Computing and moral responsibility (substantive revision)

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionaryScientificpeer-review


Traditionally philosophical discussions on moral responsibility have focused on the human components of moral action. Accounts of how to ascribe moral responsibility usually describe human agents performing actions that have well-defined, direct consequences. In today’s increasingly technological society, however, human activity cannot be properly understood without making reference to technological artifacts, which complicates the ascription of moral responsibility (Jonas 1984; Doorn & van de Poel 2012).[1] As we interact with and through these artifacts, they affect the decisions that we make and how we make them (Latour 1992, Verbeek 2021). They persuade, facilitate and enable particular human cognitive processes, actions or attitudes, while constraining, discouraging and inhibiting others. For instance, internet search engines prioritize and present information in a particular order, thereby influencing what internet users get to see. As Verbeek points out, such technological artifacts are “active mediators” that “actively co-shape people’s being in the world: their perception and actions, experience and existence” (2006, p. 364). As active mediators, they are a key part of human action and as a result they challenge conventional notions of moral responsibility that do not account for the active role of technology (Jonas 1984; Johnson 2001; Swierstra and Waelbers 2012).

Computing presents a particular case for understanding the role of technology in moral responsibility. As computer technologies have become a more integral part of daily activities, automate more decision-making processes and continue to transform the way people communicate and relate to each other, they have further complicated the already problematic tasks of attributing moral responsibility. The growing pervasiveness of computer technologies in everyday life, the growing complexities of these technologies and the new possibilities that they provide raise new kinds of questions: who is responsible for the information published on the Internet? To what extent and for what period of time are developers of computer technologies accountable for untoward consequences of their products? And as computer technologies become more complex and behave increasingly autonomous can or should humans still be held responsible for the behavior of these technologies?

This entry will first look at the challenges that computing poses to conventional notions of moral responsibility. The discussion will then review two different ways in which various authors have addressed these challenges: 1) by reconsidering the idea of moral agency and 2) by rethinking the concept of moral responsibility itself.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy
EditorsEdward N. Zalta
PublisherStanford University
Publication statusPublished - 2023


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