Technology and utilitarianism

Technologists and engineers often use the ideas of utilitarianism to evaluate their solutions. If something is cheaper, or faster, or lets people live 3.2 days longer on average, or some other number can be optimised, they judge a solution to be better. In short, they use a quantitative form of  judgment. This way of thinking is the appropriate way of judging engineering problems, but not the best way of judging design problems.

To a degree it is possible to come up with a new product by simply improving on some numbers from an old one. “Here’s a new hard drive with 1.3x more space.” However, such innovation will always be incremental.

The challenge for technology is how to create products and solutions that are not justified or evaluated from a quantitative, utilitarian perspective, but from an entirely different one, perhaps an aesthetic perspective. And this is also the challenge for social innovators and policymakers in society. Solutions that maximise numbers have value and can enable qualitative change in the long run, but in themselves they never constitute true progress.

To see how far the utilitarian thinking has gone, think about how many technology products are justified with sentences along the lines of “it makes more information available”, or “it makes X cheaper” , or “it makes you more connected”. In all seriousness, there are situations when it is not desirable to have more information.

Category: Computer science, Philosophy | Tags: , , , 2 comments »

2 Responses to “Technology and utilitarianism”

  1. Rose Schnor


    I am doing a TOK presentation for the IB and I am going into depth about the Google Duplex by asking the question “What role does technology play in advancing human knowledge?”. I am going to be looking at the Ethics of it and want to look at it from a Utilitarianism perspective. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this question and had any advice?

    Best Regards,

  2. Johan

    Hi Rose,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry for the slow reply – this blog has been moving at a glacial pace for some time. Believe it or not, once in a past life I went through the IB programme, too! So I have some idea what you are going through.

    I think that question – what role does technology play in advancing human knowledge – is extremely broad. You could approach it in a lot of ways. Given the topics I usually write about here, I would start from new kinds of measurements we can make. For example, we can learn to measure radiation or detect neutrons or neutrinos, where previously we did not have such abilities. Or we can make astronomical discoveries that force us to reconsider the position of the earth, which forces us to revise our physics (and maybe also our ethics, cosmology and religious ideas). All of these come about because new measurement technologies were invented. To me, a discussion of that topic would be a good starting point.

    All the best.

Leave a Reply

Back to top