The Hermeneutics of Judgment and Critiques of Technology

The Hermeneutics of Judgment and Critiques of Technology

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Anti nuclear power movement's Smiling Sun logo "Atomkraft? Nein, danke"

Anti nuclear power movement's Smiling Sun logo "Atomkraft? Nein, danke"

In this project, I seek to understand critiques of technology after World War II by arguing that technological choices are inherently moral choices. Drawing on Gadamer's hermeneutics, I reject Aristotle's sharp distinction between technical and ethical judgment, between techne and phronesis. I argue that technical choice can never be reduced to pure means-ends rationality. Technical judgments are about connecting general principles with a specific context, requiring an interpretive understanding on the relationship between the general and the specific. Such an understanding is rooted in practical reasoning, phronesis, which is at the same time moral reasoning. In essence, technical choice always involves moral choice.

This conceptual framework guides my research for a book-length study of "dissident experts" during the long 1960s, from Sputnik (1957) through the fall of Saigon (1975). The dominant narrative portrays the cultural movements of this era, in particular to counterculture, as largely anti-technology. Indeed, many members of the counterculture favored lay knowledge over technical expertise, the natural over the artificial, and the mystical over the rational. Nevertheless, I argue that in almost every critique of technology in this era, technical experts played a crucial role. Scientists, engineers, physicians, and others made technical claims that were central to critiques of postwar science and technology. These technical claims were profoundly shaped by moral values. Without the contributions of these experts, critiques of technology in the long 1960s would have been nothing but a cultural curiosity. But, because of the role of technical experts, these critiques had power, profoundly shaping public policy and public opinion.