Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Ethical Dimension of Technology




The historical derivation of the term technology comes from the Greek word technikos, meaning “of art, skilful, practical” and the portion of the word ology indicates “knowledge of” or a “systematic treatment of.”

Thus the derivation of the term technology is literally “knowledge of the skilful and practical.”

However, this definition is too general to imply how one may predict knowledge of the useful before it exists.

For this reason, let us use a slightly different definition of technology.

We will define technology as the knowledge of the manipulation of nature for human purposes.

This definition retains the notions both of knowledge and practicality (human purposes) but adds the new concept of manipulation of nature.

This implies that all practical or technical skills ultimately derive form alterations of nature.

Technology depends on a base in the natural world but extends the natural world through the phenomenon of manipulation.

Since we want to manipulate nature, the ability to predict what nature will do when manipulated is most useful, indeed imperative.


By very definition, technology manipulates nature for human purposes.

Thus, technology intervenes in the lives of human beings, directly or indirectly, trying to alter behaviours.

Technology, therefore, has an ethical dimension.

The very raison d’etre of technology is human purpose.

What is the fundamental purpose of human life? Is it to increase standard of living; to improve quality of life; to enhance satisfaction in life?

All these various aspects can be distilled into a single holistic concept: VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE.


The value of human life may be defined as the balance or ratio between satisfaction or happiness and pain or suffering.


In the context of this definition, the ultimate purpose of technology is to enhance the value of human life, with a long-term perspective, by maximization of happiness and satisfaction and a concomitant reduction or minimization of pain and suffering (physical, mental and emotional).

As a generalization, people want a better life. A better life can usually be transcribed as freedom from want, access to and possession of at least some of the nonessentials or luxuries, good health, a reasonable life expectancy, the absence of emotional stress, satisfying human relations (resulting from gratifying work experience), intellectual stimulation, and personally rewarding leisure activities.


Human needs and values change through time as technology advances.

Man tends to accept the fruits of new technology more readily (satisfaction/happiness/comfort) whereas he is reluctant to accept changes in his personal life.

Thus social and cultural changes always lag behind technology causing a mismatch which consequently leads to unhappiness, dissatisfaction, pain and suffering (emotional) and consequent lowering of the value of human life.

A crude but practical way of classifying human values is to divide needs into those that are essentially physiological and those that are psychological. Most new technologies cater to physiological needs by performing dangerous, dirty, or difficult tasks (the 3 D’s) thereby enhancing the value of human life.

As regards psychological needs, an example pertaining to Information Technology (IT) may be in order.

IT caters to two unique categories of psychological needs of humans: Cognitive Needs which refer to the human need for information so as to be ready to act or make decisions that may be required, and Affective Needs which refer to the emotional requirements of human, such as their need to do challenging work, to know their work has value, to feel personally secure, and to be in control.

Undue emphasis on cognitive needs and the neglect of affective needs may cause emotional pain which counterbalances the gains to cognitive needs which may be detrimental to the value of human life as a whole.


In our haste to milk technology for immediate economic advantage we often lose sight of the long-term consequences: the higher order and indirect effects, especially the delayed and unintended effects of technology.

The Sorenson multiple effect network methodology is a useful technique for an analyzing the impact and consequences of technology.

The term malefit is introduced to represent harmful effects and consequences of a technology in contrast with benefit as a useful output.

The consequences of a technology [Effects vs Consequences] may be categorized as:


(i) First Order : Benefits

(ii) Second Order : Direct Malefits

(iii) Third Order : Indirect Malefits

(iv) Fourth Order : Unintended Malefits

(v) Fifth Order : Delayed Malefits

Such analyses definitely help in assessing the impact of various consequences of a technology on the value of human life in the long-term perspective in holistic manner.

Early identification of factors detrimental to the value of human life may prove useful in technology assessment to reduce mismatches.

We must not lose sight of our basic premise that the cardinal aim of technology is to increase the value of human life by maximising happiness and minimising suffering.


Copyright © Vikram Karve 2008

Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

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