Don’t blame it on the principles! Uncertainty and uniqueness in ethical technology assessment

Paul Sollie


During a Department of Defence news briefing in February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld was confronted with the question concerning reports that stated that there was no evidence of a direct link between Iraq and some terrorist organisations. He subsequently answered:

“Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

(Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defence News Briefing, 12 February 2002, transcript of interview at:

This comment was received with a chuckle by many, but Rumsfeld’s now famous reply carries a lot of truth. Many decisions in whatever sphere of life take place under conditions of risk and uncertainty, the known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Modern, complex technology development is a paradigm case of this category. Complex technology developments, like that of nanotechnology, virtual communities, or synthetic biology, confront us with dilemmatic problems. On the one hand, technology developments aim at making life more comfortable, less of a hardship, at increasing health and income, and the like. (Examples: heart-lung machine, Internet/CMC, automotive industry, etc.) On the other hand, modern technology developments are too a large extent indeterminate and problematic. Hence, we should be looking beyond technology. Due to aspects such as complexity and multistability, technologies often cause unanticipated and unforeseen problems (Examples: plastics, asbestos, property rights, CO2-emissions, global warming, etc.). If we take uncertainty of technology developments seriously, and I think we should, then this requires some critical reflection.

Hence, in this paper, which follows previous work , I will take up the issue of ‘Rumsfeldian unknowns’ by investigating uncertainty and the uniqueness debate in relation to the ethical assessment of technology development. Uncertainty, which is to be distinguished from risk because it does not allow for probabilistic analyses, is central to modern technology development. From an ethical perspective it is not only interesting but also necessary to evaluate new technology developments, because technologies might yield adverse and detrimental effects for human beings and the environment that are beyond control or prediction. One of the aims of ethics is concerned with applying criteria or principles to assess persons, situations, or, in casu, technology development. Contrary to other fields of ethical assessment, it is however often argued that the ethical assessment of technology development stands out as unique as it is complicated by the characteristics of modern technologies and factors such as complexity, risk, and uncertainty. The idea the technology and its ethical assessment is unique in some theoretical sense is coined the uniqueness thesis. For instance in Hans Jonas and Walter Maner characteristics of modern, complex technologies are presented that have led people to argue that these technologies pose unique problems. With Deborah Johnson I agree that we should distinguish between unique technologies and unique ethical issues. Whereas many modern technologies might be called unique, the challenging thesis is whether modern technologies pose unique ethical issues. Some scholars have argued for the uniqueness of ethical issues, which entails that the ethical assessment of modern technologies is at odds with traditional ethical theories and requires entirely new theories. I will, however, delineate that the complexity and uncertainty is not so much a problem of deficient or inadequate ethical theories as it is a problem of human beings (e.g. not being omniscient) and the nature of the situation (e.g. inherent uncertainty of natural processes or unpredictability of human behaviour). What is more, the same principles still apply, regardless of uncertainty! Instead of directing our attention to the discovery of new theories or approaches, we should focus on uncertainty, conceptualise it and take the results as input for further reflection on the ethical assessment of uncertain technology development. I will demonstrate that, by taking uncertainty seriously, we can find legitimate ways of dealing with uncertainty in technology development.

I will, first, argue that both pure substantive ethical theories and pure procedural ethical theories are inadequate for the ethical assessment of technology development that is surrounded by uncertainty. Pure substantive approaches do not suffice since they require information, which is lacking due to uncertainty, to arrive at moral judgments with regard to the situation under scrutiny. Pure procedural ethics can only say something about the structure of debate and not about the substance. It is not able to make moral judgments by guidance of moral principles based on the substance of the subject matter. This is a major deficit in procedural approaches and therefore I contend that we should strive for a substantive theory that is able to justifiably include a procedural approach. Second, I will show that such an account (and arguably the only) is offered in Gewirthian ethics. In Reason and Morality (1978) Gewirth propounds a rational justification for a supreme moral principle, which he coins the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC): ‘Act in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as of yourself.’ I will show that the PGC does not fall prey to the described inadequacies, but rather entails such a required procedural turn by definition as it justifiably accounts for both substantive (direct) and procedural (indirect) applications. Hence, it will be concluded that the PGC is a legitimate principle for dealing with uncertainty in the ethical assessment of technology development.