The Virtue of Innovation and the Technological Imperative

The rise of the precautionary principle in public policy and international
relations has called into question the role technological innovation should
be allowed to play in society. [1] According to the precautionary principle, no
novel technology, regardless of its benefits, should be deployed if it poses
risks to human health or the environment. [2] Under some interpretations
of the principle, these risks need not even be testable hypotheses, but may
merely be posited. [3] In the latter case, the principle merely
says that technological innovation is too dangerous to be allowed.

Critics of technological advance have also invented a doctrine which is antithetical
to the precautionary principle, and dubbed it the ‘technological imperative.’
In its first formulation, this doctrine only existed as a ‘straw man’ argument,
something put forth so that it may be attacked at convenience by its creators.
The doctrine has no canonical statement, its existence is at best claimed to
be "implicit," it has no discernible champions, yet its critics abound.

In spite of its dubious origins and lack of formulation, the technological
imperative actually exists in Western philosophy and jurisprudence. In ethics
technological invention is a virtue and in law it is protected and encouraged;
and in both, a duty exists to allow the dissemination and use of novel technology.

The technological imperative in philosophy and ethics.

Perhaps the earliest, but certainly the most durable, contextual explanation
of technology was offered by Aristotle. His explanation relies on making distinctions
between three types of knowledge: episteme, techne [5]
and phronesis. Episteme is pure knowledge, such as of mathematics, geometry
or logic. Techne, from which our word ‘technology’ is derived, is concrete knowledge
of how to rearrange lumps of matter in a purposeful way. Phronesis has no counterpart
in English, but is often rendered as ‘prudence.’ As Aristotle explains it,

We may grasp the nature of prudence [phronesis] if we consider what sort
of people we call prudent. Well, it is thought to be the mark of a prudent
man to be able to deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous…
[P]rudence cannot be science or art; not science [episteme] because what
can be done is a variable (it may be done in different ways, or not done
at all), and not an art [techne] because action and production are generically
different. … What remains, then is that it is a true state, reasoned,
and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man.
We consider that this quality belongs to those who understand the management
of households or states. [6]

This explanation of three forms of knowledge establishes a framework for understanding
the nature of technology. On Aristotle’s account, techne is value-neutral and
capable of serving any number of ends, good and bad alike. This accords well
with intuitions about the nature of technology, but this value-neutral status
cannot establish the existence of a technological imperative. However, Aristotle
links technology to phronesis, to knowing "things that are good or bad
for man." If there is a technological imperative, it must go two steps
beyond this framework and address the question of whether a change in
knowledge (be it episteme or techne) when put to use serves a good purpose.
Aristotle stops short of addressing that, saying instead that with phronesis,
episteme and techne are "capable of action."

Elsewhere in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle reasons that actions have goals,
that those are human goals, and that human goals in general are directed at
eudaimonia— a term often translated as ‘happiness,’ but defined by Aristotle
as the general direction of human activities intended to make human life complete
and satisfying. [7]

Aristotle did not leave us with much more than this on what is good to do,
because his emphasis in ethics was on what was good to know and to be.
Like many he was a virtue theorist and to him, good meant being virtuous.

Later philosophers re-examined human virtues and claimed they were human duties

Duties to oneself include preserving one’s life, pursuing happiness, and
developing one’s talents. Duties to others fall into three groups. First,
there are family duties which involve honoring our parents, and caring for
spouses and children. Second, there are social duties which involve not
harming others, keeping promises, and benevolence. Third, there are political
duties that involve obedience to the laws, and public spirit. [8]

Other philosophers preferred to judge between good and bad activities by determining
their outcomes, which is known as consequentialism.

Consequentialist normative principles require that we first tally both
the good and bad consequences of an action. Second, we then determine whether
the total good consequences outweigh the total bad consequences. If the
good consequences are greater, then the action is morally proper. If the
bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally improper. Consequentialist
theories are also called teleological theories, from the Greek word telos,
or end, since the end result of the action is the sole determining factor
of its morality. [9], [10]

This begs the question of how good is actually distinguished from bad, but
the most famous consequentalist would have good and bad be defined socially
or democratically, as "the greatest good for the greatest number."

The pragmatist John Dewey blended notions of virtue and consequentialism in
his account of the nature and value of innovation.

The logic of the moral idea is like the logic of an invention, say a telephone.
Certain positive elements or qualities are present; but there are also certain
ends which, not being adequately served by the qualities existent, are felt
as needs. Facts as given and needs as demands are viewed in relation to
each other because of their common relationship to some process of experience.
Tentative reactions are tried. The old ‘fact’ or quality is viewed in a
new light— the light of a need— hence is treated in a new way and thereby
transformed. [12]

It is unnecessary to delve much deeper into notions of technology and how philosophers
define ‘good’ to see that there is an underlying consensus that technology should
be deployed for good purposes. If one discovers something new and sees that
it can be used for a good purpose, then it follows that the new should be used
for a good purpose. This is easily justified on all the theories mentioned above,
whether in terms of improving the quality of life, having good consequences
for many people, fulfilling a duty or serving a need. So philosophically and
ethically speaking, there is a technological imperative.

The technological imperative in jurisprudence.

If the technological imperative has its basis in ethics, it should not be surprising
to find this reflected in law, especially in product liability law, which addresses
innovations which offer novel benefits, or in injury, which occasions a legal

Product liability law places a punitive burden on producers of defective products
which cause injury. In contrast, the law refuses to impose a duty to retrofit
non-defective products when an innovation would, i.e., improve their safety,
and the reason is found in the technological imperative. "Imposing a post-sale
duty to recall or retrofit a product ‘would discourage manufacturers from developing
new designs if this could form the basis for suits or result in costly repair
and recall campaigns.’" [13] However, nothing prevents
a manufacturer from voluntarily retrofitting its products already in use— which
is another way to introduce an innovation— and this has also been held to absolve
a manufacturer of liability. [14]

So in product liability law, the value of innovation eclipses other interests.
Even though a duty to retrofit would benefit some consumers, the cost of such
a rule would intolerably burden the general social benefits of technological

The internet is an innovation which may well prove to have the broadest impact
on society since the invention of the printing press. Here, too, the technological
imperative has come into play. Even though legislators know the internet might
be misused, the law is willing to countenance the prospect of misuse to protect

This explosive democratization of the capability to publish [on the internet]
has raised fundamental questions about who bears responsibility for content
that is harmful. In February 1996, Congress enacted 47 U.S.C. § 230 to eliminate
some of the uncertainties surrounding that question. Section 230 establishes
that providers of interactive computer services are generally immune from
liability for harms resulting from the dissemination of defamatory or otherwise
harmful information that other persons or entities create and make available
through such services. [15]

Indeed, the law in general may be said to be structured to encourage technological
progress by making it a protected activity. The system of patents established
by the United States Constitution, which gives inventors temporary monopolies
on the use of their inventions, is probably the most obvious example of this.
Thus, we may also conclude that the technological imperative is an important
part of Western jurisprudence.

The status of the technological imperative.

Having established the existence of the technological imperative, it is necessary
to determine its status. In both philosophy and law, some things rise to the
level of a duty, while other things are considered virtues, and praised or rewarded
when they are exhibited. For instance, it is deemed virtuous to be a hero, but
there is no duty to be a hero. Indeed, one cannot become a hero by fulfilling
a duty and this is intuitively recognized by firefighters, who often deny fighting
a fire is heroic. In fighting a fire, they are doing their job.

Acts above and beyond the call of duty, which are by definition voluntary,
produce heroes. These are known as supererogatory acts.

Although agents are not obliged by the dictates of ordinary morality to
perform supererogatory acts— extraordinary feats of heroism or extreme deeds
of self-sacrifice, for example— they may be commended for doing so. Normative
theories that demand the performance of the best possible action in every
circumstance render supererogation impossible by identifying the permissible
with the obligatory. [16],[17]

Both in law and in ethics, there is a duty to avoid causing harm to others.
In ethics, a breach of this duty deserves punishment and in law, the punishment
is delivered. In ethics, complying with this duty is not praiseworthy, and in
law is irrelevant except as a defense. Doing good to others goes beyond this,
and is supererogatory. [18] In ethics, this is
virtuous and in law, is protected and encouraged by various rights.

When it comes to employing technology, the analysis is similar, but not the
same. Employing the current state of any art is nothing more than using available
means to achieve expected ends, which is just as ordinary as not harming others
and just as morally neutral. However, failing to employ the state of the art
breaches no duty per se, and can at most be condemned as irrational or
foolish. [19] This indicates, but does not yet demonstrate,
that improving on the current state of the art is virtuous.

As stated above, technology, by itself, is value-neutral. However, that applies
only to the current state of the art. A technological improvement over the status
quo is distinct because it by definition makes a new contribution to the availability
of moral goods. [20] Otherwise, it would be no improvement
and would not be adopted. Once adopted, it becomes the state of the art and
reverts to value neutrality.

This is consistent with the notion of technology as instrumentality, where
technology serves as a means to an end, rather than being an end in itself.
The conclusion is inescapable, however, that the value of a technology is measured
with reference to the moral goods it may be used to produce or deliver. Similarly,
every technological improvement is justly measured according to the moral goods
it can be used to produce or deliver over and above the previous state of the
art. In this way, the value of an invention derives from the ends it more ably
serves. But it cannot accomplish that on its own.

The improvements in technology called for by the technological imperative are
supererogatory and laudable because of their novelty and usefulness [21]
for improving the quality of human life, for conferring increased net benefits
on society, or more readily fulfilling a moral duty. In this way, techne
is again revealed as morally neutral while phronesis, the ability to
"deliberate rightly about what is good and advantageous," becomes
central to the virtue established by the technological imperative.

Since phronesis is at work in discerning and choosing the mean at which
ethical virtue aims, ethical virtue cannot achieve its own end without phronesis.
On the other hand, discernment of the good and perfection of deliberation
is dependent on having a good character; hence, without ethical virtue,
one might have cleverness in figuring out the means to any end, but one
would not have phronesis, the virtue of choosing the appropriate means to
the right end. Excellence of character, then, and practical wisdom together
form a whole which alone counts as genuine virtue. [22]

On this analysis, phronesis justifies techne, and even more strongly justifies
technological invention.

The technological imperative establishes duties.

Just as the moral considerations behind the technological imperative require
[23] praise for those who exemplify the virtue of invention
by making new technology available for use, patent law requires that inventors
be compensated for a time for the use of their inventions, on condition that
the substance of the inventions be disclosed and made freely available thereafter.
In law, the condition is a duty. In ethics, it is a duty as well, and this is
where the technological imperative becomes worthy of being called an ‘imperative.’

The value of an invention derives strictly from its ability to be used to improve
the availability of moral goods but in ethics, as in law, there is no duty act
for the benefit of someone else absent a special relationship such as that between
parent and child. Thus it would violate law and ethics to require that an inventor
make an invention available to others, because that would amount to imposing
a duty to act in the interest of others; [24] and the act
of inventing creates no special relationship which could impose such a duty.
Indeed, an inventor may legally and ethically make use of an invention in secret.

The duty arises instead when the inventor offers the invention to be used.
It is not a duty to use the invention; for as we have seen before, failure to
employ the current state of the art may be unintelligent, but is neither reprehensible
nor illegal. [25] Nor is it a duty adhering to the inventor,
who will already have disclosed the substance of the invention. The duty is,
instead, reciprocal among all who might benefit directly or indirectly from
its use, and that is to allow its use. There are utilitarian aspects which justify
this conclusion.

The sciences, like the arts, may expand in two directions—in superficies
and in height. The superficial expansion of those sciences which are most
immediately useful, is most to be desired. There is no method more calculated
to accelerate their advancement, than their general diffusion: the greater
the number of those by whom they are cultivated, the greater the probability
that they will be enriched by new discoveries. [26]

This helps explain why in ethics, preventing or interfering with the dissemination
of innovative technology is a breach of duty, and that duty is the technological


1 The author of this article is Andrew Apel, B.A. (Phil), M.A. (Phil.), J.D., editor
of AgBiotech Reporter,

2 An early formulation of the precautionary principle is found
in the "Wingspread Statement." See
Versions of the principle appear in over 20 international treaties, laws, protocols
and declarations. See, e.g., Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, "Current
status of genetic modification in New Zealand,"

3 Such posited risks are often called "unknown risks."
See, e.g., National Center for Policy Analysis, "Amid Famine, Africans
Reject GM Corn,"
Danish Environmental Protection Agency, "The precautionary principle,"
Friends of the Earth, "Tomorrow’s World,"

4 See, e.g., Daniel Chandler, "Technological or Media

5 Aristotle limits episteme to self-evident, axiomatic principles
and to what can be logically derived from them. See Muryat Aydede, "Aristotle
On Episteme And Nous: The Posterior Analytics,"

6 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1140a24-1140b12. See Theodore
Goertzel, "Three Approaches to Knowledge,"

7 Eugenio Benitez, "Eudaimonia,"

8 The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

9 Ibid.

10 Critics of consequentialist theory say that since all future
outcomes of an act cannot be known in advance, its relative goodness or badness
cannot be determined in the present. Critics of the precautionary principle
say that the principle exploits this weakness in consequentialist theory by
making it a pretext to ban all novelty.

11 J.S. Mill. For an outline of the many approaches to defining
good, see "What Matters in Life?"
Though the claims made there are not entirely accurate, the outline serves well
to show the variety of theories available, and the general compatibility of
those theories with the conclusions of this paper.

12 John Dewey, "The Evolutionary Method As Applied To
Morality: II Its Significance for Conduct,"

13 Stephanie Scharf and Thomas Monroe, "Post-Sale Duty
to Warn,"
citing Estate of Raap v. Clark Equip. Co., No. G88-614-CA7, 1989 WL 382091 (W.D.
Mich. June 20, 1989) Note that this only applies to non-defective products.
Another way to view the doctrine is that the improvement of a product does not
render more primitive products automatically defective.

14 Ibid.

15 Patrick Carome, Samir Jain and Elizabeth deGrazia Blumenfeld,
"Federal Immunity For Online Services: How It Works and Why It Is Good

16 Free Online Dictionary of Philosophy (FOLDOP),

17 On sociological evidence, there is justification for accepting
both standard and normative theories as descriptive and explanatory. Those who
rescue children from burning buildings, firefighters and civilian passersby
alike, often reject being described as heroes; members of both groups often
report feeling that their duty was either pre-existing or had been thrust upon
them and in either case merely did what they should have done under the circumstances.

18 There is of course a vast spectrum of supererogatory acts,
ranging from what some call "random acts of kindness" to developing
superior crops which save millions from starvation.

19 But see footnotes 24, 25.

20 In this monograph ‘moral goods’ are defined as things a
human may desire and attain without violating moral principles. These would
include the necessities of life, as well as its enjoyments.

21 In law, these are the two fundamental requirements for
the issuance of a patent.

22 Robert Berman, "Nicomachean Ethics: Commentary on
Book III,"

23 The requirement may be rationally necessary, per Aristotle
or Kant; or practically necessary, per the consequentialists; or dutifully necessary,
per those who rest their arguments on duty (which would again include Kant).

24 There are significant exceptions to this which nonetheless
underscore the technological imperative. When public interest in the value of
a patented invention is sufficiently great, the US government may force the
inventor to license the patent. See James Love and Michael Palmedo, "Examples
of Compulsory Licensing of Intellectual Property in the United States,"
A similar power is found in the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on
Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). See "Health
Care and Intellectual Property: Compulsory Licensing,"

25 There are significant exceptions to this, such as in food
safety regulations, which are constantly upgraded to require the use of novel
technologies – but this, too, underscores the technological imperative.

26 Jeremy Bentham, The Rationale of Reward: Reward Applied
to Art and Science,

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