The moral significance of technical artefacts

  • Peter Kroes
Part of the Philosophy of Engineering and Technology book series (POET, volume 6)


It goes without saying that technical artefacts are used in ways that are considered to be morally good or bad. That the use of technical artefacts has moral significance is not controversial. This moral significance may easily be interpreted as being tied to the moral significance of the ends that humans pursue through their use. But does it also make sense to claim that technical artefacts by themselves, irrespective of the ways they are actually put to use, are morally good or bad? Is it in any way meaningful to maintain that a life saving device, such as a life jacket, is by itself morally good and that some torture instrument, like a thumb screw, is by itself morally bad? Is it possible for technical artefacts to embody values - just as they may be said to embody designs - that make them by themselves susceptible to moral assessment? Or may technical artefacts be considered to have some form of moral agency that likewise would cmake them liable to moral assessment? These questions have been the topic of intense dispute in recent times. In order to come to grips with this controversial issue of the moral significance of technical artefacts it will be necessary to examine in detail the notion of a technical artefact, more in particular the notion of a technical artefact by itself. On the basis of the dual-nature conception of technical artefacts I argue that this notion, and a fortiori that of a technical artefact having moral significance by itself, does not make sense if it is taken to mean a technical artefact separated from human agency. I show that the notions of technical artefacts underlying positions that maintain that technical artefacts are morally neutral (section 6.3) and positions that attribute some form of intrinsic moral significance to technical artefacts without moral agency (section 6.4) are highly problematic. Thereafter I consider Latour’s idea that technical artefacts may be considered to be moral agents in more or less the same sense as human beings (section 6.5). I reject this rather radical proposal. In line with the dual-nature conception of technical artefacts I argue that any reference to technical artefacts by themselves implies reference to human intentionality. This conception of artefacts makes it is possible to avoid getting trapped into either the idea that technical artefacts are morally neutral things, or the idea that they have some form of moral significance independent of human agency. Given that human intentions (human agency) play a constitutive role with regard to technical artefacts, I argue that they have inherent moral significance which, however, finds its origin in human agency (section V.6). Finally, I discuss the moral significance of technical artefacts by looking at their meaning in general (section V.7) and in a specific case (section V.8). For a better understanding of present-day discussions about the moral status of technical artefacts, in particular about their moral agency, I start first with a brief discussion of the problems involved (section V.1) and with a sketch of various issues that lie at the root of the idea of technological agency (section V.2).


Physical Object Human Agency Technical Function Moral Status Moral Agency 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Kroes
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyDelft University of TechnologyDelftThe Netherlands

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