Imaginative Value Sensitive Design: Using Moral Imagination Theory to Inform Responsible Technology Design

Abstract

Safe-by-design (SBD) frameworks for the development of emerging technologies have become an ever more popular means by which scholars argue that transformative emerging technologies can safely incorporate human values. One such popular SBD methodology is called value sensitive design (VSD). A central tenet of this design methodology is to investigate stakeholder values and design those values into technologies during early stage research and development. To accomplish this, the VSD framework mandates that designers consult the philosophical and ethical literature to best determine how to weigh moral trade-offs. However, the VSD framework also concedes the universalism of moral values, particularly the values of freedom, autonomy, equality trust and privacy justice. This paper argues that the VSD methodology, particularly applied to nano-bio-info-cogno technologies, has an insufficient grounding for the determination of moral values. As such, an exploration of the value-investigations of VSD are deconstructed to illustrate both its strengths and weaknesses. This paper also provides possible modalities for the strengthening of the VSD methodology, particularly through the application of moral imagination and how moral imagination exceeds the boundaries of moral intuitions in the development of novel technologies.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The recent literature in technology studies has argued for the inseparability and against the bifurcation of the nature/culture dichotomy, and similarly against the privileging of human values over the values of nonhuman animals (see for example Harman 2018; Morton 2016).

  2. 2.

    Universalism is not equivocal with absolutism. The former argues that moral values are independent of socio-cultural differences, whereas the latter is concerned with intrinsically right/wrong actions.

  3. 3.

    Here ‘absolute’ refers to ‘moral absolutism’ in which there is an objective basis on which ethical beliefs can be evaluated.

  4. 4.

    See also Critique of Practical Reason where Immanuel Kant states along these lines that; “Inclination is blind and servile, whether it is kindly or not; and when morality is in question, reason must not play the part of mere guardian to inclination but, disregarding it altogether, must attend solely to its own interest as pure practical reason” (Kant 2015, 5:118; see also KpV 5:71–72).

  5. 5.

    Transformative being the operative term here; it’s particularly within a narrative and linguistic evaluation where substantial change occurs.

  6. 6.

    Correlationism was first coined by Quentin Meillassoux (2008) to describe the post-Kantian anthropocentric conceit that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (Meillassoux 2009, 5). This idea has been a common ground for criticism that has united the speculative realist philosophers.

  7. 7.

    I have elsewhere criticised this Western moral dominance towards a preliminary course of adopting an approach of intersubjectivity (Umbrello 2018).

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Acknowledgements

This paper has been adapted from a dissertation accepted and published by the University of Edinburgh. I would like to thank the two anonymous reviews that provided both encouraging and constructive comments on this manuscript. Any remaining errors are the author’s alone. The view expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

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Umbrello, S. Imaginative Value Sensitive Design: Using Moral Imagination Theory to Inform Responsible Technology Design. Sci Eng Ethics 26, 575–595 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-019-00104-4

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Keywords

  • Value sensitive design
  • Design psychology
  • Moral imagination
  • Applied ethics