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— VACANCY CLOSED — PhD position “Improving ethical analysis”

Mar 30, 2023 | ESDiT updates

A longer description of this vacancy


PhD project Improving ethical analysis through better conceptualization of the moral role of technological products and systems (4 years)

Intended starting date: September 2023

Daily supervisor and intended promotor:

Involved ESDiT-partner(s) from other universities (if any):

The PhD will be based at UT and embedded in the Foundations and Synthesis research line in the ESDiT programme. The topics allows many links to prior ongoing research within ESDIT. Informal supervision by members of the Foundation & Synthesis line will be explored.

Research proposal

If we assume that technology is not neutral but affects moral decision-making and moral outcomes, how can we define its role?  Are technological products moral agents, as some have claimed, or co-agents?  Or if not, how should we understand their moral role in relation to their human users? What is the moral role of guns in causing harm, for example? While humans ultimately pull the trigger, guns have affordances that make killing much easier, with less risk for the shooter. Or what is the role of self-driving cars in causing harm? Here, a human operator is not even directly involved. Should we therefore assign moral responsibility to self-driving cars? In spite of significant efforts in the philosophy of technology and science and technology studies to analyze and understand the interaction between technology and society, we still have few approaches in ethics that are able to provide answers to these questions.  There are many approaches for analyzing interactions between technology, users and society, but few that focus on implications for ethical analysis.

This project investigates how we can conceptualize the role of technological products in moral and immoral acts and events, and how this conceptualization can result in new and better approaches to ethical analysis.  The focus is not just on single technological products with single users, but also on larger systems with multiple technological components and human operators. These include both sociotechnical systems – predominantly technical systems with human operators and enablers, such as an electricity networks, industrial production systems and the internet, and technosocial systems – predominantly social systems that rely on technology, such as modern organizations and associations.

The candidate will investigate the different causal and moral roles that technology can take in morally consequential actions and events involving technologies with single users, autonomous technologies, and sociotechnical and technosocial systems. He or she will do so, initially, by studying and critiquing approaches in ethics (especially ethics of technology) that conceptualize the role of technology, and by making explicit what roles are assigned to technology.  Also considered will be descriptive approaches to technology, users and society in STS, technology assessment and impact assessment and their possible translation to ethics. This is followed by the development of a new approach for ethical analysis which includes a vocabulary and methodology for understanding and assessing the various roles of various types of (socio)technological products and systems in moral actions and events. The approach will mostly be theoretical but will also involve a number of (smaller) case studies.

There will be a particular focus on socially disruptive technologies: technologies that transform everyday life, social institutions, cultural practices, and potentially even fundamental beliefs and values.

There are different ways to do this project, and the PhD candidate will get room to do it in his or her way. Choices can be made in the types of existing theories that will be studied, the extent to which a comparative analysis and assessment of current approaches in ethics of technology is carried out, the extent to which work on technology & society from philosophy of technology, STS and social sciences will be involved, and the choice of case studies in the project. What is important, though, is that an innovative answer is provided to the research question that will help other researchers in the field of ethics of technology to improve their approaches and give a better and more nuanced place to technology in ethics. Ideally, a vocabulary is formulated which allows one to classify types of technological products and applications of technology according to the ethical role they play, e.g., neutral  instrument in human action, instrument in human action that modifies human action, stand-alone actor or co-actor that is able to act (and in case of AI, decide) autonomously, part of a hybrid human-technology ensemble, sociotechnical system or technosocial system, etc.  This vocabulary will allow for better assignments of moral and causal responsibility for (moral) outcomes, for better, more ethical choices in whether and how to use technology, and for better ethical analysis, assessment and guidance of technology and technological practices. The case studies should ideally exemplify different technologies according to this taxonomy, and show that the vocabulary can be made to work in practice.

Relation to ESDT research lines and sublines (should specify how the proposal strengthens the research line as a whole):

The main research line of this project is in the F&S line, which it strengthens by continuing the sub-line on new approaches to ethics of technology, while also building on and incorporating the sub-line on the nature of socially disruptive technologies. It aims to connect to other lines by engaging in a dialogue on methods and approaches for doing ethics of technology.

The project centrally focuses on the “new approaches” research priority. It also contributes to the research focus on multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity by relating the philosophy and ethics of technology to the social sciences, especially STS, technology assessment and impact assessment.  It could also contribute to the conceptual disruption line through its study of the relation between the human/social and the technological, and ways in which this relation can become blurred, as well as new conceptions of agency and responsibility.

Key ESDiT concepts to be investigated: human being / social / technological / agency / responsibility

Key ESDiT technology to be investigated:  to be determined after project starts


Artifact ethics; moral agency; social agency; moral factors; delegated morality; delegated responsibility; technological affordances; embedded values; distributed morality; sociotechnical systems; sociotechnical networks; extended agency; technological bias; morality in design; politics of technology; moral responsibility; causal responsibility; technology governance; structural ethics; institutional ethics

Selected literature

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Brey, P. (2005). Artifacts as social agents. pp. 61‐84 in H. Harbers (Ed.) Inside the Politics of Technology. Agency and Normativity in the Co‐Production of Technology and Society, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Click here for PDF

Brey, P. (2010). Values in Technology and Disclosive Computer Ethics. In L. Floridi (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics (pp. 41-58). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Click here for PDF.

Brey, P. (2014). From Moral Agents to Moral Factors: The Structural Ethics Approach. In P. Kroes & P. P. Verbeek (Eds.), The Moral Status of Technical Artifacts (pp. 125-142). Dordrecht: Springer. Click here for PDF.

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