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S&T Ethics 10

6.3 Responsibility

After defining the framework of ethical technology evaluation (sustainability, 5.1), the relations and pathways of technological development (5.2), and approaches to conclude what is good technology (6.2), let’s now proceed to find out who is in charge of it. This is a classical case for responsibility. This concept plays a crucial rule in many fields of applied ethics and received notable attention from scholars in the field and also in the populist literature (see, for example, Hans Jonas’ The responsibility principle). Indeed, there is a lot to say about it and it is not as simple as it might seem at first. A first hint for its complexity is the obvious ambivalent character: We can associate responsibility with praise and with dispraise. On the one hand, the label a responsible person is usually intended as a compliment or admiration for someone who fulfils his or her duties very well. On the other hand, the statement that someone is responsible (for this mess, for example) puts a burden or pressure on that someone. It can’t be easily decided whether responsibility is a blessing, a virtue, a duty, or an onerous burden.

At a closer examination, we find that responsibility is never just one-dimensional as in “someone is responsible”. There must, at least, be a second dimension, that which that someone is responsible for. Moreover, it can be analysed what “is” means in this case. Where does responsible come from? Usually it is attributed by someone to someone, or in some way expected by someone from someone, or delegated by someone to someone. These two someones should be in any way related to each other, otherwise it would be a case of “none of your business”. Last but not least, there is also a fourth dimension: Someone is attributed responsibility by someone for something in relation to a certain body of rules or a level of knowledge. These rules and this knowledge must be somehow related to the object of responsibility, otherwise it is a false claim for responsibility. We will now examine all four dimensions for the field of technology and its social manifestation.


6.3.1 Responsible for what?

In order to get clearer about what exactly technology enactors (everybody who has anything to do with technology and its effect in the world) are (or: can be) held responsible for, we need to make a few further definitions of responsibility. The first is a time dimension: We can be responsible for our actions and decisions in the past that have an effect onto now. In that case, we usually refer to it as accountability, or retrospective responsibility. We can also be responsible for future effects of our current actions and decisions (or those to come in the nearer future). In both cases, we are accountable or responsible NOW, which is important for practical and legal reasons. The words express the idea: The accountability for past actions and decisions is evaluated like an account of positive and negative positions (motivations, success, failure, conduct, etc.) in order to determine the overall contribution (causal or correlative) to a present state. The responsibility for future actions and decisions is formulated as the expectation on someone to be able to respond to certain questions and inquiries related to that case, for example in terms of knowledge and expertise, or leadership and other social roles.


It is also important to distinguish moral, legal, organisational and political responsibility. Many responsibilities in the context of technology (esp. consumer goods) are governed in legal terms, for example warranty regulations for malfunctioning devices. When there is no law or regulations, we still feel morally responsible, for example for the avoidance of misuse of a technology like online activities using the internet. Organisational responsibility refers to role expectations within organisational hierarchies in corporations and other organisations. For example, engineers and producers have certain obligations towards their bosses or the company they are employed in. This can, of course, conflict with their personal legal or moral duties and responsibilities, for example when it comes to design and safety of technical items. Finally, there is also political responsibility of elected social representatives and other decision-makers from economy, sports, etc. whose decisions and actions may have political relevance.  We will explore further examples when we talk about the other dimensions of responsibility.

Here, it is greater importance to point out the relations between the ethical approaches of the further chapter (6.2) with forms of responsibility. Of course, an engineer can’t be held responsible for the washing machine per se (the existence of the kind washing machine). Also, it will be difficult to hold anyone responsible for nanotechnology or agricultural development as such. This is where the ethical principles come into play. For example, we may take the VDI oktogon and examine what responsibilities are connected to the preservation or violation of particular values. For example, engineers might be held reasonably and plausibly responsible or accountable for the functionality of an artefact, whereas CEOs and company directors may be attributed responsibility for business decisions affecting profitability. Since most values are somehow connected (supportive or competitive), the responsibilities are often unclear or shared among several stakeholders. However, we may claim that it is these values that the stakeholders are responsible for, rather than the artefact, techniques or knowledge as such. In the same manner, we may claim that discourse participants are responsible for the usefulness and fruitfulness of the outcome of a technology discourse (for example in politics or TA), that the minimisation of risks (as claimed by negative utilitarianism) is the responsibility of technology enactors, or that the proper protection and granting of human rights is in the focus of the responsibility. As mentioned above, in many ways the protection of values is already regulated by laws (for example the warranty regulations for delegating the responsibility for proper functionality of an item to companies and their engineers). A more conflict bearing debate is held on moral responsibilities of technology enactors for societal values and environmental impact. Here, it would be naïve to believe that these could be sufficiently regulated by policy-making. Moral and organisational responsibilities conflict the most in this respect.

6.3.2 Who can be responsible?

So far, I talked about stakeholders or technological enactors as being the responsible entities concerning technological impacts. This requires further clarification. Commonly, we hold people responsible, individually or in a group, because one of the preconditions for responsibility is a certain level of rationality and the capacity to understand the implications of one’s choices and actions. We never hold animals or babies responsible. In technology, the two most obvious groups of involved responsibility bearers are the engineers and designers on the one hand, and consumers and appliers on the other hand. In a wider sense, distributors (often company leaders, industrialists, manufacturers) and regulators (those who give technologies access to the market and implement them in the social sphere) carry responsibilities.


The leaf vacuum

Let’s take, for example, the leaf vacuum. This is a device with which people can remove the autumn leaves from their yards and lawns easily. It makes this job much less burdensome. At the same time it was criticised for being loud, damaging the users ears, annoying the neighbours, and for killing small animals that hide in the leaf piles (beetles, mice, etc.). Who is responsible for the proper usage of the device? From one point of view, we may claim that the users are fully responsible from the moment of purchase onwards. They are advised to wear ear protection, they should make an agreement with neighbours about limited time rangers for using it, and they may be asked to collect and relocate all the small animals before sucking the leaves. Most users, however, especially concerning that last claim, deny their responsibility. They might expect engineers to find ways to make the engine more silent – providing a technical solution for the noise pollution problem. Moreover, if the device is really environmentally unfriendly, why is it on the market at all? The responsibility of distributors and businessmen? From my perspective, it is impossible to blame “business” for the availability of technical artefacts. Consumers have an ethical obligation (and by this the responsibility) to purchase and apply items mindfully in a way that they reflect upon the proper usage and the direct and obvious implications of the machine or device. Again, it is useful to distinguish particular values and distribute responsibilities according to them. Thinking of the functionality and safety of the leaf vacuum, including its noise level, we may hold engineers and designers responsible. Health effects (including those on neighbours as third party) and environmental sustainability are rather – at least partially – the responsibility of the users. In view of the different kinds of responsibility mentioned above, note that for the same problem or conflict different people may have legal, moral or political responsibility. Manufacturers may have the legal responsibility to fulfil safety standards, delegating the organisational responsibility for it to the employed engineers and designers, whereas regulators have a political responsibility to determine guidelines for usage limitations and the consumers have the moral responsibility for respecting social and environmental interests (here: those of neighbours and mice).

Besides the individual level, there is also a collective conceptualisation of responsibility. Legally, but also morally, it is possible to hold conglomerates like companies, corporations, institutions, organisations or political instances like governments, parliaments or the state responsible. On an even broader level, the entire society may be responsible for something, or ,in the global range, mankind as such. An example for that last dimension might be global warming or climate change in general: Everybody contributes to it through his lifestyle and consumer habits, or at least by not stopping the development of industrial and technological development.


A product of the arms industry.

I’d like to use an example with a slightly smaller scale: Arms industry. Inventors and constructors of weapons, tanks, battleships and ammunition can hardly be held responsible for global peace or war, or for weapon deals with countries that are run by a questionable regime. A few years ago in Germany, we had a big discussion after journalists uncovered that German arms industry corporations export tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia, a country that clearly violates human rights and uses the weapons for unethical purposes (whether there is, at all, the chance of a war to be “ethical” shall not be discussed here). It has been claimed that corporations have a moral and political responsibility. In the end, the foreign minister of Germany stopped the deal, believing in the name of the German parliament that the state has a responsibility that is stronger than that of corporations. Therefore, it was justified to intervene and favouring values of humanity over economic interests and profitability. On the other side, Germany’s biggest customer of warfare technology is South Korea. Here, nobody has a moral problem with it, because South Korea shares societal and political values, is Germany’s ally, and needs support and protection in a situation of cold war with North Korea. Responsible for such mechanisms (arms exports) are, then, not particular people (the foreign minister is just representing “Germany” in this case), but national and global actors like corporations and legislations. It is, moreover, worth noting that the intervention in that weapon deal was enforced to some extent by the society in the form of media-facilitated sensitisation and a public outrage. We can, therefore, say that the society (in the form of a kind of shared awareness of the problem) held itself responsible to intervene.

6.3.3 Attributed by who?

Not everyone is in the position to attribute responsibility for something to anyone. When I tell you that you are responsible for treating your parents or your partner well and threaten to punish you for misconduct, you are justified to tell me that it is not my business how you decide to treat your boyfriend or girlfriend. That is true, because on this private level, there is no connection between us. In a very general sense, attributors of responsibilities are those who are in any way affected by the actions and decisions of someone and who share the same social network (locally or globally) of cause-effect-pathways and role expectations. Consumers of technology may hold engineers and producers responsible, because they are entrusted with this job in a society that is based on functional differentiation and expertise-based co-operation. Whether engineers may hold consumers responsible for proper application of their inventions is a much more complex question that would require the clarification of many preconditions. Let’s see who is in the position to hold anyone responsible for certain implications of technology in each of the four fields of responsibility.

Legal responsibility is maybe the most obvious and the easiest since the pathways of responsibility claims are either regulated by those particular laws and guidelines themselves, or they are justified by the implementation and justification of the law-and-order system as such. In the end, legally responsible is someone in front of the law and its enactors, like policy-makers and legislators. These are – at least in well-functioning democracies – empowered by the society, so that in the end it is the wider public or the society as such that expects bearers of legal responsibility to act accordingly.

Political responsibility may be expected from elected representatives of a society (politicians, legislators) by voters, which is the public or, more generally, the society. In the arms industry example in the previous section, however, we have seen that economic agents (corporations and their boards of directors and CEOs) are often politically relevant. In one way, the public and their representatives may attribute political responsibility to companies that act in ways that affect political relations. In the other way, economic stakeholders attribute political responsibility to political decision-makers in resorts that affect economic wealth and profitability (market conditions, job opportunities, taxes, technology regulations, etc.). Whether economic enactors are justified to claim this kind of responsibility from politicians is subject of heated debate.

Organisational responsibility in corporate hierarchies are attributed “top-down” from directors, CEOs and superiors to employees (workers, engineers, designers, managers, etc.). Every actor has to fulfil a role that goes along with expectations and responsibilities. In the end, it is the society that attributes this form of responsibility since we as a society decided to organise ourselves in this way. This has of course practical reasons: Nobody can be expert of everything, and nobody can be responsible for everything. We will enlighten this point further in the next section.

The more difficult case is the moral responsibility. In principle, every member of a society or a culturally connected group has moral claims on all other members. Moral responsibility is often not claimed by people in their professional or social roles, but as concerned society members. For example, a CEO may hold an employed engineer legally and organisationally responsible for what he produces, but if he also has a claim on moral responsibility he does so as a “member of the society” (or as a human), but not as “CEO”. Claims of moral responsibility can be made by everyone who sees the social integrity at stake by certain forms of conduct or practice. I can’t hold you morally responsible for brushing your teeth twice a day when I am not affected by your decision. However, when you have Kids that learn their habits from you, and they also feel no urge to brush their teeth properly, risking bad teeth conditions, your action (or habit) has an effect on other members of the society (your Kids, the health care system), so it might be justified to hold you responsible.

These considerations show that two important social values are firmly connected to responsibility: Trust and justice. The attribution of responsibility is usually grounded upon the trust that the respective holder of responsibility is able to succeed in that. In the private sphere, this trust results from personal connections, emotions, or judgments based of knowledge or intuition concerning the person that is held responsible. In the professional sphere, the trust is based on education (proven by certificates or experience), contracts or legal regulations. The latter are a matter of justice as the fundamental principle of the law-and-order system that a society gives itself. Applied principles of justice also determine the way a violation of responsibility duties is sanctioned. The lightest form of punishment are declaratory measures: someone simply speaks out the fact that a lack of responsibility or accountability concerning a certain incident has been shown. This can range from a calm remark up to loud scolding, in any case it has the effect that the person who showed a lack of responsibility will feel guilty and understand what went wrong. Stronger measures are various forms of compensation. The damage caused by the lack of responsibility must be compensated by the holder of responsibility, for example in monetary forms or in terms of investing time for reparation. Hard treatment would include physical punishment. Frequently applied are exclusionary measures: In case of legal violations, the accused person may be imprisoned or lose his or her job position. Informal exclusionary methods (in the private interpersonal sphere) are applied in the form of exclusion from group activities or relationships. All of these are enacted in various ways in the context of technology design, production, distribution, consumption and application.

6.3.4 Related to what?

People can only be attributed responsibility when there is a reasonable ground for expecting that they are able to fulfil these responsibility duties. For example, a person held responsible for something must be able to understand what it means to be responsible and what the involved rules and agreements are. Moreover, the person needs to have the required degree of knowledge that is necessary to have a chance to succeed in carrying responsibility. In the context of technology, there are a few clear responsibilities in regard of the stakeholders’ professional and social role:

  • Engineers, scientists – They have knowledge about technical aspects, functionality and safety of technological items. They are able to generate design solutions for problems and have the state-of-the-art scientific knowledge.
  • Economists, industrialists – They may be expected to have knowledge of market situations and of economic impact of certain technology projects.
  • Regulators – They are experts on legal implications of technology and its implementation.
  • Consumers, appliers – They may be expected to have gained the necessary information before using technology (for example by reading the instructions). Moreover, as members of a society they can reasonably be expected to have basic knowledge of daily life conduct, to have at least an average degree of rational capacity and moral integrity. Special cases, here, are children, seniors and mentally impaired citizen.

Then, there are a few more difficult and unclear cases of responsibility conditions, mostly due to their complexity and uncertainty:

  • Politicians, legislators – They are expected to consider long-term effects of technological progress on the society, the environment and the economy, in other words: to support sustainability. This is so complex that it is hardly possible to hold them in any way responsible when it fails.
  • Technology foresight, assessment – These experts are concerned about ethical and social implications of technology, mostly in terms of risks and benefits, both intended and unintended. However, if their studies and prophecies turn out to be false, they are usually not held responsible for any actual (unpredicted) effects of technology.

A special case are instances of collective responsibility. Naturally, there is no person who could be blamed (or, as an American philosopher expressed it, no soul to damn and no body to kick). What can a company know? What can a society know? What, then, can they be held responsible for? Here is a short suggestion of what collective holders of responsibility may be expected to be knowledgeable about:

  • Companies, corporations – Besides the particular knowledge and expertise of their employees and staff, the companies as such may be expected to have a sense of good business conduct and to be run accordingly. As social actors, companies are firmly embedded into social and normative guidelines. Knowing those makes them responsible for respecting and following them.
  • Government, parliament – Political organs in a democratic system are empowered on the foundations of social justification, devoted to justice. No political enactor can claim not to know this. Their responsibility is usually related to this basic understanding of governance and leadership.
  • Society – A society as such (not as in “all its members”) can be expected to have a certain degree of problem awareness, especially in our modern knowledge societies in which information and knowledge is available easily for everybody. Moreover, what keeps the society or culture together is a fundamental willingness to co-operate. Social responsibility is based on the idea that – even in case that some particular members have a lack of knowledge of something – the society as a whole can’t reasonable claim to be ignorant of technology effects.

6.3.5 Practice questions

  • Analyse the responsibility situation in terms of the 4 dimensions for the following cases:
    • A friendship relation
    • The malfunctioning of a toaster
    • Distribution of pirated software and music on the internet
    • The traffic death rate
    • Global warming
  • In August 2014, a gas pipeline exploded in Kaohsiung City (高雄市). Who is responsible?
  • In the debate about climate change, some US-American „climate deniers“ argue that humans are not responsible for it. What makes them think so? Why is this point so important for them?

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