Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 1027–1047 | Cite as

How to Shape a Better Future? Epistemic Difficulties for Ethical Assessment and Anticipatory Governance of Emerging Technologies

  • Brent Daniel Mittelstadt
  • Bernd Carsten Stahl
  • N. Ben Fairweather


Empirical research into the ethics of emerging technologies, often involving foresight studies, technology assessment or application of the precautionary principle, raises significant epistemological challenges by failing to explain the relative epistemic status of contentious normative claims about future states. This weakness means that it is unclear why the conclusions reached by these approaches should be considered valid, for example in anticipatory ethical assessment or governance of emerging technologies. This paper explains and responds to this problem by proposing an account of how the epistemic status of uncertain normative claims can be established in ethical and political discourses based on Jürgen Habermas’ discourse ethics. To better understand the nature of the problem, the relationship between norms, facts and the future is explored in light of potential meta-ethical fallacies faced in the field of empirical ethics. Weaknesses of current approaches to anticipatory ethical assessment and governance are then explored, including the Precautionary Principle and Technology Assessment. We argue that the epistemic status of uncertain normative claims can be understood within Habermas’ approach to political discourse, which requires ‘translation’ of uncertain claims to be comprehensible to other stakeholders in discourse. Translation thus provides a way to allow for uncertain normative claims to be considered alongside other types of validity claims in discourse. The paper contributes a conceptual account of the epistemic status of uncertain normative claims in discourse and begins to develop a ‘methodology of translation’ which can be further developed for approaches to research and ethical assessment supporting anticipatory evidence-based policy, governance and system design.


Emerging technologies Empirical ethics Evidence-based policy Technology assessment Epistemology Habermas Anticipatory governance 



The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreements n° 230318 and 230602.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OxfordOxfordUK
  2. 2.De Montfort UniversityLeicesterUK

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