Ethics of Socially Disruptive Technologies

Project Details


In the past decades, research in ethics and philosophy of technology has flourished, and Dutch scholars have been at the forefront, ethically and philosophically assessing new technologies and their impact on society and developing frameworks for responsible innovation. The applicants of this proposal have done pioneering work in shaping the field, both in their theoretical work and by initiating and leading international collaborations, academic societies and key journals. We are now at the beginning of a new era of technological innovation in which new generations of the technologies that have emerged since the second world war are converging and undergoing widespread integration, making whole new fields possible, including artificial intelligence, robotics, synthetic biology, nanomedicine, next-generation genomics, neurotechnology and geo-engineering. These are socially disruptive technologies (SDTs) that have the potential to radically alter everyday life, cultural practices and social and economic institutions. Societal disruption may well be necessary and desirable for responding to pressing global problems such as climate change and depletion of natural resources. But the technologies also raise tough moral questions that are in need of ethical evaluation. A complication is they may affect the basic concepts and values that we normally appeal to in our ethical thinking, such as the distinction between nature and artifact or our conceptions of freedom and responsibility. A reflective turn in the ethics of technology is therefore necessary. This research programme in ethics and practical philosophy of technology seeks to realise that reflective turn. Our aim is to reorient the field of ethics of technology. Specifically, we aim to develop new theories and methods that are necessary to understand, morally assess and intervene in the development and implementation of this new generation of socially disruptive technologies. Achieving these improvements will involve major innovations to our field. First, our aim is to develop general, comprehensive approaches for the ethical and philosophical study of SDTs in general, and the new generation of SDTs in particular, which include methods of analysis, moral evaluation and intervention that can be applied to different spheres of technology. This has never been done before. It will address the current fragmentation of our field. Second, by seeking systematic interaction between ethics of technology and practical philosophy (a division of philosophy that includes ethics and social and political philosophy) we aim to innovate both fields. The central idea of the programme is that SDTs like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and geo-engineering do not just transform society and human practice, but also challenge the basic categories and concepts by which we understand and evaluate our world: concepts like autonomy, responsibility, democracy and naturalness. We cannot unproblematically use these concepts in ethical analysis, thus we must rethink them. We will therefore engage in a major reflective study of key philosophical concepts challenged by SDTs, thereby innovating the ethics and philosophy of technology and the field of philosophy as a whole. Third, we aim to innovate our field by repositioning its relation to the engineering sciences. Our programme will involve a unique collaboration between leading ethicists/philosophers and leading scientists and engineers, aimed at better ethical and philosophical studies of technology and new collaborative models between philosophers and engineers aimed at responsible innovation. The programme has four research lines. The first three cover the three key domains which will be impacted by the new generation of SDTs: human beings, nature and society. In a fourth research line, we will engage in synthesis of the approaches and methods developed in the first three lines, and will develop and assess implications for the field of ethics and philosophy and technology, for ethics and philosophy as a whole and our collaboration with other fields. Several unique outcomes are projected as results of our programme: (1) new comprehensive approaches for the philosophical analysis, moral evaluation and responsible innovation of SDTs, in particular for its new generation; (2) philosophical analyses and reconceptualisations of core philosophical and moral concepts that will transform the field of ethics of technology and possibly the field of philosophy as a whole; (3) new approaches for collaboration between philosophy and engineering; and (4) innovative studies of the new generation of SDTs that is the subject of this programme, in which we apply our new approaches and come to new understandings of and ethical frameworks for these technologies.
Effective start/end date1/01/2031/12/29

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action


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