Cultivating Humanity Towards a Non-Humanist Ethics of Technology by Peter Paul Verbeek

“Cultivating Humanity Towards a Non-Humanist Ethics of Technology” was written by Peter Paul Verbeek in 2009 and asserts that the technologically mediated character of our daily lives has important ethical implications. In ethics, the question is ‘how to
act’, but in our technological culture, this question is not answered exclusively by human beings.

Verbeek takes a contrarian stance against the normative humanist model of ethics and argues that in order to take seriously the complex role of technology in our culture, the ethics of technology needs to move beyond the humanism that is implicit in most ethical theory, and to give also technological artifacts a central place in moral reflection (Verbeek 25). In some respects, our technological culture is a product of the Enlightenment. Since then, ethics has had a humanist character and now that technology is integral to the way we shape our lives we have to establish how ethics play into our technologically mediated way of life. To bolster his point, he asserts that artifacts are ‘morally charged’; they mediate moral decisions, and play an important role in our moral volition. An example of a ‘morally charged’ technology is obstetric ultrasound. “This technology has come to play a pervasive role in practices around pregnancy, especially in antenatal diagnostics and, consequently, in moral decisions regarding abortion” (Verbeek 8). Decisions about abortion, after having had an ultrasound and detecting a unborn child suffering from a serious illness, are not made autonomously by humans but in close interactions with tech that generates specific choices. Moreover, human behavior that is steered or provoked by technology cannot be called ‘moral action’. In order to do justice to the moral relevance of technology, therefore, the humanist foundations of ethics need to be broadened. An interesting observation and analogy he pointed out was criticizing the Enlightenment usually directly results in the suspicion to be hostile toward the rationalist world view and liberal democracy, criticizing humanism evokes the image of a barbarian form of misanthropy. This is a valid point becuase humanism is viewed as the golden standard of moral principles in many secular, non-religious circles, so opposing this ‘gospel’ may earn one the image of a anti-human cynic. Beside moralizing technological objects, an ethical approach that aims to overcome the subject-object dichotomy should also reflect morally on the technological mediation of the subject. “The resulting mediation and its moral impact, after all, also depends on the ways the mediating technology is appropriated and taken into people’s moral reflection” (Verbeek 22). He cites the writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault reverts to ethical approaches from classical Antiquity, where ethics was explicitly directed at constituting oneself as a specific subject. Foucaults views of ethics and sexuality are highly relevant for the ethics of technology. “Just like the ancient Greek and Romans did not deny or suppress the sexual passions, but rather acknowledged them and actively helped to shape them, people in our technological culture can develop a relation to the technological mediations that help to shape their subjectivity, by actively relating to and intervening in these mediations” (Verbeek 22). From a Foucaultian perspective, the ethics of technology should direct itself at this technological mediation of subject constitution. Lastly, Verbeek mentions that technologies are literally public things, which can be seen as non-human entities that gather human and non-human entities around itself. “From this approach, technological ‘things’ do not only mediate our existence, but are also places where these mediations are made explicit” (Verbeek 26). He argues that posthumanist ethics does not abandon humanist values but to the contrary, it aims to move past humanism but not part the human. It simply gives a central place to the idea that the human can only exist in its relations to the nonhuman.

I thought Verbeek’s concerns were justifiable and necessary. I think the social sciences, especially philosophy in regards to the normative study of ethics have a proclivity for dogmatism. It is the same reason why archaelogists vehemently denied Graham Hancock’s theories on a ‘lost civilization’ that once lived in the Americas over 100,000 years ago as opposed to the arrival of peoples who traveled from Northern Asia to the Siberian peninsula across the Bering Strait land bridge to enter Alaska, North America, and Central and South America just 11,600 years ago, but this is commonly accepted in archaelogy circles today. The same reason why Bruce Lipton’s research on stem cells and epigenetics was written off as pseudoscience hooey, but today is very much its own field of study in genetics. Heterodox trailblazers bear the brunt of oppositional forces, it is simply the nature of science. Verbeek is not nearly the contrarian Hancock or Lipton are, but the existent severe chasm in opinions between him and his colleagues reveal just how sarosanct secular studies hold its superordinate ethical principles, even without identifying them with God. Although secular in nature, I find the humanist rejection of Verbeek’s posthumanist assertions no different than relgiously inspired dogmatic differences in religions around the world. On another note, we need to develope a definite way of navigating through our technological culture as the lines become increasingly ambiguous between machine and human. Technologies already play a factor into our moral decision-making processes right now, so with more self-driving cars on the road, A.I. assistants in the private sector and robot-mediated communication (RMC) we need to understand determine how to appropriately direct our paths in this space in time with them. I agree with his final sentiment that “In order to cultivate humanity, we need to take seriously how also technologies help to cultivate us” (Verbeek 26). 

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