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German Perspectives


Contemporary discussions of science, technology, and ethics in Germany take place largely in the context of developments in the philosophy of technology. Although during much of the second half of the twentieth century philosophical discussion of technology was divided up into various schools and approaches, by the beginning of the twenty-first century such divisions were giving way to a new problem-orientated approach that emphasized the social, cultural, human, and ethical dimensions of the production and use of technoscientific knowledge. Reflections on technological development and transfer, for instance, became less ideological and more eclectic, pragmatic, and interdisciplinary than in the past. Nevertheless, discussions of ethics related to the hybridization of science and technology in such fields as information technology and genetic engineering continue to occur against a specifically German philosophical background. Thus the following notes on German approaches to science, technology, and ethics are themselves hybrid introductions to schools and problems, theory and practice.

Background: Gehlen and Heidegger

Arnold Gehlen (1904–1976) and Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) were the two main philosophers to deal with technology during the second half of the twentieth century. Gehlen's anthropological approach was to interpret human beings as deficient beings who use technology to compensate for their organic shortcomings. The characteristic activity of technology involves the creation and use of Organersatzes, that is, substitutes for or supersedings of those organs with which humans are endowed by nature. "There are two aspects to this tendency: artificial materials replacing those organically produced; and non-organic energy replacing organic energy" (Gehlen 1980, p. 5). The earliest humans strengthened their hands with wood and stone instruments, then replaced old materials in these instruments with new ones that defined entire ages (the Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc.), a substitution process that has continued into synthetic chemistry. But of even greater significance has been the replacement of human and animal power with coal, oil, electricity, and nuclear power.

Because of this substitution process technology develops a tendency to deny its roots and become independent. The technological world becomes progressively abstract and not tied to any immediate need. This is the starting point for Gehlen's criticism of modern technology as it has developed especially since the Industrial Revolution. According to Gehlen, technology develops an opposition to its previous cultural contexts and tends to become something pursued for its own sake. Coherent social orders decline under a flood of external stimuli, and social institutions lose their stability. Primitivisms such as "sex and drugs and rock-and-roll" become manifest throughout technological civilizations, along with extreme forms of individualism and subjectivism. In response Gehlen becomes a conservative critic of culture. Gehlen's anthropological analysis of the origin of technology leads to a criticism of technological culture.

Heidegger advanced two approaches to technology: first, in Sein und Zeit (1927; English trans. Being and Time, 1962), that of technology as an implicit or hidden presence in the human lifeworld; second, after the famous Kehre (turn), that of technology as a form of truth or revealing. The early Heidegger developed an understanding of (technological) experience in Being and Time, paragraphs 14–18. In the analysis of human existence as a being-in-the-world he discovered the everyday character of engagement with equipment as prior to any theoretical presence of objects. As is implicit in the Greek naming of objects as pragmata, Heidegger argues that technical praxis is the experiential context from which all science is abstracted. It is more accurate to describe science as theoretical technology than technology as applied science. But this Being and Time analysis of human interaction with entities or beings is no more than a moment in Heidegger's larger attempt to understand the "meaning of Being."

Turning from the focus on the meaning of Being that predominates in his early work, Heidegger's later thought develops a more explicit philosophy of technology. In "Die Frage nach der Technik" (1954; English trans. The Question Concerning Technology, 1977) he argues that technology is not just a practical engagement with the world but a revealing, a disclosure or truth about the world. What modern technology in particular reveals is the world as Bestand, that is, stock or resources subject to human manipulation. The coming upon the world as Bestand that is operative throughout modern technology as such Heidegger names Gestell (enframing), the promotion of which is for contemporary human beings not something that they simply choose to use or not but a Geschick (destiny). Like any destiny, however, technology as Gestell carries with it both opportunity and danger. The opportunities provided by technology are pervasive in the modern world, but the dangers are more hidden and go deeper than the simple risks so commonly associated with technology, such as the risks of automobile accidents or environmental pollution. The most profound danger is that the disclosure of the world as resource will overwhelm the event of disclosing itself, that the experience of one particular kind of truth will obscure the more primordial truth of Being. The ultimate challenge of modern technology is to be true to the greater human destiny of disclosing in the midst of a technological destiny.

The Frankfurt School and Social Risks

During the 1960s questions of ecological and social risks came to the fore in many discussions of science, technology, and ethics. But in the Frankfurt School it was social risks that held center stage, and a social risk of a particular kind: the risk of failure to use science and technology to realize the Enlightenment ideal of an autonomous humanity for which they were intended.

Criticism of technology in the Frankfurt School is based on the critical theory of Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) and Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), especially their post–World War II analysis of what they termed the "dialectic of Enlightenment." Analyzing the social histories of Nazism, Stalinism, and American capitalism they argued that formal rationality—positivism and pragmatism—had been transformed into an instrumental rationality that degraded its users and the things used. In the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century and even in consumer capitalism Enlightenment humanism had been used to justify dehumanization and exploitation. Enlightenment humanism thus runs the risk of becoming its dialectical opposite, a kind of anti-humanism. The science and technology that emerged out of Enlightenment commitments have been used to promote new forms of irrationality and barbarism, which must thus be dialectically criticized in order to save the Enlightenment project.

The critical theory of technology may be summarized in four theses:

  1. Knowledge is power. In the modern world science has become functional and instrumental knowledge, developed in order to achieve the goals of the Enlightenment by establishing human power over nature.
  2. Modern technology leads to technocracy. The Enlightenment values of humanity, emancipation, and social justice are to be realized by means of technical instruments.
  3. But rather than realizing democratic enlightenment, technology develops surrogates for enlightenment, especially in the forms of film and advertisement. Entertainment and the culture industry become technological substitutes for the genuine enlightenment to be found in aesthetics and the arts.
  4. Progress thus calls for a dialectic criticism of false enlightenment in the name of true enlightenment. Critical theory points out the ambivalence of progress brought about by technology.

Horkheimer and Adorno thus saw instrumental or calculative rationality (scientific technology) as a paradox: It provided the knowledge and power necessary to liberate human beings from unenlightened subservience to their own superstitions and to nature, enabling them to become autonomous individuals. But instrumental rationality has in fact been deployed by ruling groups to pacify the masses either violently or through material goods and services. The Enlightenment project has failed to prevent itself from being misused. What is needed is a new assertion of the Enlightenment ideal, which Horkheimer and Adorno nevertheless find difficult to derive from their social scientific studies.

It is to this problem that Jürgen Habermas responded with a philosophical deepening of critical theory and an extended reaffirmation of the norms of the Enlightenment ideal in the face of its corruption in contemporary culture. The human lifeworld is characterized by self-reflection, language, labor, and morality. Technological development follows the logic of labor, which is necessary for interacting with nature; technology is not something that can be renounced. At the same time, communicative action through language or a symbolic interaction among human beings engenders social norms. This too is an important aspect of what it means to be human and is not to be renounced. Technological rationality becomes a threat when it overwhelms or obscures symbolic interactions and its cultural traditions from which arise all justifications for using power, whether political or technological. Insofar as Habermas criticizes such a technological colonization of the lifeworld he reiterates Horkheimer and Adorno. But insofar as critical theory only criticizes instrumental rationality, it fails to rehabilitate a sophisticated form of rationality. Only a recovery and articulation of the principles of the communication rationality that is the basis of symbolic interaction can substantiate the critical theory project.

Cybernetics and Systems Theory

Cybernetics and systems theory have developed a scientific conception of technological action in order to control and shape this kind of action. Günter Ropohl's work on "technological systems theory" and "technological enlightenment" is a good extension of this aspect of cybernetics. According to Ropohl, the social dimension of technology is best grasped as an extended action system. It is not technology that formulates aims but certain action systems. These action systems produce technological artifacts, which in turn open up possibilities for new action functions. In this way Ropohl criticizes the ideas of technological determinism or a technological imperative. The physical constraints addressed by technological developments, for instance, are not technical but social in character. According to Ropohl the legitimation crisis of technological progress—that is, public doubts about whether technological change is always for the better—cannot help but promote "enlightenment" about the true character of the technological process (Ropohl 1991).

Klaus Kornwachs has also developed systems theory in ways that can be used to describe technological systems. The principles of any system are as follows: Every system has an author. The term system has both descriptive and prescriptive dimensions: Descriptive dimensions involve explaining how a system is to be constructed; prescriptive dimensions involve explicitly identifying the interests a system serves. As people learn to deal with any system it takes on an objective character and can thus become an object of scientific study. The structure of a system is given by the relationships among its elements. Large technological systems can be described at more than one level, and these levels must be integrated in a full description. Paradoxically, expanding systems are often easier to control than systems in equilibrium (Kornwachs 1993).

Contributions from the German Democratic Republic

From 1949 to 1990 the German Democratic Republic (GDR) developed discussions of science, technology, and ethics—and of the philosophy of technology—that were heavily influenced by the thought of Karl Marx (1818–1883), especially as interpreted in the Soviet Union. At the same time, scholars in the GDR attempted to maintain a certain level of independence by analyzing the connection between science and technology against the background of social developments. This in turn was influenced by and influenced the Dresden school of the technological sciences, especially since reunification.

Although its origins are unclear, the term Technikwissenschaften (technological sciences) was already in use during the nineteenth century in Germany and the German empire. After what in the Soviet Union was termed the scientific-technological revolution, that is, the unification of science and technology in has also been called "technoscience," the engineering sciences increased in significance for the establishment of socialism. But even though the notion of science implies a (not always realized) degree of stability, the engineering sciences have undergone substantial changes to which engineers must adjust.

The inner structure of any technological science has emerged from a long historical process of analyzing cause-and-effect relations, structures, functions, combinations of materials, and classification principles (Banse and Wendt 1986). In the technological sciences technological rules may be thought of as request systems, which in the process of invention must negotiate oppositions between idea and material possibility. Extending new scientific knowledge into the technological sciences involves the formulation of new technological rules, which are also increasingly required to take into account changing social circumstances. Only in this way can a connection be maintained between technological and social progress. But there is often a tension between technological parameters and those of economic and social effectiveness, not to mention the long-range effects on economy and society.

According to Johannes Müller, who worked for many years with scientists and engineers in the GDR, the technological sciences deal with a class of scientific analyses, operations, procedures, and means for determinate human actions. Their objective is to find solutions for tasks and problems with the help of rules, methodologies, problem-solving operations, procedures, algorithms, and norms. Contemporary construction work has to negotiate the relations among epistemology, technological science, logic, and psychology. Yet the main criterion for technological action and technological design is not truth but fulfillment or, more precisely, the possibility of technological fulfillment or practicality. Scrutiny of the possible realization of technological designs is done on the base of what may be called systematic heuristics (Müller 1990).

Erlangen-Konstanz Constructionism

The universities of Erlangen and Konstanz in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, respectively, were in the 1960s sites for the revival of the philosophy of science in Germany. The distinctive approach of philosophers in these two universities was the development of a nonempiricist, constructivist philosophy of science that strongly distinguished itself from logical empiricism. This school of constructivism sought, for instance, to identify a "protophysics" or "prephysics" that could prescribe in advance the measuring instruments necessary to any empirical physics. Peter Janich has added a "protobiology" and "protochemistry" to this prototheory. And from the philosophy of science this type of constructivism, because it focuses on the instrumentization of science, has easily been extended to the interpretation of technology as a way to criticize naturalism, especially in the field of cognitive or information technologies.

Janich has further argued for a constructivism in anthropology that he and Dirk Hartmann (1998) term "methodological culturalism." Along with this "cultural turn" comes the priority of action theory over language philosophy. The claim is that cultural relativism can be rejected on the basis of a preactive and preconscious agreement whenever human beings have achieved a certain level of cultural development. Taking technological development as a model for cultural development, the artificial character of all technological products becomes subject to a means–ends assessment that takes place before subjective or consumer evaluations. That is, the suitability of certain means for certain ends can be judged by their success or failure in achieving or failing to achieve those ends. The success of technological action cannot be reduced to the acceptance or rejection of certain groups but must be demonstrated first by practical reliability at any time in any transcultural context. Rational justification nevertheless remains as a philosophical and ethical issue. The Europäische Akademie zur Erforschung von Folgen wissenschaftlich-technischer Entwicklungen (European Academy for the Study of the Consequences of Scientific and Technological Advances) in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, under the direction of Carl Friedrich Gethmann, has been inspired by this approach.

Technology Assessment

Extending the social sciences and social philosophy of technology, the basic concern of technology assessment (TA) is systematic research into the preconditions and (potential) consequences for the introduction and use of technologies in order to identify and analyze social conflict areas, especially those that may evolve from the use of technologies. TA thus demonstrates and evaluates action possibilities for the improvement of technologies or their modes of use. The aim of TA is not the obstruction of technological innovations but the reflective design of sociotechnological systems (Petermann 1992).

TA analysis should anticipate conditions of realization and the potential consequences of use of technologies, and thus function as an early warning system. The main theoretical problem of TA is to predict changes caused or influenced by technology. The development of early indicators for effect-chains, which can show the diffusion of technological developments with high reliability, is a major challenge.

A useful assessment of technology should not be satisfied with simply discussing technological innovations but should reflect on the basic human–nature relation as it varies from culture to culture and is practiced in concrete social organizations for action (Bungard and Lenk 1988). The development, production, and initial use of technologies require special knowledge and capital. The elite of the economy, politics, and technological sciences profit from early successful uses of technology, but it is difficult to develop a specific methodological program for the assessment of technologies. There is neither a sophisticated theory of technological consequences nor a well-developed theory of valuation (Ropohl 1996). TA must always contend with unintended, ambivalent, and uncertain consequences. It has to make a functional distinction between scientific identification of possible consequences and their assessment, but must also integrate both steps in a common discourse.

The aforementioned European Academy clearly stresses methodologies related to the technico-philosophical construction of an ethical TA program. Critics from the social sciences reject any such ethical analysis, and thus technological ethics, appealing instead to social pluralism, the differentiation of social subsystems, decentralized technology, and the unpredictability of technological consequences. But surely it is reasonable to pursue ethics as a reflective analysis of right behavior. The responsibility of engineers can at least be based on the way they take concrete actions that result in technological solutions, even if they are subject to a number of influences and basic conditions. The development of technological solutions, equipment, machines, control devices, or consumer goods always includes ideas about users (Grunwald and Saupe 1999) that can be subject to critical assessment.

The Society of German Engineers

The Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (VDI, or Society of German Engineers) has a long history of philosophical ethical reflection on modern technology, as has been surveyed by Alois Huning and Carl Mitcham (1993). In the 1920s the VDI was a locus for extended discussions of the cultural and metaphysical significance of science and technology. In the 1950s it became the primary site for efforts to renew the ethical tradition in German engineering after a period of collaboration with and corruption by the Nazi regime.

As part of this renewal the VDI created a special interdisciplinary "Mensch und Technik" (humanity and technology) study group to examine relations between engineering, the technological sciences, philosophical ethics, and the humanities. Beginning in the 1950s the Mensch und Technik group convened a series of conferences dealing with ethics, industrialization, social impact, education, and philosophy, and issued a wide-ranging series of publications. Out of these discussions—with participation by philosophers such as Huning, Hans Lenk, Friedrich Rapp, and Ropohl—came influential analyses of professional engineering responsibility and technology assessment. Indicative of how Mensch und Technik discussions, even though existing within a professional engineering framework, sought to go beyond what in other national contexts might be considered the appropriate boundaries of engineering interest, were expressed concerns about the way nature was coming to be treated in the same way as artifacts, available simply for human control and manipulation.

During the 1990s a new generation of philosophical contributors to VDI discussions continued their work. Representative of these contributions has been the studies of Christoph Hubig, who argues for an extension of analyses of instrumental action in ways that can lead to a rehabilitation of substantive value ethics (Hubig 1993). For Hubig, the challenge of applied ethics, especially in science and technology, is to build a bridge between principles and specific actions, with an awareness of the complex inner structure of practice. Such a pursuit of ethics in relation to science and technology can be done only by means of interdisciplinary dialogue. Within the technological practice there is always an implicit catalog of values, with conflicts between values being a regular occurrence. The task of discussion-management institutions and organizations is to provide standard approaches for dealing with such conflicts when they occur (Hubig 1997). Taking seriously his own recommendations to work in an interdisciplinary manner, Hubig has worked with the VDI to develop a report on Ethische Ingenieurverantwortung (2000), and then led the team that drafted the 2002 VDI code of ethics, Ethische Grundsätze des Ingenieurberufs.

Method versus Language, Practice versus Theory

Recent work in the philosophy of technology has tended to emphasize methodology over language, practice over theory. Descriptive propositional knowledge (knowing that) is seen as less important in technology and science than prescriptive skill (knowing how) or productive knowledge. Insofar as this is the case, the explanation–understanding controversy has been replaced by a more pragmatic epistemology (see Zimmerli 1997). From the mid-1980s the expansion of technology has brought with it transformational experiences such as the digitalization of everyday life and associated challenges to tradition and changes in values. Yet it is the lack of practical (not theoretical) orientation in these experiences that gives new life to philosophy. How should we live in the new world we are creating? What should we do with our artifice? During this second modernization the hybridization of technology and science has brought with it a new "dialectic of enlightenment" that is manifested in the philosophy of culture.

In order to address such practical questions philosophers such as Lenk, Walther Zimmerli, and Bernhard Irrgang have been developing a hermeneutic understanding of both technology and ethics. The structures of technological practice, professional activity, and everyday life, together with the background of an implicit technological knowledge, are the basis of collective technological action in a cultural context. The meaning of a technology does not necessarily have to be linguistically articulated in order to be present in a culture. The ways technological practices themselves structure actions include different forms of meaningfulness. This leads to a kind of existential pragmatics of technological action and its models of representation (Corona and Irrgang 1999). Such an approach provides a recursive and reflexive assessment of technological actions. But the impacts of any interpretation of technological actions must also prove successful in psychological, sociological, technical-historical, and cultural-historical terms (Irrgang 2001, 2002). At the same time, reflective modernization depends on the continued existence of such institutions as universities and research centers even as they are altered by globalization.

Reflective modernization must also distinguish the self-understandings of scientific and technical professionals from the external descriptions of their roles. The traditional epistemological foundation for a social role description has been the notion of science as knowledge, but technological science is not another science. Technological science is an action science and thus also contains prescriptive statements as well as descriptive ones. The integration of scientific method into the technological sciences has resulted in new disciplinary formations from more than one perspective: by objects studied, by methods, and by professional fields. A metatheory of the technological sciences is needed to determine the relation of these various disciplinary formations and to search for unity within the technological sciences. A related question concerns the relation between disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary technoscientific knowledge. Epistemological and professional distinctions ultimately interact with practice-orientated and institutional differentiations in an integrated technology-reflective culture (Irrgang 2003).

Appendix: Ethics in Practice

To this point observations have indicated some of the abstract approaches brought to bear in Germany on issues related to science, technology, and ethics—approaches that serve repeatedly to emphasis the importance of practice. By way of a concluding appendix, it remains to comment on specific practices themselves. In this regard there are at least two practices within technoscience deserving special notice: those having to do with research misconduct and with stem cell research.

RESEARCH MISCONDUCT. In June 2000 the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), which is the main Germany research funding agency, after initial allegations of misconduct emerged in 1997, concluded an investigation into the practices of the hematologist and cancer researcher Friedhelm Herrmann of the University of Freiburg Medical Center. According to the DFG report, of Herrman's 347 scientific papers published between 1988 and 1992, at least 52 contained falsifications and another 42 were suspect. A previous investigation of more recent publications had identified 37 papers with falsification and data manipulation. This discovery of such egregious misconduct on the part of a respected member of the scientific community led the DFG in 2002 to require that any institution receiving DFG funds adopt a strong definition of scientific misconduct prohibiting falsification and fabrication of data, unacknowledged data selection, graph and figure manipulation, the inclusion of false information in a curriculum vitae, destruction of primary data, sabotage of others' work, and plagiarism. Previous German policies had been more relaxed; in one step this new policy placed the German scientific research community at the forefront of misconduct policy development.

STEM CELL RESEARCH. As has been explained by Jens G. Reich (2002), among others, the discussion of stem cell research in Germany reflects both philosophical and political history. Philosophically, under the influence of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), German ethics tends to be strongly deontological, stressing the primacy of treating human beings as ends not as means. Indeed, the first article of the German Grundgesetz (Basic Law) of 1949 states that "the dignity of the human being is untouchable." There is also a strong awareness of German failures during the Nazi period to respect human dignity. In a determined stance to respect human dignity in the present, the German Embryo Protection Law of 1990, which was supported by a large majority of the public, explicitly defines human life as beginning at conception. It prohibits manipulation of a human embryo for any purpose other than its implantation into the uterus of the woman from whom the originating ovum was derived. This law thus forbids stem cell creation and applies to privately funded embryo research as well as to publicly funded research.

The law has, however, come under interpretative stress as a result of emerging opportunities for stem cell research. In 2002 the German parliament (Bundestag) reaffirmed the ban on stem cell creation but allowed the importation of stem cells created in other countries provided certain stringent conditions are met. Only stem cell lines created before 2002 are eligible, and then only with the informed consent of the parents of the embryo from which the stem cell line was derived, and on the conditions that the parents have received no payment and that the intention behind the original fertilization was a pregnancy that was abandoned for reasons not related to the embryo—that is, the embryo could not have been rejected as defective. Clearly stem cell research in Germany takes place under more detailed ethical guidelines than in perhaps any other country. It is also worth noting that human cloning, whether for reproductive or therapeutic purposes, is prohibited in Germany, but there are also more liberal positions in bioethics (Irrgang 1997, Irrgang 2005).


SEE ALSO Anders, Günther; Central European Perspectives; Dessauer, Friedrich; Existentialism; French Perspectives; Habemas, Jürgen; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Heidegger, Martin; Husserl, Edmund; Jaspers, Karl; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, G. W.; Luhmann, Niklas; Nietzsche, Friedrich W.; Phenomenology; Weber, Max.


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