Journal of Social Computing


ethics of technology, political movements, human rights


In recent years, tens of product teams, research institutes, academic conferences, and college courses—the list goes on—have cropped up under the banner of tech ethics to grapple with the social and political impact of technology. For some, an orientation around ethics indicates a moment of humility in an industry characterized by hubris. Now even major tech corporations are seeking expertise outside of the technical sphere. In speaking tech ethics, we speak ethics to power. For others, the outlook is less rosy. Critical observers take tech ethics to just be the latest tool in the same-old corporate toolshed—new rhetoric in service of old interests. Tech ethics is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is power speaking ethics. But debate about tech ethics concerns more than descriptive analyses of current efforts as such. The capacities of ethical tech as a political movement are also up for scrutiny. What is the political payoff of anyone speaking ethics at all? In this article, the author approaches the question by drawing on a critical history of another moral-turned-political movement. A critical inquiry into the ascendency of human rights, the author suggests, elucidates the multiple functions of moral reasoning and rhetoric in political movements and lends insight into how they may ultimately bear on political efficacy. The 20th century history of human rights gives reason to be suspicious of moral language that is evasive of engaging political and ideological battles. However, it also points to the possibility that long-standing moral ideals may be renewed and refashioned into new claims. Tech ethics may yet play such a role: placing explicitly moral demands on those typically taken to be exempt from moral standards. This demand reaches beyond what the specialized moniker of “tech ethics” suggests.