the society who choose not to chew betelnut for exactly that reason may complain that those who do put stress on the national health care system, because their treatment needs a lot of money (paid by everybody who has a health insurance). They lack of responsibility that betelnut consumers show is, then, regarded as unethical. When the stability and long-term profitability of the health care system is threatened by betelnut consumption, this is clearly unsustainable, especially when the only benefit is a short-term and unhealthy “low level” pleasure.


When we look at the economic side, the asked questions are very different. Someone who runs (or considers running) a betelnut shop has to ask “Is the business profitable? Is there a market? How many betelnut shops are there around? Where is a good spot for a shop (for example near the highway exit)?”. The business is sustainable – generating profit and successful for many years or generations – when the sales numbers are good and the seller’s family can have a good life from it. The most important question is “How can we sell more?”. Ethical concerns that are of interest for the entire betelnut industry are whether the producers and sellers are fair and cooperative. An example of practices that impact the entire betelnut business is the phenomenon of “betelnut beauties”: In order to attract more customers, shop owners hire pretty girls and – dressed in bikinis or other sexy dresses, place them prominently. In order to compete, many shops follow that example. Some find it immoral to exploit female clerks as sexual objects. The argument is: If something immoral (exposing almost naked girls) has to be done to make the business run well, the business itself is unsustainable.


The environmental impact of betelnut culture is very obvious when visiting the mountains. The native forests on the mountain slopes are removed in favour of betelnut plantages. These thin trees with only grass in between them are not capable of replacing a healthy forest ecosystem with its flora and fauna. The original biotope is gone. For a long-term health of the local ecosystem that is a disaster and clearly unsustainable.


There are additional factors in the overlapping areas of interest that make betelnut culture appear even more unsustainable:

  • Society-Environment: The interest of both society and environment in a healthy ecosystem is dramatically clearly violated when mud slides and other destructive forces occur (for example after typhoons) because the shallow roots of the betelnut trees give way to erosion which the deep roots of the native vegetation could prevent. Here, the environmental destruction impacts the people who lose their houses or even their life.
  • Society-Economy: The simple work of cutting, wrapping and selling betelnuts is paid very poorly. In the long run, this threatens both the business practices and the people’s willingness to work in this field.
  • Economy-Environment: When betelnut trees lead to a damaged ecosystem it has clear effect on other business fields (for example, honey production due to disappearing of bees) or even agriculture as a whole).

4.1.3 Concepts

From this overview, we learn that sustainability is an empty concept when it is not filled with ethical arguments. Sustainability itself has no concrete ethical claims to make, besides providing a referential framework for justice and fairness as the major concepts. Sustainable is what appears just and/or fair to all involved stakeholders (including the environment, and future generations). It connects normative parameters like quality of life, environmental justice or risk with the actual consequences of human activity (like business or technological progress). We still have to do ethics in order to determine what good quality of life means, what justice is, or how to evaluate certain risk situations. The crucial question is, again, towards whom one has an obligation to be just or fair. Here, we come again to the centrisms (see section 3.7):

  • Only human/mankind – Anthropocentrism
  • The biosphere – Biocentrism
  • The whole Earth – Ecocentrism
  • The whole universe (everything) – Cosmocentrism/Holism

I left out pathocentrism here, because it doesn’t really apply to the idea of sustainability. Instead, the two strongest opponents in the discourse on sustainability are anthropocentrism and ecocentrism.

We have seen that it is a concept that attempts to integrate the various interests of different groups (society, environment, economy) to find solutions that serve long-term needs and ensure desirable future developments. Decisions (for example in a company, in a government, or in S&T development) have to be made that may affect one, two or all three of these groups. In order to know under which conditions such a decision is sustainable or not, it must be defined who or what counts as a stakeholder. Only human beings? In a deliberative discourse with decision-making power, could animals, plants, mountains, planets or galaxies be equipped with a voting right? It might sound absurd, but I believe it is not only possible but even obligatory to take animals’ or even landscapes’ or the universe’s interests into account – at least as far as we can reasonably predict those. Also note, please, that the final decision is not necessarily different with different constitutions of the “society” that we include in our thought experiment. Also without adding the biosphere or the cosmos into the circle of ethically relevant entities we (the CEO, the citizen, the politicians) can come to the conclusion that it would be right to protect the environment. The question is more: What do we give a value for its own sake?

In practice, the different viewpoints of anthropocentrists and ecocentrists are mirrored in different approaches to the main two concepts of sustainability (sustainable development, and environmental sustainability or environmentalism). Sustainable development (SD) is concerned about the progress of societies and nations in balance with the given natural resources and environmental factors. The interest to bring all nations worldwide onto the development level of the Western world (with low infant mortality rates, high hygiene standards, long life expectancy, good health, material wealth, etc.) collides with the capacity of the planet to provide the necessary resources. The proponents of weak SD understand it as a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (from the Brundtland commission). This has an anthropocentric notion. In contrast, the strong concept of SD is ecocentric in asking “How must human activity be organised (restricted, limited) so that it doesn‘t interfere with the ecosystem‘s balance?“. A similar division is made in environmental sustainability (ES): Anthropocentrists grant the environment only instrumental value: It serves human needs and purposes (shallow ES). Ecocentrists promoting deep ES allow the conclusion that in some cases human interests  – including the survival of the race – can be secondary to the ecosystem’s health.

4.1.4 Sustainability by force or by incentive?

A crucial question in the political discourse on sustainability is whether it can be pushed by force, or whether there are ways to encourage and trigger sustainable decision-making (in industry, in S&T development) by setting the right incentives in the form of supportive regulatory frameworks. This is connected to the questions whether people are understood as naturally following self-interests (requiring strict orders, laws, punishments and sanctions), or whether people will do good whenever given the chance. Let me illustrate the effectiveness of incentives by an example from chemical industry and business concepts: the business model of chemical leasing.

A metal-working firm buys solvent to clean specimen. The seller is interested in selling as much solvent as possible. Therefore, he benefits from the metal workers’ lack of competence in the cleaning procedure, because he will need more solvent than necessary. In this traditional fashion, the seller wants to sell as much solvent as possible, while the buyer wants to decrease the consumption to a minimum (but may not expect efficient support from the seller).


As a result, more solvent will need to be produced, transported, applied and disposed. An incentive to increase the efficiency of the cleaning and to reduce the volume of required solvent is a change in the business model: The solvent producer doesn’t sell solvent but cleaning service (or clean metal parts). The buyer pays for the amount of specimen being cleaned. Now, the business for the seller is better the less solvent is applied or wasted. His interest shifts to higher cleaning efficiency. Moreover, instead of transporting solvent, it could be an option to ship the specimen (less risk on the road).


This is an example for a model in which a simple incentive changes the interests of a stakeholder so that all pull into the same direction (towards higher sustainability).

4.1.5 Practice Questions

  • For your assignment: Is […your example…] sustainable in its current form(s)? How could it be made sustainable?
  • Is Mengzi‘s (孟子) view anthropocentric or ecocentric? Why?
    • What can we conclude from the cited statement (Mengzi 1A3)?
    • What do we know when seeing Mengzi in the context of Confucian philosophy and Yijing (易經) cosmology?
  • What can increase the willingness of actors in economy, industry, and in society to act sustainably?
    • Do we have to assume that people always act with self-interest and greed whenever they could?
    • Are incentives set by policy-making sufficient?



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