Rawls’s Wide Reflective Equilibrium as a Method for Engaged Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Potentials and Limitations for the Context of Technological Risks

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The introduction of new technologies in society is sometimes met with public resistance. Supported by public policy calls for “upstream engagement” and “responsible innovation,” recent years have seen a notable rise in attempts to attune research and innovation processes to societal needs, so that stakeholders’ concerns are taken into account in the design phase of technology. Both within the social sciences and in the ethics of technology, we see many interdisciplinary collaborations being initiated that aim to address tensions between various normative expectations about science and engineering and the actual outcomes. However, despite pleas to integrate social science research into the ethics of technology, effective normative models for assessing technologies are still scarce. Rawls’s wide reflective equilibrium (WRE) is often mentioned as a promising approach to integrate insights from the social sciences in the normative analysis of concrete cases, but an in-depth discussion of how this would work in practice is still lacking. In this article, we explore to what extent the WRE method can be used in the context of technology development. Using cases in engineering and technology development, we discuss three issues that are currently neglected in the applied ethics literature on WRE. The first issue concerns the operationalization of abstract background theories to moral principles. The second issue concerns the inclusiveness of the method and the demand for openness. The third issue is how to establish whether or not an equilibrium has been reached. These issues should be taken into account when applying the methods to real-world cases involving technological risks. Applying the WRE method in the context of engaged interdisciplinary collaboration requires sensitivity for issues of power and representativeness to properly deal with the dynamics between the technical and normative researchers involved as well as society at large.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-31
JournalScience, Technology & Human Values
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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