Unthinkable: Does innovation always mean improvement?
What, if any, responsibilities go along with the freedom to research?
Edith Stein: believed there is an important link between empathy and knowledge
Innovators have moral responsibilities too
In the headlong rush to embrace the “knowledge economy”, there has been little reflection on the potential pitfalls of innovation. Exactly what kind of knowledge are we seeking to acquire, develop or disseminate? Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton believes “an innovation revolution” is key to Ireland’s recovery. But does “new” always mean “better”? We ask Gabriel J Costello, a lecturer in mechanical/ industrial engineering at Galway Mayo-Institute of Technology who also researches the ethics of innovation.
Is innovation always good? A review of innovation definitions over the last 50 years indicates that technological innovation is almost exclusively researched without reference to ethics. As a result, any innovation is often assumed to be good, which is problematic, when you consider the case of an innovative landmine. The Enron Corporation, notorious for fraud and corruption, was named by Fortune magazine as the US’s most innovative company for six consecutive years.
Audio: Gabriel Costello on the ethics of innovation
You’ve written about how phenomenology, the branch of philosophy associated with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, has contributed to our understanding of technology. In what way? Heidegger argued that our knowledge and basic ways of encountering the world are obtained through the use of technology rather than by means of its scientific description. What’s important is how we experience technology, often unconsciously. [This view] was maybe a bit of a reaction to a very instrumental mindset that was associated with the industrial and scientific revolution.
Another philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, took the example of water: in the scientific world we would look at water as two atoms of hydrogen combined with one atom of oxygen. Merleau-Ponty would say we had to experience water as something to taste, to drink, to wash ourselves with.
What do philosophers say to us about the ethics of innovation? Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) made a significant contribution to the discussion of the ethics of technological innovation, as he gave phenomenology a radical ethical orientation. His philosophy has been described as consisting of one simple but profound theme: that western philosophy has consistently practised a suppression of “the other”. His major work Totality and Infinity explored such themes as time death, and relations with others. Increasingly, his philosophy was concerned with marking out an ethical “face-to-face” with “the other”.
Another useful philosopher in this context is Edith Stein. She analysed empathy in the context of the complete psycho-physical-spiritual person. She also argued that there is an important link between empathy and knowledge. However, in this age of avatars and the internet, there is much work to be done on examining the implications for empathy from virtual worlds and social networks.