views updated


The challenges posed by modern science and technology to ethics include the challenge of technicization. Technicization is a process that some contend infects and thereby corrupts ethics. To understand this claim requires an understanding of the process of technicization (related terms: technicism, technization, technicalization, scientism, scientization, mechanization) in relation to the task of ethical reflection.

Technological civilization is made up not only of machines but also and more importantly the methods or "techniques" that produce machines. Technique is rooted in the human capacity for language that gives humans the ability to imagine ever-new goals and the means to achieve them. For most of human history techniques were embedded in a wider array of cultural beliefs and practices and passed on as part of the culture from one generation to the next. One did things in a certain way because that was how one's ancestors did them. Such techniques were not inherently related to science.

When modern science intersected with ancient technologies beginning in the seventeenth century, the result was the technicization of society. This occurred when scientific investigation systematically evaluated not only the array of techniques historically available from all cultures for accomplishing human ends but also systematically studied the process by which techniques come to be invented, so as to refine the efficiency and effectiveness of the invention process itself. The ultimate goal of the science of technical development is the creation of the most efficient techniques in all areas of human endeavor so that every aspect of life is shaped by technical norms of efficiency.

The application of science to technique transforms the way human beings understand themselves and human societies organize themselves and their tasks. In premodern societies "essence" was thought to precede "existence"—that is, human beings thought of their selves and their institutions as having a preordained natural course of development (their telos) as part of an unchanging sacred natural order established by the gods and ancestors and/or nature itself.

From the ancient Greeks right on through the Enlightenment, social, political and ethical theory was dominated by the assumption that there is either a supernatural (the Platonic tradition and its successors) or a natural (the Aristotelian tradition and its successors) telos or archetype that must be discovered and implemented in human society. Society, as the Greeks said, is the cosmos writ small and later thinkers such as Hobbes and Rousseau still gave assent to such a view although there understandings of "nature" certainly differed. Even when Kant split noumena from phenomena he still assumed a universal rational human nature. Hence, whereas there was comparative reflection on social organization and speculation as to the best order for society from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, it was assumed that the best order could not be discovered in the practices of social convention (the artificial) but only through the discovering the right order of nature (its true essence and telos).

Society is not an empirical object. The awareness of society as a realm separate from nature is a work of the human imagination. It was only with the emergence of the comparative and cross-cultural studies of the social sciences in the nineteenth century that society came to be imagined as existing as a distinct realm apart from nature, an artificial or humanly made order that had no inner telos. Society came to be understood as a technological or artificial product, Existence precedes essence and society is what humans make of it.

In this way, with the emergence of the critical historiographical and ethnographical techniques of the social sciences in the nineteenth century, the mythic stories of "natural order" were demythologized and replaced with a technological understanding of society. This transformation came to be expressed in four new ways of thinking about self and society: (1) the existential self, (2) the managerial society, (3) public policy, and (4) social ethics. Because the order of society is not fixed and given with the order of nature, humans must (1) choose who they shall become individually and as a society (2) reorganize the structures of society to make such choices possible, (3) engage in public debate in order to make choices about what kind of society they want to create and (4) therefore engage in social ethics as the attempt to define the norms by which they shall make such choices and so invent themselves.

In premodern societies ethics is primarily the ethics of virtue and so is concerned with individual choices. The task of ethics is to actualize one's essential "human nature" in accord with one's telos, within the social order as the cosmos writ small. Once institutions are seen as human creations based on choice rather than being fixed and given as part of a sacred cosmic order of nature, ethics is forced to enlarge its horizons to engage in the critique of institutional behavior without reverting to the essentialist model of cosmological thinking. A technological civilization fundamentally transforms the understanding of the task of ethics by introducing the novel idea of social ethics as a post-essentialist critique of society as a technological artifact through those public policies or social choices that shape one's personal identity and institutional life.

For some (for example, Niklas Luhmann, 1927–1998) the technological civilization that emerges out of the new social scientific consciousness of the artificiality of society seems to promise greater freedom and control, and so a greater scope for ethics through managerial social policy. However, others (such as Jacques Ellul 1912–1994, Jürgen Habermas b. 1929) argue technicization threatens to undermine that freedom and the practice of ethics by producing the technobureaucratic rationalization and mechanization of society.

Indeed, a major motif among the giants of sociology (Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber) is the mechanization of society so as to create what Weber called "the iron cage" of technobureaucratic societies. In this view, managerial societies are dominated by bureaucracies of scientific-technical experts who identify and promote the most efficient ways to meet human needs in all areas of endeavor (that is, maximizing results while minimizing costs and energy expenditures), and technical efficiency eliminates choice. The focus shifts from ends to means. The less efficient society cannot compete with the more efficient society any more than the less efficient business can compete with the more efficient business.

This process of technicization threatens the human ability to think and act ethically. Insofar as ethics entails the Socratic question—Is what people call good really the good?—how can that question be raised and acted on in a society that defines efficiency as the ultimate good? How can ethicists expect to succeed in introducing nontechnical norms such as justice and compassion in a society that seems to make acting on nontechnical norms virtually impossible? And how can norms be asserted at all in a post-essentialist technological society?

The seriousness of this problem is evidenced by the technicization of ethics itself. In a technical civilization only people who have technical expertise command respect and are socially and financially rewarded. In response ethicists' reflections have become increasingly too technical and specialized to be understood by society at large and so must be left to the calculations of technobureaucratic experts. As a consequence the Socratic task of the "gadfly" who calls into question what people call "good" in order to introduce a broader (nontechnical) vision and practice of "the good life" is in danger of being neutralized as irrelevant. If the ethical task of the gadfly is to be possible, it will have to begin by calling into question the "technological bluff" of the adequacy of technical language and norms as sufficient for realizing the good life.


SEE ALSO Scientism;Technicism.


Ellul, Jacques. (1990). The Technological Bluff, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. A critique of the ideological discourse of technology as the only solution to human problems.

Fasching, Darrell J. (1993). The Ethical Challenge of Auschwitz and Hiroshima: Apocalypse or Utopia? Albany: State University of New York Press. An analysis of the technological or artificial nature of human identity and the implications for developing a post-essentialist cross-cultural and interreligious global ethic to guide public policy.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1984–1987). The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas McCarthy. 2 vols. Boston: Beacon Press. A critique of the rationalization or technicization of society that calls the "technological bluff" into question and relocates ethical reflection in a utopian theory of communicative action.

Mumford, Lewis. (1970). The Myth of the Machine, Vol. 2: The Pentagon of Power. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The second volume of Mumford's history of technology; focuses on the mechanization of society.

Rammert, Werner. (1999). "Relations that Constitute Technology and Media that Make a Difference: Toward a Social Pragmatic Theory of Technicization." Techné: Journal of the Society for Philosophy and Technology 4(3): 23–43. Also available from

About this article


Updated About content Print Article