It is time to introduce what I call the affordance account of value embedding as an alternative to IHAVE. The account finds empirical support in ecological psychology and, recently, anthropology and will be strengthened with philosophical distinctions. Having sketched the account and shown its empirical foundations, I will argue that it is superior to the intentional history account of value embedding.
In order to provide a full sketch of the account, let us briefly go back to the core question of the article. The core question about value embedding is: when (if at all) does an artefact possess value? The answer to this question bears practical implications. If artefacts embed values, then responsible engineers need to be careful not to embed the wrong values in their products. Several approaches aiming at responsible, ethical product development have been discussed in the literature (van de Poel 2016; Stilgoe et al. 2013). If artefacts embed values, then these approaches presuppose that there is a way for engineers to determine what values their product will embody reliably.
Here is a first gloss of the affordance account of value embedding: an artefact embodies value if and only if it enables valuable actions; the enabling of such action is what we may have reason to promote. I will now develop this gloss into a theory. To do so, I will rely on two crucial concepts: affordances and response-dependent properties. Affordances are relational properties of objects that make particular action likely, given some circumstance. Response-dependent properties are properties of objects that depend on the objects’ intrinsic and extrinsic attributes. I will show that an object’s affordances are response-dependent properties. This allows us to say that objects embed value because of their intrinsic properties while also taking into account how an artefact’s interactive effects, which depend on its extrinsic properties, contribute to its value (which the IHAVE account could not do). I will have to say more about the nature of affordances and response-dependent properties below. For now, note that artefacts can have instrumental value: they afford some action that may in itself be valuable, and the artefact is valuable in affording to bring it about. Artefacts also embody final value. Just like actions like caring for someone’s health and helping someone’s happiness can be extrinsic final values, affording safe behaviour or affording creativity can be extrinsic final values. In each case, we have reason to value (to wit, bring about or hinder) such affordances as extrinsic, final values.Footnote 15
More precisely, the affordance account of value embedding goes as follows:
Affordance Account of Value Embedding: Artefact x embodies value V iff x affords to a set of subjects S in conditions C an ability A and there is reason to positively respond to A (positive value), or there is reason to negatively respond to A (negative value).
The affordance relation will be interpreted as a response-dependent property below, and I will show that it is both an objective property of the artefact and a bearer of value. Therefore, it will follow that artefacts can embody values. To illustrate, an assault rifle like the AK47 affords subjects the ability to kill easily. This means that the AK47 is such that there is a significant probability that a subject succeeds in killing if the subject chooses to do so. Enabling killing, however, is a negative final value and we have moral reasons to oppose it. Therefore, the AK47 is morally bad.
We should now be able to see that the affordance account of value embedding fares very well against the desiderata derived from the discussion of IHAVE. To begin with, the account shows how artefacts can embody values that were not intended by the designer since affordances are (metaphysically) independent of intentions. Hence, one can make sense of various forms of appropriation and the account avoids the counterintuitive case of two physically identical objects differing in value. Second, the account makes it plausible that embedded value can be reliably detected. To determine what value an artefact embodies, one needs to determine what actions it affords. Though I am not claiming that this is always easy (compare: it is not always easy to determine what one’s abilities are), there are no principled reasons against succeeding as in the case of the intentional history account of value embedding. Third, the account makes it possible for embedded values to change. A full explanation of this feature will have to wait for another paper, but the general idea is that when either circumstances or abilities change, the artefact affords different things and thus embedded instrumental values may change, too. Moreover, when values themselves change, then what the artefact affords may cease to be finally valuable, and other affordances might become finally valuable instead. Fourth, the account explains embedded values in relation to human behaviour. The latter condition is intended to capture the intuition, presumably shared by proponents of IHAVE, that the embedding relation in the case of artefacts does relate to human use.
Given that the affordance account of value embedding satisfies several plausible desiderata, it appears to be a superior alternative to the intentional history account.
At this point, it is worthwhile to point out two routes for defending the affordance account of value embedding. The ambitious route would be to show that artefacts have value and then to show that all values are response-dependent properties. Given the ongoing axiological discussion about the nature of values, this is not the route I wish to take. Nonetheless, it should be mentioned that it leaves open, at least in principle, the claim that the values embedded in technical artefacts are response-dependent properties, and so, even the intentional history account of value embedding might ultimately be compatible with a basic claim defended by myself.
In any case, there is a shorter and no less attractive route to defending the affordance account of value embedding based on the following argument:
Artefacts embody affordances.
Affordances are response-dependent properties.
So, artefacts embody response-dependent properties. (from 1, 2)
Response-dependent properties are values.
Therefore, artefacts embody values. (from 3, 4)
The argument is deductively valid. I will now defend its soundness.
Artefacts Embody Affordances
Artefacts embody affordances. Though I believe that this claim requires little defence, it requires clarification. Use of the concept of an affordance originates in Gibson’s ecological psychology (Gibson 1977)Footnote 16:
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.
According to Gibson, objects as different as surfaces and substances have affordances such as fall-off-able (a cliff), eat-able (an apple), as well as events, such as cook-with-able (an event such as a fire). Gibson also already mentioned that artefacts, such as a seat, have affordances (Gibson 1977):
We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. The color and texture of the surface are irrelevant. Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult, so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a surface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to a perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon.
Evidently, the affordance an object embodies depends partly on its physical structure (e.g. its horizontal, stable surface) but also on properties of the subject that uses the object (e.g. the subject’s height). Don Norman, who introduced the concept of an affordance to the design community, further emphasized the relational nature of an affordance (2013):
A chair affords (‘is for’) support and, therefore, affords sitting. Most chairs can also be carried by a single person (they afford lifting), but some can only be lifted by a strong person or by a team of people. If young or relatively weak people cannot lift a chair, then for these people, the chair does not have that affordance, it does not afford lifting.
As these quotes illustrate, an artefact’s affordances depend on the artefact’s physical properties in combination with contextual factors (including the subject’s properties). In a straightforward sense, then, whatever an artefact, or any object in general, allows you to do with it, is its affordance. The chair, in Mead’s words, ‘invites us to sit down’ (Mead 1962). Of course, the chair does not act, but it affords instead.
Recent moral anthropology provides support for the usefulness of thinking about artefacts as embodying affordances. Anthropologists have recently taken what they claim to be an ‘ethical turn’ and begun to systematically investigate the nature of morality (cf. Klenk 2019 for an overview). A common finding is that people interpret a wide variety of seemingly unconnected phenomena in ethical ways. Keane (2016) argues that these phenomena are best seen as ‘ethical affordances’ because they afford an ethical experience to subjects. For example, a torn-apart cloth given as a gift among the Sumba is interpreted as a serious insult (Keane 2016). Physical properties of the artefact (being torn apart) partly constitute what it affords: namely, in this case, interpretation as an insult (and the corresponding ethical judgement).Footnote 17 Thus, the claim that artefacts embody affordances can be shown to be apt and useful in empirical investigations of morality. This should lend further support to premise 1.Footnote 18
However, according to some, technical artefacts are not merely physical objects, but objects with a function (Kroes and Franssen 2015). Accordingly, an artefact is constituted by its physical and functional properties. Since artefacts are therefore constituted by objective, physical properties as well as subjective, functional properties, they have a ‘dual nature’ (Kroes 2012). For example, a screwdriver is a screwdriver partly in virtue of its objective physical properties (e.g. made partly from steel) but also in virtue of people using it as a screwdriver. The worry might be that non-artefacts bear affordance, but that artefacts do not.Footnote 19
This objection can be dispelled. Artefacts bear affordances either way. If whatever properties the artefact has in common with non-artefacts bear the affordance, then artefacts bear affordances. If whatever sets the artefact apart from non-artefacts that bears the affordance, then artefacts bear affordances, too.Footnote 20 So, in either case, premise 1 is vindicated.
Affordances Are Response-Dependent Properties
Affordances should be construed as response-dependent properties. I define a response-dependent property as follows:
Response-Dependent Property: Property p of object x is a response-dependent property iff p depends on attributes of x and contextual attributes C.
Apart from defending this claim, I will show that response-dependent properties are objective properties. Their existence does not depend on being taken up by subjects, and therefore, an artefact’s value does not depend on use (therefore rebutting the value-neutrality thesis).
A prominent question in the literature on affordances is whether they depend on being perceived, attended to, sought out, used or otherwise engaged with by a subject to exist or not. A sub-question is what the precise conditions are that determine the nature of an affordance. The discussion sometimes focuses on exegetical analysis, debating, for example, whether Gibson’s concept of affordance was coherent. I am not interested in exegetical debate. Instead, I wish to argue that we should conceive of affordances as response-dependent properties by showing that the view is coherent and that it helps us make sense of value embedding.
To begin with, one might be tempted to construe affordances as secondary qualities, rather than response-dependent properties. For example, Gibson (1977) indicated that ‘to be graspable, an object must have opposite surfaces separated by a distance less than the span of the hand.’ This seems to suggest that affordances are secondary qualities: the object’s being ‘graspable-with’ depends on it being graspable by a subject. The point is significant. If affordances are secondary qualities, then the value-neutrality thesis would plausibly be true since the value of an artefact depends on it being perceived or used in a certain way.
We need not concede, however, that affordances depend on actual responses and so we can rebut this possible objection by proponents of the value-neutrality thesis. Mead’s chair, for example, invites us to sit down; it affords sitting, whether or not we sit down. Hence, it makes more sense to say that an object embodies an affordance in virtue of a potential behaviour response.
More precisely, given background circumstances C, if an organism O can at time t engage in the event that qualifies as a doing or a happening M and M involves artefact x, then x is, at t, an affordance bearer with manifestation M relative to O in the circumstances C (cf. Scarantino 2003: 958). Understanding affordances as response-dependent properties captures the essential complementarity between artefacts and the environment of their use. For example, a post-box is letter-mailing-with-able only given some background knowledge that allows subjects to distinguish the post-box from a similarly looking trash can (cf. Knappett 2004). Thus, artefact x has affordance A in virtue of its physical properties relative to a user’s potential behavioural response or ability. Of course, there are several open, and intriguing, questions about the nature of abilities, on the one hand, and their relation to affordances, on the other (cf. Scarantino 2003). To introduce the affordance account of value embedding, however, only the latter question is of immediate interest. An affordance is not defined by making specific outcomes more likely, but by making specific outcomes more likely given the circumstances provided that the subject aims to bring about these outcomes.Footnote 21
The fact that affordances are relative to contextual factors is not a threat to understanding affordances as objective properties. For one, whether or not a given artefact embodies an affordance is epistemically objective. That is, in principle, it does not depend on the observer’s perspective to ascertain whether or not the artefact bears the respective affordance. Moreover, there is no reason to deny that affordances as construed here are metaphysically objective (pace Kroes and Franssen 2015); although their triggering conditions mention subjective elements (e.g. the intention to use the artefact), their existence does not.
Prominent philosophical accounts of response-dependent properties support the claim that response-dependent properties are objective. Pettit offers such an account when he writes that ‘the objects posited exist and have their character fixed independently of the dispositions of participants in the discourse to assert and believe things about them’ (Pettit 1991).Footnote 22 The crucial distinction is as follows. When something red is defined by looking red to normal observers in normal circumstances, then that means that in normal circumstances, normal observers will experience the object as red. It does not entail, however, that the thing looking red is what makes the thing red (Brynjarsdóttir 2008; Jackson and Pettit 2002). So, a thing may be red even if no one perceived the object as being red.
Similarly, an artefact’s affordance might never be taken up. Consider an AK47 printed by a 3D printer left on some uninhabited, remote planet: though it is shoot-with-able, no one might ever shoot with it. It still has the affordance, because, if one were to aim to do so, in the right circumstances, one can shoot with it. Examples closer to home are not hard to find. Cultural knowledge is often required to make use of an affordance. Henrich (2016), for example, discusses the importance of cultural learning for tool use (or even tool-recognition). Europeans stranded in today’s Greenland were unable to use local tools for hunting and fishing because, among other things, they lacked knowledge of the proper techniques. Some tools, for instance, were hunt-with-able; it is just that the Europeans could not take up the affordance. The sense in which affordances exist without being triggered is the same sense in which paranoia exists for someone that never was in a confined space: a disposition to panic in a confined space exists independently of being triggered. Therefore, affordances are response-dependent properties, and as such objective properties of the artefact.
Response-Dependent Properties Are Values
Having argued that artefacts are affordances and that affordances are response-dependent properties, I will now show that affordances thusly construed can embody values. Affordances can be both extrinsically instrumentally and extrinsically finally valuable. Therefore, affordance bearers, including technological artefacts, can be extrinsically finally valuable.
As we have seen, the affordance account does not construe values as response-dependent properties per se but instead says that the response-dependent properties of artefacts are valuable. This is a feature rather than a bug: it leaves an open question in value theory about what values are and is thus, in principle, compatible with any account of value.
I propose to view affordances as similar to actions such as helping or encouraging and to ask whether the affordance is instrumentally or finally valuable, or both. Moreover, we should think of the value of an artefact’s affordances in comparison with the value of dispositions. Dispositions can be both instrumentally and finally valuable. For example, a disposition to seek novelty is instrumentally valuable relative to the final value of happiness (Oerlemans and Bakker 2014); at the same time, a disposition for novelty-seeking may be finally valuable. Likewise, a disposition to be truthful can be instrumentally valuable for several things, but it seems finally valuable as well. Note that the value of the disposition depends on the disposition being triggered only in the case of instrumental value, not in the case of final value. For a disposition to novelty-seeking to be instrumentally valuable, one needs the disposition to be triggered. Finally, valuable dispositions, however, need not be triggered to be valuable.
This is the sense in which an artefact’s affordance results in the artefact embodying that value. An artefact may be part of the enabling conditions (similar to a disposition) for certain actions or events, given a set of contextual factors (including the subject’s properties).Footnote 23 This enabling can be of instrumental and final value. A lazy chair’s inviting cushions make it instrumentally valuable to happiness. At the same time, the enabling of comfort may be a final value. Going back to the earlier example of an AK47, it can be seen that the rifle is of negative value because it enables killing in a broad range of circumstances. Thus, to identify the value of an artefact, we have to ask what actions or events it affords and what their value is. Importantly, it is not the action or the event that embodies the value we are interested in (though it might, too), but the affording of said action or event (compare: it is not (only) the action of helping we can evaluate but also the disposition to act in such a way). Since artefacts embody affordances, artefacts embody values. Therefore, the argument for the affordance account of value embedding is sound.