Benjamin Hale
  Associate Professor, Philosophy and Environmental Studies
Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Community
Office SEEC S238A
Campus Box 488
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, Colorado 80309-0488


Technology, the Environment, and the Moral Considerability of Artifacts

Full article available in:
New Waves in Philosophy of Technology, ed. Evan Selinger, Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, and Søren Riis. (Ashgate Publishing, 2007).


Ever since environmental ethics kicked off as an accepted sub-discipline of applied ethics in the late 1960’s, there have been two primary issues with which theorists have grappled. On one hand, there is the ontological issue of what nature is; and on the other hand, there is the ethical issue of what matters ethically. These issues have more or less been approached from two traditional but separate branches of philosophy: metaphysics and value theory.

In recent years, theorists have recast the direction of environmental ethics by taking a “pragmatic turn,” seeking to answer both questions at once. This pragmatic turn has had a number of variants: some have leaned on the American pragmatists (James, Dewey, or Pierce), while others have leaned on theorists of the Frankfurt School (Marcuse and Adorno)[1]. Still others, myself included, have sought refuge in the insights of discourse theory (Apel and Habermas)[2], a seeming unfriendly compatriot to environmental ethics. The “communication-centered” approach holds promise over other variant pragmatisms precisely because it overturns the dichotomies that have plagued environmental ethics from the beginning, while also providing a clear account of the normative commitments to which agents are “always already” bound.

Of course, discourse ethics is saddled with its own set of problems, most of which pertain to its rootedness in language and consequent extreme anthropocentrism. It is my contention, however, that the way out of this environmental fly-bottle is to understand the human/world arrangement not in terms of the presuppositions of communication, but in terms of the presuppositions of interaction. The idea, in short, is to locate reasons in nature by pointing out that interactions, not just validity claims, give rise to reasons. This position – the “interaction-centered approach” – therefore overcomes the original problems in environmental ethics by blurring the distinction between nature and culture; and, more directly, between nature and technology. With this interactive turn, however, has come a seeming intractable new problem. It would appear that if one is to discard the nature-culture or the nature-artifact distinction, then one would either have to hold that both nature and technology are morally considerable, or that neither nature and technology are morally considerable.

Peter-Paul Verbeek asks in this volume about the morality of technological artifacts, and proposes to take a ‘posthumanist’ position. This position, he reasons, considers technological artifacts also to have a moral status. Verbeek’s strategy is to focus on the technologically mediated character of human action, and thus to emphasize that our autonomy has always been dependent upon our technology. This, he believe, entitles technological artifacts to a kind of moral status, since they are always caught up in the question of ‘what to do’.

Where Verbeek’s approach has its attraction, in this paper I argue quite differently. I argue that where it is the case that nature is morally considerable by virtue of its independence from human determination and justification, technological artifacts, precisely because they are the product of ends-oriented justification, do not demand of us the same kind of inquiry. While not directly critical of Verbeek’s analysis, this chapter instead argues that technological artifacts are themselves shot through with justificatory reasons, such that their value can be understood as solely, or mostly, anthropogenic.

To accomplish this, I discuss in Section I the difference between traditional conceptions of moral status and a more contemporary characterization of moral considerability. I then briefly review an argument for moral considerability that finds its footing in the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas. In Section III I cover my argument for “interaction-centering” and follow this discussion with an examination of the considerations that go into deliberations. This brings me to the heart of this paper, where I distinguish in Sections V and VI between the considerability of nature and the considerability of technological artifacts. In Section VII I present a second argument against the moral considerability of technological artifacts, which I follow with a discussion of possible objections.

[For a full version of the paper, shoot me an e-mail or check out the volume.]

[1] M. Bookchin, Toward an Ecological Society (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980); M. Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Writers Publishing Cooperative, 1982); A. Feenberg, Critical Theory of Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); A. Light, "Reconsidering Bookchin and Marcuse as Environmental Materialists," in Social Ecology after Bookchin, ed. Andrew Light (New York: Guilford Press, 1998); H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964); S. Vogel, Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (New York: SUNY Press, 1996).

[2] J. S. Dryzek, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); R. Eckersley, "Habermas and Green Political Theory: Two Roads Diverging," Theory and Society 19, no. 6 (1990) 739-76; G. Patzig, Ökologische Ethik: Innerhalb Der Grenzen Der Bloßen Vernunft (Göttingen, 1983).