S&T Ethics 7

5. Technology Ethics – Definitions and Justification

In the first part of the course, as shown in section 1.4 (first class), 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). 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, pathocentrism, biocentrism, 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.

In this chapter (lessons 7 and 8), we will have to find out why it is important or necessary to think about ethical aspects of technology, the so called “call for ethics”. For the “internal domain” we identified the social role of scientists as the foundation for their professional morality. This wouldn’t work for “technology” as the external responsibility domain, so we will elaborate on sustainability as the normative framework of technology evaluation. Moreover, we will try to give a clear and workable definition of technology and its position in the “network of interests” of society, environment and specific stakeholders like politics, economy, science, etc.

5.1 Sustainability (可持續性)

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 technological progress. The principles of sustainability will give us a framework for the evaluation of risks and benefits of S&T.

5.1.1 Definition and concepts

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. We will have a closer look at what the right way is in section 5.1.3.

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 (as 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“.

This last definition – 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.

We might ask why economy has such a strong position in this definition. It looks like it is on equal footing among three interest groups. from my perspective, this is only because industrial representatives in the summits in which these definitions are made have a powerful voice, because it is widely believed that our current well-being and wealth is generated by our economic system. For politicians and other decision-makers, the threat of losing jobs and economic profitability is one of the worst possible scenarios, losing trust and votes. However, what is truly at stake in human activities like S&T and other global affairs is the balance between human well-being and environmental health. I (personally) believe that true sustainability can only be reached when the destructive power of our current economic system is broken rather than given a strong voice in the discourse. However, I’d like to encourage you to think about this aspect by yourself.

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).

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). 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. A few ethical strategies to do so we have already learned:

  • Consequentialism – Just/fair is what brings the greatest good for the largest number of entities,
  • Deontology – Just/fair is what is right in principle,
  • Virtue ethics – Just/fair is what is done by a person that is just/fair through his/her virtues.

The crucial question is, again, towards whom one has an obligation to be just or fair. Here, we come again to the centrisms:

  • 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. Before going into detail concerning the differences in these viewpoints, let me explain a bit more thoroughly how the idea of justice forms another important ethical theory: contractualism.

5.1.2 Justice

Justice is the significant element in the ethical theory we know as “Contractualism” (sometimes also “contractarianism”, 社會契約), analogue to what outcome is for Consequentialism or duty for deontology. The basic idea is that a “society” (whatever that is) agrees upon rules and codes of conduct, making a contract of association. In a situation in which you are forced to make an ethical decision, you apply this principle like this: In a thought experiment you imagine an assembly of the people who are affected by your decision, and you try to find out what they would agree upon as useful rule. A simple example: You live in a house with many apartments. At midnight you feel like listening to loud music. Is it OK to do so? You imagine a meeting of all tenants in which everyone expresses what they wish to have for a “good quality of life” in this house. Surely someone will mention “no loud noise in the middle of the night”, same as you might wish that other neighbours don’t block the entrance with their bicycles. It can be that such a meeting actually happened, but it is not necessary: an imaginary meeting in your fantasy is enough to let you know: It would be immoral to recklessly listen to loud music at midnight. Note the two levels of moral here: The act is immoral, but there is the additional moral obligation to follow the moral since the point where the insight comes to your awareness and enters the domain of intention and will. Here, contractualism touches the deontologic reasoning principle. Let’s see how it adds a little more to the reasoning procedure: Same as the “Golden rule” can be expressed in different ways, also principles of justice can have different expressions. A famous one is: “The person who is in charge of cutting the cake will be the last to get the remaining piece.“. Only under this condition we can expect a “fair” result. Most likely that person will cut all pieces in the same size. If the cutter is the first one to choose a piece, he might cut one big piece and several small ones. However, we can imagine situations in which “all pieces have the same size” is actually not the “fairest” result. In case there is a skinny starving poor child and a fat wealthy businessman, might it be fairer to give the skinny one a bigger piece, as in the justice principle “everyone gets his or her share by need or demand”?

The philosopher John Rawls suggested a theory of justice which is now widely taken as the theoretical foundation of contractualism: He added an element in the decision-making process that helps ensuring maximum fairness: When a group of people makes a decision over a rule (and this can happen either in an actual meeting or as a thought experiment, see above), each member of that group votes behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil they don’t know who they will be later in this group, that means they can’t predict how the new rule will affect them. Therefore, so the idea, they will make a decision that is still fair for the weakest element or most disfavoured in the group. Let me make an example: A four-membered family argues about who will choose the TV channel that they watch. Maybe there is a fight because the father believes that he is “the head of the family” and therefore he may choose the channel, but the mother doesn’t agree. The Kids insists that the “adult” movies they have to watch are boring and they want to choose the cartoon channel which is more interesting. How can this conflict be solved? We imagine that all four have to vote for a rule (How will the TV channel be chosen?) while they don’t know if later on the couch they will be father, mother, son or daughter. Since the father doesn’t know that he is “the father”, he would not vote for a rule like “The father as head of the family always decides!”, because from his “neutral” point of view that would be unfair. Maybe now they would agree upon this: In the afternoon until 8pm the Kids can choose the channel with the son and daughter taking turns, and after 8pm the father (on weekends) and the mother (monday to friday) get the remote control. This meets everybody’s interest and is acceptable by everyone. They not only agree upon this rule, but also upon accepting the rule under all means. After taking off the veil of ignorance, nobody is justified to complain or reject the rule that they agreed upon as “just”. In this example, the “group” or “society” was the four member of this family. They didn’t care about neighbours or visitors or their dog, so we can call it a “familycentrism”, maybe. The bigger the group participating in such a decision-making process is the more complex the consequences of the veil of ignorance are!

Back to sustainability: 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? Could, in this imaginary procedure (making a contract behind the veil of ignorance), 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 “opinion” into account – at least as far as we can reasonably predict that “opinion” behind our “veil of ignorance”. 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 villagers, 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.

5.1.3 Sustainable technology?

Let us now close the circle to our topic, technology. For this, we consult Mengzi’s statement one more time. 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: 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.

Technology, therefore, can be sustainable or not in view of its application. 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 Confucianist, 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.

5.1.4 Practice questions

  1. Is the automobile (car) a sustainable technology?
  • Think of „car“ as a technoscientific system that includes know-how (how to drive, traffic rules), the particular design of the car (aspects of safety, resource consumption, etc.), and the concept of the car (individualised traffic, available infrastructure like roads or gas stations).
  • Would a change (e.g. introduction of electric or self-driving cars) challenge the sustainability or support it?
  1. 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?

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