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Instrumental Artefact Functions and Normativity

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Norms in Technology

Part of the book series: Philosophy of Engineering and Technology ((POET,volume 9))

Abstract

Artifacts are inherently practical things, intended to be used to achieve certain kinds of ends. This is, after all, what we mean when we speak about artifactual functions that things of this sort are good for something or, to put the matter differently, that things of this sort are good for something—that is, that the function bearer is good at achieving certain related classes of ends. To possess a function is to be suited for certain specified things.

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Notes

  1. 1.

     In this dire circumstance, we may well think that the marooned incompetent should try to learn how to steer on his own, if need be, but that is another matter and his failure to teach himself ­steering is not comparable to the sailor’s failure to steer when he already knows how.

  2. 2.

    That’s not to say that functional knowledge never results in new desires. At least some advertising aims to create consumer desires by providing functional knowledge (“It slices! It dices! It bathes the room in the soothing aroma of fresh peaches!”). We want—and are persuaded to want—­artefacts because of their functions. Nonetheless, this relationship between artefact functions and desires is tangential to our investigation here, though it may well be central to an account of innovative engineering. See also the discussion of maieutic ends in engineering in Hughes (2009b).

  3. 3.

    Of course, bolt cutters have other functions, such as cutting through chain link fences, but let us grant that removing padlocks is a function of bolt cutters.

  4. 4.

    More precisely, bolt cutters provide a (possibly weakly) sufficient means. For a discussion of ­syllogisms involving sufficient means, see Audi (2006) or Railton (1997). The syllogisms we ­discuss below are primarily derived from the latter.

  5. 5.

    Following von Wright (1963), we adopt the convention that means are actions, such as using an artefact, and ends are states or conditions one may desire to attain.

  6. 6.

    In unusual circumstances, one may find functions that apply to particular tokens rather than a broader type. We are here interested in type-level instrumental functions, however, since they are more relevant for exploring artefact normativity. See Hughes (2009a).

  7. 7.

    In this respect, our account is similar to Millikan’s relational functions. See Millikan (2002, 1984).

  8. 8.

    For a development of instrumental functions in a more formal setting, see Hughes (2005).

  9. 9.

    Of course, not every artefact type has a formal specification, but we nonetheless presume that there is a sense of normal token available for each type—more precisely, for each function. Carpenter’s hammers are for pounding nails. They vary widely in their specifications, but in every case, they have a handle roughly perpendicular to a head. The head should be strong enough to strike an object without fracturing or coming loose from the handle. A hammer which fails to satisfy these basic restraints is certainly not a normal carpenter’s hammer and is unlikely to serve its function of pounding nails well.

    In this and other cases, one may infer what features are relevant for “normalcy,” by analyzing how the type is expected to realize its function. A token with the requisite features is normal, and one without is not. As one might expect, designers, engineers, and others with deep technical knowledge will have a more precise grasp of what counts as a normal token than everyday users.

  10. 10.

    These factors, taken together, may be used to determine a preference on means and hence determine which mean is optimal, in the sense of Audi (2006), though this would require some effort.

  11. 11.

    And the function of interest, in the case of types with multiple functions.

  12. 12.

    First discussed in (Hughes 2005) and presented in greater detail in (Hughes 2009a).

  13. 13.

    Franssen (2006) gives an account of malfunction that effectively includes both negative and positive senses: “‘x is a malfunctioning K’ expresses the normative fact that x has certain features f and that because of these features, a person p has a reason not to use x for K-ing.” If a car emits too much pollution, then this is a reason not to use the car, and so it is malfunctioning in Franssen’s sense.

  14. 14.

    Note that if normal tokens are expected to always realize the functional goal, which may be the case with some particularly simple artefacts, then a single failure would indeed indicate that the token at hand is not as reliable as normal tokens and hence is malfunctioning.

  15. 15.

    If a normal token realizes its goal with reliability less than one, then no finite number of failures will prove beyond doubt that the token is malfunctioning, though the longer the sequence, the greater the probability that it is due to malfunction rather than statistical happenstance.

  16. 16.

    We omit one possibility: the end which I am pursuing is not a functional goal for any artefact type T.

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Hughes, J. (2013). Instrumental Artefact Functions and Normativity. In: de Vries, M., Hansson, S., Meijers, A. (eds) Norms in Technology. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology, vol 9. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-5243-6_9

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