Thompson – Ethics in the Innovation Process: Some Unaddressed Issues for Pragmatists

Paul Thompson

Michigan State University

There are dozens of proposals for integrating ethics into the early planning and assessment of technological innovation. Beginning with John Dewey in the United States, the call continued with Hans Jonas and the rise of environmental justice and regulatory risk assessment. Schemes for integrating ethics into the innovation process were advanced under the banners of “constructive technology assessment,” “anticipatory governance,” “democratizing technology,” and “responsible innovation,” among others. During the same era, the call for protecting the interests of human and animal subjects were framed as “research ethics” and research organizations created Institutional Review Boards to oversee scientific activity.

This paper tracks some of Larry Hickman’s contributions to these trends. Hickman first followed Langdon Winner’s critique of “straight line rationality” by demonstrating how Dewey’s approach offers much that has been unrealized in subsequent attempts to reform the innovation process. Later, Hickman demonstrates how pragmatist ethics and epistemology provide a positive program of action that complements the negative critique the Frankfurt School. While Hickman’s suggestions could be incorporated into virtually any of the new proposals for integrating ethics into technological research, development, and dissemination, the sheer plethora of new approaches suggests that the field lacks the continuity to follow up on Hickman’s suggestions.

In this paper, I will explores some reasons why the field remains fragmented, emphasizing weaknesses in the pragmatist approach. First, I will acknowledge the significance of obvious explanations: the technical community’s unfamiliarity with ethical inquiry and the lack of both administrative and financial commitment to ethics-oriented research. There is, in short, an epistemic gap between the message that innovators are prepared to hear and the sophisticated response that Hickman’s pragmatism offers. This gap may be a practical limitation to philosophical pragmatism in many of its manifestations.

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