Aligning Innovation and Ethics: an Approach to Responsible Innovation Based on Preference Learning

Abstract

New technologies not only contribute greatly to society and the economy; they also involve fundamental societal shifts, challenging our values and ideas about ourselves and the world. With a view to aligning technological change and innovation with ethical values, the concept of responsible innovation advocates the inclusion of a variety of stakeholders, in particular from society. In shifting moral responsibility towards the producers of innovations, responsible innovation rejects the standard normative economic view that the ethical evaluation of innovations is a matter of individual consumers’ market-based choices. However, in this article we argue that responsible innovation should not abandon all normative consideration of the individual outright, to which end we present an alternative normative economic approach based on preference learning. We show how this approach can provide an enhanced understanding of responsible innovation by clarifying the redistribution of moral responsibility and casting individuals in the normative role of co-innovators, rather than mere consumers. We argue that responsible innovation should enable individuals to form preferences and evaluate innovations, so as to align innovation with ethical demands. Finally, we show how our proposed approach can be put into practice in so-called laboratories in real-world contexts, using methods from the field of design. In short, drawing on normative economics, this article aims to establish a new understanding of responsible innovation that is conceptually sound and can form the basis for novel innovation practices.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    By “ethical preferences”, we mean individual preferences with respect to the ethical and social implications of a given innovation. In other words, we do not use the term to draw a distinction between ethical and unethical preferences, but rather to refer to an individual’s stance, attitude or personal values in relation to a particular innovation. Any given innovation can thus be understood to have an ethical dimension, which is made visible and becomes a deciding factor as a result of people’s ethical preferences with respect to it.

  2. 2.

    Note that by “ethical preferences”, we mean individuals’ preferences with respect to the ethical and social dimensions of innovations (see footnote 1). Responsible innovation thus focusses on the ethical dimension of a given new technology when it seeks to evaluate whether or not, to what extent or in what form it might be “preferred”. Although our notion of ethical preferences could be contextualised within current debates about hierarchical preferences (cf. Lazar and Klein 2018; Schnellenbach 2019), doing so falls beyond the scope of this paper, as it would shift the focus to a theoretical discussion of behavioural economics. Nevertheless, the relationship between hierarchical or reflective preferences and the notion of ethical reflection in responsible innovation may be worth investigating in future research.

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Acknowledgements

This paper was presented at the 13th Philosophy of Management conference, which took place in June 2018 in London. The authors wish to thank the organisers and participants of the conference, in particular the track chairs Vincent Blok and Job Timmermans, for valuable feedback.

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Häußermann, J.J., Schroth, F. Aligning Innovation and Ethics: an Approach to Responsible Innovation Based on Preference Learning. Philosophy of Management 19, 349–364 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40926-019-00120-1

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Keywords

  • Responsible innovation
  • Normative economics
  • Ethics
  • Innovation
  • Preference learning
  • Laboratories in a real-world context