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Is Technology Value-Neutral?

Boaz Miller Community Information Systems, Zefat Academic College

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Forthcoming in Science, Technology, and Human Values.

Abstract According to the Value Neutrality Thesis, technology is morally and politically neutral, neither good nor bad. A knife may be put to bad use to murder an innocent person, or to good use to peel an apple for a starving person, but the knife itself is a mere instrument, not a proper subject for moral or political evaluation. While contemporary philosophers of technology widely reject the Value Neutrality Thesis, it remains unclear whether claims about values in technology are just a figure of speech, or non-trivial empirical claims with genuine factual content and real-world implications. This paper provides the missing argument. I argue that by virtue of their material properties, technological artifacts are part of the normative order, rather than external to it. I illustrate how values can be empirically identified in technology. The reason why value-talk is not trivial or metaphorical is that due to the endurance and longevity of technological artifacts, values embedded in them have long-term implications that surpass their designers and builders. I further argue that taking sides in this debate has real-world implications in the form of moral constraints on the development of technology. Keywords Technology, Values, Value-Neutrality, Artifacts

1. Introduction

According to the Value-Neutrality Thesis (VNT), technology is morally and politically neutral,

neither good nor bad; only its uses have moral or other value, not the technology itself. A knife

may be used to murder an innocent person, or peel an orange for a starving person, but the knife

itself is a mere instrument, not subjectable to moral evaluation.

While contemporary academic philosophers and theorists of technology from different

schools widely reject VNT,1 it remains unclear whether claims about values in technology are

more than just a figure of speech; namely, whether they are non-trivial empirical claims with

genuine factual content and real-world implications. This challenge has been most thoroughly

developed by Joseph Pitt, who, primarily in his paper “Guns don’t kill, people kill,” gives an

explicit full-fledged argument for VNT (Pitt 2014; Pitt 2000: 72-86). The absence of a satisfactory

 

 

 

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response to Pitt’s challenge may partly explain why VNT remains a common platitude in the

general public and among technology developers.

In this paper, I argue—against Pitt—that by virtue of their material properties,

technological artifacts are part of the normative moral and political order, rather than external

to it. I illustrate how values can be empirically identified in technology. The reason why value-

talk is not trivial or metaphorical is that due to the endurance and longevity of technological

artifacts, values embedded in them have long-term implications that surpass their designers and

builders. Furthermore, accepting or denying VNT has real-world implications in the form of

moral constraints on the development of technology.

Section 2 critically reviews Pitt’s argument for VNT and the main arguments against VNT.

Section 3 argues that values need not be empirically identified to be embedded in material

technological artifacts. Section 3 argues notwithstanding that values can be empirically

identified in material technological artifacts, and introduces a sufficient condition for values to

be embedded in an artifact. Section 5 argues that the claim that technology embodies values is

not trivial because values materially endure in technology. Section 6 argues that denying VNT

does not relinquish technologists from their moral responsibilities, and Section 7 argues that the

philosophical debate about VNT has real-world moral practical implications.

2. The arguments for and against VNT

Pitt (2014: 90) formulates VNT as follows:

(VNT) Technological artifacts do not have, have embedded in them, or contain values.

Pitt’s argument can be reconstructed as follows:

(VNT1) For technological artifacts to embody, embed, or contain values in a non-trivial sense, these values must be empirically identifiable from the technological artifacts in which they are embedded

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