Conditions for an Effectiveness of Ethical Reflexivity in ICT-Based Projects: From Theory to Practice.

Philippe Goujon, Marco Marabelli, Catherine Flick, Alesssia Santuccio and Federico Rajola


The impact of techno-scientific developments on societal evolution and lifestyles no longer needs to be demonstrated. In particular the last half of the twentieth century has witnessed a considerable acceleration of the integration of technological elements into the means of economic production and social life in general. The profound transformations that have taken place in the last few decades equally involve energy, transportation, construction, telecommunications, administration, medicine, pharmacy and agricultural sectors. These transformations are closely linked to techno-scientific developments and particularly to stunning developments in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

The rapid change and evolution of ICTs presents opportunities for social interaction and the management of life activities in new and often unfamiliar ways. The diversity of use and application areas brought about by the convergence of different media offers great potential for enhancing many aspects of living. At the same time, the main characteristics of these technologies that lend themselves to inspiring visions of the future (such as the Ambient Intelligence environment) also hold for potential negative ethical impacts. Some ethical issues are now familiar, privacy for example, but even so it might be hard to identify potential risks in new applications and contexts, especially if we take into account the extent to which new technologies are now enveloped in every day human activities. Others are less obvious and likely to become harder to identify since nowadays ICT is becoming ‘seamless, unobtrusive and often invisible’. In other words, the growing process of incorporating ICT into human activities conditions behaviors and apparently the process is often unconscious or not clearly perceived by the users.

Unfortunately not all projects with technical development sufficiently integrate the ethical issues that arise. In particular, the governance of ethics is often missing and no guidelines have been provided so far both at the EU and international level. These difficulties have been recognized at EU level, resulting in the attention paid to ethics and ICT in EU Seventh Framework Program (FP7), and to some extent in UE Sixth Framework Program (FP6) -for instance the ETHICBOTS project, the MIAUCE project, and the SWAMI project). Approaches that address the challenges vary, and are often presented as different ways to identify potential ethical issues at some stage in the research project.

It is insufficient to determine and address the ethical problems raised by the ICT from a theoretical perspective if such approaches have no practical impact and remain external to the development of the technical project itself. Ethical considerations are by themselves insufficient to settle the problem of the relationship between ethics technologies and society, above all in the field of ICT and emerging technology such as ambient intelligent systems, and the alignment between projects development and ethics is far from being achieved. In addition, the positive approaches of the social sciences, even in their applied versions to an ethics of technology (e.g. ‘sociology of morals’), even if doesn’t encourage cognitive and normative reflexivity, can reinforce the efficiency of instrumental methods which are typically those of the ‘social engineering’.

The risk is that by not addressing the conditions (institutional, rules, cognitive) for the effective integration of those considerations in the context of a technical project, the ethical considerations will be excluded from the technical rationale and treated as a totally separate domain. The consequence of this separation is a loss of impact, and an undermining of the integral role of ethics in the application of technology (I would rewrite this last sentence. I got the message but I think should be more clear since I feel this is a fundamental point, we should ask Catherine to rewrite it since she’s mother language. I would change the word “undermining”)

Thus, this article aims to address the conditions to identify the ethical issue incorporated into ICT, and takes into consideration the problem of the ethical issues resolution, which is based on the consideration of assuring the efficiency and the effectiveness of ethical reflexivity in the technological development itself. In turn, our approach is not limited to consider ethical issues as a sheer sectorial approach with the consequence that the debate will be reduced just as a mere application of a priori accepted principles, in fact, the latter approach would resume itself to a deduction of consequences from the application of those principles to a perceived context, without taking into account its achievement

Consequently we develop the following research questions:

  • what will be the consequences of scientific and technical rationality for the moral reason ?
  • Is it possible to relativize instrumental rationality? and what are the conditions for its political control?
  • What are the conditions that allow the conditions for the integration, within the structures of power and decision, means of « learning », taking possession of the socio-techniques, ethics and cultural stakes of new technologies ?
  • how we can define a new ethical governance: reflexive, deliberative, ethical… that allows (I think this sentence is to be completed)

Doing so, we will specify a theoretical framework for improved governance mechanisms that identify and address potential ethical issues arising from new and emerging ICT technologies, and at the same time will erase the separation and disjunction that, to take Putnam expression, separates so often the level of justification (theoretical approach and determination of ethical issues) from the level of application (transformation of the context by the application of the ethical reflexivity and determination).

We will respond to the need for a comprehensive ethical governance process that supports deliberation and shared decision-making, and that implicitly carries a commitment to ethical engagement in technology development.