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The Ethics of Technology:

A Geometric Analysis of Five Moral Principles


Martin Peterson

Texas A&M University
















































In this book I defend five moral principles I believe to be applicable to ethical issues triggered by new and existing technologies:

  1. The Cost-Benefit Principle (CBA)

  2. The Precautionary Principle (PP)

  3. The Sustainability Principle (ST)

  4. The Autonomy Principle (AUT)

  5. The Fairness Principle (FP)


All five principles have been extensively discussed in the literature; it is the method developed for analyzing the principles that is the novel aspect of the book. To put it briefly, I propose that moral principles can be construed as conceptual spaces (see Gärdenfors 2004 and 2014), i.e. as abstract regions in a multidimensional geometric space. The main advantage of this "geometric" method is that it enables ethicists to sharpen discussions of moral principles in ways that have previously been beyond the limits of the discipline. 


The point of departure for my theory is Aristotle’s formal principle of justice, holding that we should “treat like cases alike." (NE 1131a10-b15.)  Scholars sympathetic to casuistry have extended this principle to cases that are not fully similar. On their view, we should compare every choice situation we wish to analyze with some set of paradigm cases (prototypes), i.e. to cases we are familiar with and know how to analyze. If a case we wish to analyze is sufficiently similar to a paradigm case, then the moral verdict that applies to the paradigm case also applies to the test case. I agree with this, but unlike casuists, I believe there is room for principles in ethics.


The key idea is that the more similar a pair of moral choice situations are, the more reason do we have to treat the cases alike. If two cases x and y are fully similar in all morally relevant aspects, and if principle p is applicable to x, then p is applicable to y; and if some case x is more similar to the paradigm case y than to the paradigm case z, and p is applicable to y, then p is applicable to x as well.


The distances in the figure below reflect how similar the underlying moral choice situations are judged to be from a moral point of view. The closer two points are located in the figure, the more similar they are. The five test cases are analyzed by applying the moral principle that governs the most similar paradigm case. (In some cases >2 dimensions may be needed.)

For an example of something that could qualify as a paradigm case in the sense sketched above, consider the debate over climate change and the precautionary principle in the early 1990’s. At that time there was no scientific consensus about the causes and effects of climate change, but many scientists agreed that we could not completely rule out the possibility that catastrophic climate change was a genuine threat to our planet. By considering numerous applications of the precautionary principle to a range of different cases, including the original application to environmental issues in the North Sea in the 1970’s, we may conclude that climate change is a paradigm case to which the precautionary principle could be applied.


Once a paradigm case for each principle has been identified, those cases can be used for analyzing other, nonparadigmatic cases. If, for instance, some case is more similar to a paradigm case to which the precautionary principle is applicable than to any other paradigm case, then the precautionary principle ought to be applied to this case. As emphasized above, it is the degree of similarity to nearby paradigm cases that determine what it is right or wrong to do in each and every case.


To assess to what extent the geometric method I develop and defend is practically useful for analyzing real-world cases I have conducted three experimental studies. The three studies are based on data gathered from 240 academic philosophers in the U.S. and Europe, and more than 1100 engineering students at Texas A&M University. The results indicate that experts (philosophers) and laypeople (engineering students) do in fact apply geometrically construed moral principles in roughly, but not exactly, the manner advocates of the geometric method believe they ought to be applied.

Kristin Shrader-Frechette and Gert-Jan Lokhorst have raised some objections to the geometric method. You can read my published response here. I have also written a follow-up paper that reports more data (with Steven Verheyen) in Review of Philosophy and Psycology. Here is a review of the book in Choice Magazine and here is another in Philosophy in Review.


Table of contents



Part I: Foundations

1. Introduction

2. The Geometry of Applied Ethics

3. Experimental Data


Part II: Five Principles

4. The Cost-Benefit Principle

5. The Precautionary Principle

6. The Sustainability Principle

7. The Autonomy Principle

8. The Fairness Principle


Part III: Wrapping Up

9. Are Technological Artifacts Mere Tools?

10. Conclusion


Appendix: Case Descriptions




[1] Russell (1945: 835).

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