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Ethicist as Designer: A Pragmatic Approach to Ethics in the Lab

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Contemporary literature investigating the significant impact of technology on our lives leads many to conclude that ethics must be a part of the discussion at an earlier stage in the design process i.e., before a commercial product is developed and introduced. The problem, however, is the question regarding how ethics can be incorporated into an earlier stage of technological development and it is this question that we argue has not yet been answered adequately. There is no consensus amongst scholars as to the kind of ethics that should be practiced, nor the individual selected to perform this ethical analysis. One school of thought holds that ethics should have pragmatic value in research and design and that it should be implemented by the (computer) engineers and/or (computer) scientists themselves, while another school of thought holds that ethics need not be so pragmatic. For the latter, the ethical reflection can aim at a variety of goals, and be carried out by an ethicist. None of the approaches resulting from these lines of thinking have been adopted on a wide-scale basis. To that end, the approach presented here is intended to bridge the gap between these schools of thought. It is our contention that ethics ought to be pragmatic and to provide utility for the design process and we maintain that adequate ethical reflection, and all that it entails, ought to be conducted by an ethicist. Thus, we propose a novel role for the ethicist—the ethicist as designer—who subscribes to a pragmatic view of ethics in order to bring ethics into the research and design of artifacts—no matter the stage of development. In this paper we outline the series of steps that a pragmatic value analysis entails: uncovering relevant values, scrutinizing these values and, working towards the translation of values into technical content. In conclusion, we present a list of tasks for the ethicist in his/her role as designer on the interdisciplinary team.

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Correspondence to Aimee van Wynsberghe.

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van Wynsberghe, A., Robbins, S. Ethicist as Designer: A Pragmatic Approach to Ethics in the Lab. Sci Eng Ethics 20, 947–961 (2014).

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