Summary of Masterís thesis

Steven Dorrestijn


The question I was concerned with in my thesis was how the ethics in Foucaultís later work could contribute to the assessment of the growing influence of technology on human life. For recognising the interrelation between humans and artefacts I made use of examples like speed limitation, which I illuminated with the work of the French scholar Bruno Latour. His concepts may be of great help to reflect on moral problems in contemporary society, but his work also appears to undermine the concepts of philosophical ethics, in particular human agency. The underlying question is if a descriptive analysis of behaviour can ever contribute to ethics. A comparison of Latourís work with Michel Foucaultís concept of a disciplinary society elaborates this aspect. The concept of discipline focuses on determination so much that there seems to be no room left for freedom and ethics. And Latour can be seen as also researching this determining influence of technology.

In his last books and interviews, Foucault changed his interest from disciplinary society to ethics. He came to think that ethics should not aim at elaborating an abstract concept of freedom but rather its practice. Foucault showed how ancient Greeks and Romans practised an art of existence in matters of sexuality, having to cope with influences originating from bodily health and family affairs. But one could also take the influence of technical products as the main focus for an art of existence. I found that in this case Latourís method would no longer pose a problem to ethics, but would become very necessary and appropriate for discovering the ways in which technological artefacts have a determining effect on us. A further finding was that experimenting with new technology and evaluating the experiences of users is at least as important as theorising about abstract criteria or facilitating ethical discussions to assess some technological invention.

For an art of existence in a technological culture to become possible it takes an effort from two sides. First, ethics should not be based on freedom as a formal condition. I discuss Kantian ethics for understanding and criticising the use of an abstract concept of freedom. Second, an art of existence is also a step beyond the descriptive analysis of Latour to the subjective question how one can change and make better use of technology after its effects have been demonstrated.

Finally I returned to my examples like speed limitation. Modern ethics tend to focus on a criterion to distinguish good from bad technology, to draw a line and enforce laws to guard them. A law on speed limitation would probably meet a lot of resistance, from philosophers questioning the manipulation of behaviour on a theoretical level and from car owners just claiming their freedom on the road. But in the meantime, all kinds of accessories that intermingle with the driverís autonomy, like cruise control and break and steering assistance, have already been accepted. So it is likely that forms of speed limitation will be introduced at some time anyway, but without explicit moral consideration. Holding on to a formal conception of freedom entails a judgement against manipulating technology in general, meanwhile letting all kinds of new inventions pass without properly recognising their moral importance. Foucaultís concept of ethics offers tools to picture this everyday practice of adaptation of technology to society and ask moral questions in a new way. This helps building a bridge between philosophical ethics and descriptive analysis of technology development.