From moral agents to moral factors: the structural ethics approach

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It has become a popular position in the philosophy of technology to claim that some or all technological artifacts can qualify as moral agents. This position has been developed to account for the moral role of technological artifacts in society and to help clarify the moral responsibility of engineers in design. In this paper, I will evaluate various positions in favor of the view that technological artifacts are or can be moral agents. I will find that these positions, while expressing important insights about the moral role of technological artifacts, are ultimately lacking because they obscure important differences between human moral agents and technological artifacts. I then develop an alternative view, which does not ascribe moral agency to artifacts, but does attribute to them important moral roles. I call this approach structural ethics. Structural ethics is complementary to individual ethics, which is the ethical study of individual human agents and their behaviors. Structural ethics focuses on ethical aspects of social and material networks and arrangements, and their components, which include humans, animals, artifacts, natural objects, and complex structures composed of such entities, like organizations. In structural ethics, components of networks that have moral implications are called moral factors. Artifact ethics is the study of individual artifacts within structural ethics. It studies how technological artifacts may have a role as moral factors in various kinds of social and material arrangements as well as across arrangements. I argue that structural ethics and artifact ethics provide a sound alternative to approaches that attribute moral agency to artifacts. I end by arguing that some advanced future technological systems, such as robots, may have capacities for moral deliberation which may make them resemble human moral agents, but that even such systems will likely lack important features of human agents which they need to qualify as full-blown human agents.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe moral status of technical artifacts
EditorsP. Kroes, P.P.C.C. Verbeek
Place of PublicationDordrecht
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)978-94-007-7913-6
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Publication series

NamePhilosophy of engineering and technology
PublisherSpringer Verlag


  • IR-94760
  • METIS-302156


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