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Ethics and Technology
TU DelftTU EindhovenUniversity of TwenteWageningen University
Ethics and Technology


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Mattering Minds

Understanding the Ethical Lives of Technologically Embedded Beings with 4E Cognition

In our everyday lives we constantly see and respond to other people’s bodily expressions and actions without much effort: you see the bus driver smile as you step into the bus and you smile back with near automaticity; you feel your child shivering from the cold and you immediately try to warm her up with a hug. The ease with which we adequately perceive and respond to one another is so mundane that we barely pay attention to it. However, it signifies a casual yet important way in which we are visible to one another as embodied expressive beings who are worthy of interaction. I call this visibility moral visibility.

Moral visibility and technology

With my Veni Grant I will research how our moral visibility and, closely related, our ability to flourish as embodied expressive persons, can be shaped by technology–both in a positive and a negative sense. Currently, this topic receives little to no attention in ethical theory. It is important, though, to shed light on this. After all, not everybody enjoys the kind of effortless moral visibility sketched above. For instance, as I’ve discussed in previous research, many bodily expressions of non-speaking autistic people have often been seen as purely pathological and meaningless–unjustifiably so. If you are not fully seen as an expressive person with a psychologically rich experiential life, then you will also be excluded from many meaningful social interactions and the shared meanings they enact. Hence, this has consequences for your ability to flourish as an embodied expressive being.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication Technology, which offers new modes of self-expression to people who can’t use their natural speaking voice, has helped to challenge this flawed image of the expressive bodily lives of non-speaking autistic people. However, technology can also jeopardize one’s moral visibility. Exoskeletons designed to improve the mobility of disabled people can implicitly express that ‘uprightness’ is the preferred way of inhabiting the world as an embodied being, contouring how wheelchair users are perceived and interacted with.
And Ambient Assisted Living technologies threaten to reduce the aging body to a healthcare problem that requires constant monitoring. Although these technologies are undoubtedly aimed at supporting human flourishing, we must critically examine the ways in which they might enact exclusive technological environments– environments in which some expressive bodily lives are more readily seen and responded to as intelligible, meaningful, and worthy of interaction. 

A new ethical framework

Since ethical theory currently doesn’t offer sufficient resources for this, I will develop a new ethical framework. This framework will be grounded in insights from the 4E strand of Cognitive Science. 4E Cognition shows that we tend to directly perceive the bodily expressions and actions of others as meaningful and worthy of interaction from within shared pragmatic contexts–contexts in which technologies co-determine which embodied actions and expressions we see as appropriate, meaningful and affording a response. Using this 4E perspective, I want to explain how some people can lack or lose their full moral visibility. The technologically shaped world, which serves as a context for our embodied interactions, is not designed in an equally accessible manner. Since 4E Cognition has not yet been developed into a robust ethical framework, I will be making the implicit ethical dimensions of 4E explicit and concrete. To do so, I will draw new innovative connections between 4E, ethics, philosophy of technology, disability studies, and the field of Human-Computer-Interaction. On the basis of these integrated connections I will develop new normative-ethical guidelines for technology development. These guidelines will be founded upon a more inclusive conception of what it means to flourish as an embodied, expressive, interaction-worthy person.

Read more about this project.