Ethics of Responsibility

Responsibility has been a key concept in the ethics of technology since its early days (Jonas, 1979). In this respect, the previous decade witnessed the emergence of the concept of responsible research and innovation (RRI, Owen et al., 2013; van den Hoven et al., 2014; von Schomberg/Hankins, 2019; Pelle and Reber, 2015). Building on these traditions, responsibility will be used as an umbrella concept integrating ethical, empirical, and epistemic issues (Sec. 3.3.1). Because the latter shows itself to be crucial regarding the subject of this book; the shifting boundaries between technology and life, consequentialist ethics of technology (Sec. 3.3.2), and ethics beyond consequentialism (Sec. 3.3.3) will be distinguished.

The Understanding of Responsibility

We usually talk about responsibility if there is a reason, i.e., if issues such as the distribution of responsibility or its range into the future are controversial. This can, for example, be the case if new opportunities for action are made possible by new technology for which there are still no rules or criteria for the attribution of responsibility available, or if the latter are a matter of controversy. Unclear or controversial assignments of responsibility can be the reason for changing a standard to nonstandard, in a moral respect. The purpose of speaking about responsibility is then to overcome these normative uncertainties and achieve agreement over the structure of responsibility to be applied in the affected field, e.g., in fields such as synthetic biology (Chap. 4) or autonomous technology (Chap. 8). Speaking about responsibility thus ultimately serves a practical purpose: clarification of the specific responsibilities for actions and decisions. "Responsibility ascriptions are normally meant to have practical consequences” (Stahl et al., 2013, 200). The significant role of the concept of responsibility in discussions of scientific and technological progress and for dealing with its consequences is obvious (Lenk, 1992). Providing orientation by clear and transparent assignment of responsibility, however, needs a common understanding of responsibility.

Usually, a more or less clear meaning of the notion of responsibility is assumed for applying it in everyday communication. However, this supposition mostly is not fulfilled in more complex fields, e.g., in responsibility debates on future science and technology. Here, a more in-depth scrutiny of the concept of responsibility is required (Grunwald, 2014b, building on Lenk, 1992; cp. also Fahlquist, 2017). Responsibility is the result of social processes, namely of assignment acts, whether actors take responsibility themselves, or the assignment of responsibility is made by others. The assignment of responsibility follows social rules based on ethical, cultural, and legal considerations and customs (Jonas, 1979, p. 173). They take place in concrete social and political spaces involving and affecting concrete actors in concrete constellations. Accordingly, a five-place reconstruction for discussing issues of responsibility in scientific and technical progress will be applied in this book (Grunwald, 2014b):

  • someone (an actor) assumes responsibility or is made responsible (responsibility is assigned to them) for
  • something (such as the results of actions or decisions, e.g., on the R&D agenda in a specific field or on risk management)
  • before an instance (a social entity expecting particular responsibilities from its member[s] which perhaps transfers duties - this may be a religious community, the entire society, the family, etc.) with respect to
  • rules and criteria (in general the normative framework governing the respective situation, e.g., rules of responsible behaviour given in a Code of Conduct), and relative to the
  • knowledge available (knowledge about the impacts and consequences of the action or decision under consideration).

The first two places are grammatically trivial in order to make linguistic sense of the word "responsible.” Semantically the first three places indicate the fundamental social context of assigning responsibility, which inevitably is a process among social actors and thus constitutes the empirical dimension of responsibility, as described above. The fourth place opens up the ethical dimension of responsibility (also described above), while the fifth place addresses an additional dimension by referring to the knowledge available about the object of responsibility (in place two). It forms the epistemic dimension of responsibility. Consequently, the resulting "EEE model of responsibility” comprises:

  • • The empirical dimension of responsibility takes seriously that the assignment of responsibility is an act by specific actors, which affects others, and mirrors the basic social constellation of assignment. Attribution of responsibilities must take into account the ability of actors to influence actions and decisions in the respective field, regarding also issues of accountability, power, and legitimation. Relevant questions for responsibility analyses are: How are the capabilities, influence, and power to act and decide distributed in the field considered? Which social groups, including scientists, engineers, managers, citizens, and stakeholders, are affected and could or should help deliberate and decide about the distribution of responsibility? Should the questions under consideration be debated at the polis or can they be delegated to particular groups? What consequences would a particular distribution of responsibility have for the governance of the respective field, and would it be in favor of the desired developments?
  • • The ethical dimension of responsibility (cp. also Grinbaum and Groves, 2013; Pelle and Reber, 2015; Gianni, 2016; Ruggiu, 2018) is reached when the question is posed regarding the criteria and rules for judging actions and decisions under consideration as responsible or irresponsible, or for helping to find out how actions and decisions could be designed to be (more) responsible. Relevant questions about responsibility reflections are: What criteria distinguish between responsible and irresponsible actions and decisions? Is there consensus or controversy on these criteria among the relevant actors? Which meaning of normative issues such as "dignity of life” or "animal welfare” is presupposed, and by whom? Can the actions and decisions in question (e.g., about the scientific agenda or about containment measures to prevent risks) be regarded as responsible with respect to the rules and criteria?
  • • The epistemic dimension asks about the knowledge of the subject of responsibility and its epistemological status and quality. This is relevant in particular in debates on scientific responsibility because frequently statements about impacts and consequences of science and new technology show a high degree of uncertainty. The comment that nothing else comes from "mere possibility arguments" (Hansson, 2006) is an indication that in debates over responsibility it is essential that the status of the available knowledge about the futures to be accounted for is determined and critically reflected from an epistemological point of view (Gannon, 2003; Nordmann, 2007a; Grunwald, 2014a). Relevant questions in this respect are: What is really known about prospective subjects of responsibility? What could be known in the case of more research, and which uncertainties are pertinent? How can different uncertainties be qualified and compared to each other? And what is at stake if worse comes to worst?

Debates over responsibility in technology and science often focus on the ethical dimension, while considering issues of assignment processes and epistemic constraints to be secondary issues. However, regarding the analysis given so far the ethical dimension is important but only part of the picture. It might be that the familiar criticisms toward responsibility reflections (see above) of being simply appellative, of epistemological blindness, and of being politically naive are related to narrowing responsibility to its ethical dimension. Instead, relevant questions in responsibility debates arise in all of these three dimensions, which, therefore, must be considered together in prospective debates in our field (following Grunwald, 2014b). In particular, answers to the question of what could be sensible objects of responsibility (position two of the introduction of responsibility above) regarding future developments at the life-technology interface strongly depend on the epistemological dimension, as will be demonstrated in the following.

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