1.9 Final vocabularies in context
As I discussed earlier, there are different ways of looking at things and valuing them, as there are different kinds of things we value. I also suggested that you might, in your arguments, try and value reasons: are they ‘good’ reasons for doing things? We might also be concerned with outcomes, but because outcomes require a route to achieving them, the means or process also needs to be assessed. As we'll see in the next section, Socrates says, in the Platonic dialogues, you might take a medicine that tastes bad in order to get better. In this case you have an ethic that admits a not-so-good means to achieve a desired end. This illustrates the issue that you might want to look for ‘good’ means and ‘good’ ends, but in some instances an ethic might accommodate an unpleasant means as long as the outcome is ‘good’.
And so these different things, reasons, means, ends, the agents, the people that are doing the work, or combinations of these things, all of these are worthy of consideration in ethics, and these are things we will be looking at throughout this course. However, this type analysis doesn't answer certain kinds of questions. For example, I introduced and began exploring the concept of final vocabularies, but I did not mention that the same final vocabulary may be put to very different uses. Sometimes people use words in very different situations and to very different effects. Take the words ‘modern’ and ‘sustainable’, for example. People using the word ‘sustainable’ might have quite different views on what ‘sustainable’ is; some people may think is relates to keeping things as they are, which means they are adopting a conservative view, whilst others may take ‘sustainable’ in a sense of ‘changing things so that they become sustainable’. The latter is a radical rather than a conservative view.
So, because different people may be using final vocabulary in different ways, it is important to focus on the use of this vocabulary. Take the term ‘risk’, for example. For a professional, ‘risk’ is often a matter of degree, a numerical probability associated with a particular outcome. On the other hand, for individuals, ‘risk’ actually reveals a possibility. The debate in the United Kingdom surrounding the MMR vaccine illustrates this difference quite well. Specialists say that there is a very low ‘risk’ to a child, which is acceptable from a professional perspective, but as far as parents are concerned, ‘risk’ means that there is a possibility of a problem. Specialists and parents, therefore, are using the same word in subtly different ways.
Crucial to these differences in interpretation are the differences in the relationships at play. For the government specialist concerned with vaccination in his or her professional role the relationships are with the population as a whole and the aggregate good. For the parent, the relationship is with the individual child.
The form of relationships with other people not only shape our ethical arguments but personal relationships (including self-interest) are things people value. In considering outcomes and means are we concerned about individuals or are we considering a wider community? If we are thinking about, let's say, wealth, are we talking about the wealth of individuals or the wealth of the community as being important? But also changes in relationships for the better or worse may itself be an outcome. I will return to the question of relationships later in the course.
I hope the previous activity highlighted that ethical statements tend to be fairly complex things, even if, on a first look, the argumentation itself may appear mundane. In other words, it is not only the evaluation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that needs to interest us here, but also the way in which the argument or justification is articulated (as well as the context in which it appears). To close this section I would like to propose an activity that asks you to engage with some audio-visual material. Although this format allows for very different ways of putting across an argument, this gives you another example of how a fairly short argument can indeed conceal a lot of complexity once it begins to be unpacked.
Watch John Monk's short video snippet Ethics. If you are reading this course as an ebook, you can access the video here:Watch the video once and immediately afterwards jot down some brief notes about:
a.the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ that are considered relevant in each option mentioned;
b.the essential differences between the options;
c.how you feel about each option;
d.the style of presentation of the options.
Look at it again if you want to, but do not modify your notes. Instead, if you think your earlier impression was misguided, make a second set of notes and compare them. Can you make some observations on the final vocabulary used?
You can find a transcript of the video snippet by clicking the link below.
The video explains that a system that might pepper the countryside offering wireless communication would cause visual intrusions, and it also introduces worries about exposure to radiation. The technologists planning such a system has choices: lots of short masts introducing lots of minor visual intrusions and operating at low radiation levels; fewer tall masts which are more visually intrusive and require higher radiation levels. Also, a few small masts are not out of the question, but power levels would have to be increased.
The final vocabulary appears to include the terms ‘visual intrusion’ and ‘radiation’. There are many other factors that should be brought in, including the ‘effectiveness’ of communication. Some choices don't involve only technical matters. When it comes to radiation, for example, dangers to health have not been demonstrated for lower levels, but people may be fearful, and fear is also harmful and discomforting. Should the discomfort and fear be something the technologist needs to consider in examining the acceptability of a design? The answer to that is probably yes. Indeed, some technologies, like weapons and fairground rides gain their effectiveness through ‘shock and awe’. Another important aspect of the video is that it relies on the authority of the speaker alone, that is, there are no references to other views, opinions or (assumed) facts related by others.
As you will have seen earlier in the course, a trial course was run in 2008 with volunteer participants from amongst OpenLearn users, and the Ethics video generated a particularly lively conversation within the group. The next activity gives you an opportunity to listen to what the group had to say.
Watch the video snippet below, which presents a discussion of the Ethics video carried out by participants in the 2008 trial. Please be aware that the quality of the video and audio varies as it was recorded as a Flash Meeting and was therefore dependent on the equipment and connection speeds of the individual participants.