Moral responsibility in R&D networks

Technological research projects increasingly take place in networks, which involve different kinds of actors. These networks often lack a strict hierarchy and a clear task division, and in these networks decisions are subject to negotiation. This increases the likelihood of the problem of many hands, which is the difficulty to identify, even in principle, the person responsible for some outcome, if a large number of people is involved in an activity. The occurrence of this problem in R&D is especially undesirable because technological developments may have significant negative societal impacts, as is witnessed by such examples as the use of asbestos, CFCs, DDT, nuclear waste and the greenhouse effect.

This project will therefore study the problem of many hands in R&D networks. We conceive of this problem as the moral problem of the tension between two requirements for a desirable distribution of responsibilities in R&D networks. One is that the distribution ought to be complete in the sense that for each moral issue someone is responsible. The other is that the distribution ought to be fair. The goal of the research is to contribute to the solution of the problem of many hands in R&D networks by gaining insight in how to reconcile the requirements of completeness and fairness in the distribution of responsibilities in R&D networks.

Three partial projects will be carried out to attain this goal. The first develops a notion of moral responsibility that offers good chances for achieving a fair and complete distribution of responsibilities in R&D networks. The second will apply the theory of an existing formal model for responsibility to investigate the influence of the organizational structure of an R&D network on the achieving of a complete and fair distribution of responsibilities. Using case studies of R&D networks, the third investigates whether Rawls� notion of wide reflective equilibrium is a good starting point for achieving a complete and fair distribution of responsibilities. The research will result in a notion of moral responsibility and in designs for network structures that may help to overcome the problem of many hands in R&D networks.

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