Neutrality in Science and Technology

views updated


The fundamental relationship among science, technology, and ethics is often claimed to be one of neutrality. After all, science and technology can be put to good or bad uses by good or bad people; they are thus value-neutral. It is sometimes implied paradoxically that this neutrality constitutes the special value of science and technology. In contrast, critics have argued that assertions of neutrality are attempts to escape responsibilities for the specific consequences of various scientific and technological projects. How can weaponized anthrax spores designed to kill people be described as value-neutral? This entry attempts to reference some of these claims and counterclaims and provide an analysis for their assessment.

Preliminary Distinctions

It is important to note that neutrality may be modified not just by moral or ethical but also by political, aesthetic, religious, epistemological, ontological, or any number of other qualifiers. Most discussions deal with issues of what are called axiological neutrality, that is, some form of value. The following discussion of value neutrality thus aims to cover questions of not just of moral or ethical but also political, aesthetic, religious, and related senses of neutrality, though not epistemological, ontological, and other forms of neutrality.

With regard to value neutrality a distinction should be made between the antecedent values that motivate the realization of science and technology, and the value that science and technology have once they are realized. Claims about neutrality and antecedent values focus on the value judgments that motivate scientific and technological activity: Science or technology is neutral with respect to a set of values if its processes and products are not informed by those values. Claims about the value of science and technology once realized focus on the consequences of scientific and technological activity and the value of those consequences. In this context those who make claims about neutralism assert that scientific and technological activities merely create possibilities but do not cause any specific possibilities to be realized. To actualize any of those possibilities, other events beyond science (the investigation of phenomena) and technology (the creation of specific objects, or "artifacts") are needed, and those other events are not conditioned, required, or determined by science or technology. On this view, the value neutrality of science and technology is a product of their causal neutrality, of their not being sufficient in themselves to bring about either good or bad consequences.

Neutrality of Science and Technology With Respect to Antecedent Values

A simple interpretation of the claim that science is neutral is that science is value-free. Science is the impartial search for truth without regard for the interests of those affected. If scientists are allowed to work without external hindrance, they will provide objective answers to questions such as whether tanning booths cause cancer and whether humans have evolved from nonhumans.

This position is informed by a fundamental presupposition: The world is independent of how humans might want it to be. The natural order is not determined by human interests. If people want to get as close as possible to understanding how things really are, they must leave their values—expressions of what they want—out of that effort.

This view overlooks the fact that although the natural order may not be influenced by human interests, science is. What people are interested in is an expression of their values, and one of the things they want is to understand how things are. Science, like every other human activity, is driven and influenced by human values. The idea of neutrality with respect to values must be modified to account for this argument.

The standard modification is to divide the antecedent values motivating science into two categories. On the one hand there are the external or contextual values that direct scientific work. These values include the political, economic, and cultural interests that scientists bring to their practice. On the other hand there are the internal or constitutive values that direct science. These are the scientific values of scientists. Patrick Grim (1982) identifies the most fundamental internal values as truth and demonstration. Scientists want to find out which claims are true and which are false, and they insist on some kind of demonstration as the means of sorting true from false claims.

The idea of the neutrality of science with respect to values can be reformulated as follows: Although some set of external values is always present and may play a role in determining which problems a scientist will work on, once scientists begin their work, those external values should play no role in guiding procedure or determining findings. Instead, internal values should take over and guide the application of methods, the determination of results, and the reporting of both.

Critics have challenged this view, arguing that contextual values are present even in the application of method and the determination of findings (Longino 1990). However, the idea of scientific neutrality cannot be eliminated as an ideal, for it is what people want from science: People do not want contextual values to determine scientific results. Suppose the question is whether exposure to ultraviolet rays in tanning booths increases the risk of contracting skin cancer. For many people the reports of findings generated by tanning booth manufacturers would not be sufficient to answer the question even if the internal norms of truth and demonstration were values strongly held by the manufacturers' scientists. The context of that research raises suspicions. People would want independent verification by scientists with different contextual values, preferably values that are neutral with regard to the investigation at hand. Thus, people recognize the distorting power of contextual values and try to minimize that distortion; that is, people seek to get science as close to the ideal as possible.

In regard to the idea that technology is neutral with respect to values, it again becomes clear that this notion cannot be maintained in the form of a strict absence of values. Technology, like science, is a human endeavor that necessarily is guided by values: conceptions of what is good or desirable for humans to be or do.

One approach to maintaining a form of freedom from values in technology parallels the case of science. An external-internal distinction can be made, with all the political, ethical, social, and other values on the external side and the values of effectiveness and efficiency seen as the internal, constitutive values of technology.

Just as truth, the fundamental constitutive value of science, is independent of human aim, so too is effectiveness. Effectiveness is the degree to which an action achieves its end. Given an end, a technological means to that end is either effective or not effective, and that effectiveness is independent of people's values (what people want). To this extent the independence of technology from external values parallels that of science.

Efficiency, however, is problematic. As Alex Michelos (1972) points out, efficiency is not an unanalyzable basic value but a relationship between other values, specifically a ratio between what people value as benefits and what they value (negatively) as costs. Judgments of the efficiency of an action depend on what is counted as its benefits and costs, and the decision about what to count as benefits and costs is external to technology. Consider, for example, the different assessments of efficiency that can be obtained for a technology such as a poultry-eviscerating line if in one assessment the physical and psychological costs borne by those working on the line are excluded whereas in another assessment those costs are included. Efficiency is a value derived from external, non-technological values. As one description would have it, efficiency is a socially constructed value.

Neutrality of Science and Technology with Respect to Consequences

The second form of value neutrality is founded on two claims: (1) there is always more than one possible use for the products of science or technology, and (2) the activities or products of science and technology do not determine if or how those products (knowledge or artifacts) will be used.

The claim that there are multiple uses for every piece of knowledge or artifact seems correct in the case of basic science: Because the knowledge that the basic sciences provide is general knowledge of the most fundamental composition, structure, and events of the natural world, it seems that there are always several possible applications. For example, knowledge of elements and their atomic structure can be applied in metalworking, firefighting, criminology, cooking, and so on. A more specific piece of knowledge, such as knowledge of geologic fault lines, can be used to predict earthquakes and set insurance rates for homeowners.

The applied sciences, however, seek to focus basic science on materials of and processes for possible use; thus, applications are already "in mind." In some cases the range of applications is wide, such as with knowledge about the electrical properties of ceramics. In other cases the range of uses is more narrow: Knowledge about the microstructure of oil-bearing shale seems to have only one application.

However, a neutralist might contend that there could be other applications of a piece of specific knowledge that have not yet occurred to anyone. Rather than known applications in the sense of current, technologically feasible applications, a neutralist might contend that the range of applications is the set of logically and materially possible applications, including those not yet conceived. On this view the range of applications for any piece of knowledge is unknown, although in principle there would still be a finite range of uses for every piece of scientific knowledge.

With regard to technology, the claim that artifacts can serve ranges of uses needs clarification. If one focuses on an artifact's use in the sense of what that artifact does—its function—it is clear that many artifacts have more or less specific functions built into them. A canoe transports people and goods over water; that is what it does, and it does nothing else. Although a canoe may be turned upside down on land to provide shelter, that is not the purpose for which it was designed, and a canoe is ill suited to that purpose. Similarly, the function of a wool topcoat is to shield one's body from the cold; it is not well suited to serve as a blanket or a painting dropcloth. To this extent the neutralist case regarding multiplicity of purposes is overstated.

A second sense of use is the purpose served by artifacts in performing their functions. This sense of the word points to why humans make artifacts do what they do. Purposes generally come in hierarchies: People do A in order to get B, want B in order to get C, and so on. If this is the meaning of the neutralist claim that artifacts can serve multiple purposes, that claim is true but trivial. However, the neutralist claim here is that artifacts are flexible with respect to their immediate purpose: A carpenter's hammer can perform its functions of driving and pulling nails in serving the purpose of hanging a picture or constructing gallows; a bicycle can perform its function of moving people over land, for the purpose of making deliveries or getting exercise. The history and sociology of technology tend to highlight this phenomenon. Alexander Graham Bell thought that the telephone would be used for business communication only, never imagining its use for personal communication. The sociologist Michel de Certeau (1984) has noted numerous creatively adept technologies.

Assessing this version of neutralism, it must be granted that people use canoes and hammers and bicycles to serve multiple purposes. The same thing is true of machine tools and electrical power grids. Yet there are many artifacts that can serve only one purpose in performing their functions. A bomber flies off and drops bombs in order to damage people and things. That is the only immediate purpose a bomber serves. A bulletproof vest shields one's body from a bullet (its function) so that one may survive a shooting (its purpose). Washing machines and raincoats are other examples of single-purpose artifacts. If this argument is correct, the claim that artifacts can serve multiple purposes is false as a universal proposition: The question of the neutrality of artifacts with respect to the range of purposes they serve must be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The second neutralist claim regarding consequences—that science and technology do not determine that their products be used or to what use those products will be put—is most plausible in the case of pure science. The activity of pure science is removed from the context of practical use in terms of both the content of the activity and the intent of the practitioners. Indeed, there may not be currently possible uses.

Technology has a different relationship to practical context. Although it is correct to say that humans can decide not to use an artifact they have created, the whole point of technological activity is use. Human needs are insufficiently met by the unmediated interaction of people with nature: People must make and use artifacts in order to live. Although people are free to choose not to use a particular artifact, they are never free to choose to use no artifacts.

A focus on artifact use reveals one way in which technology is not always value-neutral. Artifacts determine how they are used: All artifacts, from saws to computers, impose methods of operation on would-be users, and people who effectively use artifacts for any purpose—good, evil, or neutral—use them in accordance with their operational functions. One cannot cut a board effectively by holding on to the blade of a saw. Artifacts determine what behaviors must be brought to bear by humans in order to operate them.

At least in some cases the exercise of those behaviors is directly beneficial or detrimental to the agent independently of the purposes served, objects made, or payment gained. Using a computer for any purpose causes eyestrain. In such cases the artifact used is a causal condition of positive or negative value regardless of human intentions regarding its use or its instrumental consequences.

This argument may apply to scientific activity as well. To the extent that such activity produces satisfying or dissatisfying experiences, science may have value independently of the values that constitute it or its instrumental value.

An argument raised against neutralism is that in choosing to use a certain technological object or system one is simultaneously, if unconsciously, making a commitment to a certain form of social organization. Lewis Mumford (1964) and Langdon Winner (1986) have argued, for instance, that nuclear power plants typically require a hierarchical social organization with authoritarian relationships of command and control. Such forms of organization are certainly not politically neutral. Empirical research on the deployment of specific artifacts in specific organizations (Liker, Haddad, and Karlin 1999) raises serious questions about the generalizability of this argument. The evidence suggests that although artifacts determine task characteristics such as skill variety, the nature of organizational governance and control over technological activity is a matter of human choice.


SEE ALSO Biological Weapons;Critical Social Theory;Efficiency;Existentialism;Values and Valuing.


Certeau, Michel de. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Grim, Patrick. (1982). "Scientific and Other Values." In Philosophy of Science and the Occult, ed. Patrick Grim. Albany: State University of New York Press. Argues that all science is shaped by values, and distinguishes its inessential, background values from its essential values of truth and demonstration.

Liker, Jeffrey K.; Carol Haddad; and Jennifer Karlin. (1999). "Perspectives on Technology and Work Organization." Annual Review of Sociology 25: 575–596. Reviews the literature on the relation between technology and the nature of work, and concludes that technology's impact is contingent on a large number of non-technical factors such as the reason for introducing the technology, management philosophy, labor-management contracts, and the degree of agreement about technology and work organization.

Longino, Helen. (1990). Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Challenges the claim that the scientific practice is shaped by constitutive or cognitive values while being routinely insulated from contextual values.

Michalos, Alex. (1972). "Efficiency and Morality." Journal of Value Inquiry 6: 137–143. Argues that efficiency is not an unanalyzable technical value, but is rather a ratio of benefits to costs that is always constructed by reference to norms outside technology.

Mumford, Lewis. (1964). "Authoritarian and Democratic Technics." Technology and Culture 5(1): 1–8. Makes the case that two types of technologies have existed side by side since the late Neolithic era: democratic technologies—small-scale, employing concrete, tacit knowledge, controlled by the individuals directly engaged, and powered by individual humans or animals; and authoritarian technologies—large-scale, employing abstract symbolic knowledge, controlled by disengaged authorities, and powered by mass armies or machines.

Rosenbrock, Howard. (1999). "Engineers and the Work That People Do." In The Experience of Work, ed. Craig Littler. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Describes how assumptions guiding the construction of technical apparatus tend to implicitly devalue humans and result in inefficient use of the humans interacting with the apparatus.

Rudner, Richard. (1953). "The Scientist Qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments." Philosophy of Science 20(1): 1–6. Argues that ethical judgments are indispensable elements of scientific practice: Because no scientific hypothesis is ever completely verified, the decision to accept a scientific hypothesis as sufficiently warranted always depends on a judgment about how ethically significant a possible mistake would be.

Winner, Langdon. (1986). "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" In The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Argues that technological objects can be political in two ways: some are designed to control or channel the decisions and actions of people; others are elements of socio-technical systems that either require or are strongly compatible with specific forms of social organization, typically authoritarian, hierarchical social organization.

Woodruff, Russell. (1997). "Artifacts, Neutrality, and the Ambiguity of 'Use.'" Research in Philosophy and Technology 16: 119–127. Distinguishes "use" as function, purpose and method, and uses these distinctions to discuss the neutrality of technological objects.