Philip Brey

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Philip Brey
Birthname Philip Brey
Date of Birth
Birth Place
Occupation Professor of Philosophy of Technology

Philip Brey is currently a professor of philosophy of technology and chair of the department of philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. He is one of the most important figures in combining three major subjects of the studies of information Ethics and Virtual Reality and Computer Simulations. His publications are based on these three items and show how they can interact in different ways.


Brey received his Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego in 1995. He subsequently became involved in their international Master's program in Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Society, and for a time was its program director, from 2003-2006. He has formerly (co)directed the conferences E-CAP 2007, CEPE 2007, and CEPE 2005, SPT 1999, and international workshops on Modernity and Technology, Ethics of Technology, and Nanoethics. He previously taught at Delft University of Technology and the University of California, San Diego.


Most of Brey's research is based on the philosophy of technology and how this technology has been transformed with the introduction of new ideas, such as virtual reality and computer simulations. "Much of his current research is directed to the philosophy and ethics of ICT, where he has published on the ethical and political aspects of computer systems design, the limits of artificial intelligence, the ethics and ontology of virtuality, the role of ICT in mobility and surveillance, the implications of ICT for globalization, geographical organization, and the quality of life." [1]


Embedded Values

In his paper “Values in technology and disclosive computer ethics,”[2] Brey addresses an important question in computer ethics: are computers and computing systems morally neutral? Brey argues that computing systems are not morally neutral, but rather can have tendencies to promote or demote particular moral values. Brey defines this stance as the “embedded values approach” which contrasts the opposing viewpoint that technology is neutral with respect to its consequences. He argues that recurring consequences can emerge from repeated use of a piece of technology in ways that are morally significant.

An example technology is cars. Brey explains that cars are used for commuting, leisure driving, taxiing, displaying in a museum; and from these uses, cars have a commonly recurring consequence of emitting greenhouse gases. Although not all uses of cars result in greenhouse gas emission (e.g. displaying in a museum), the uses of cars are peripheral functionalities of the vehicle. The central use of a car, however, is its driving functionality. From this central use is the necessary consequence of greenhouse gas emission.

Anticipatory Technology Ethics

In his essay, 'Anticipatory Technology Ethics' [3], Brey explores ethics of technology revolving around the R&D stage of technology development through the lens of the anticipation of future possibilities containing various "devices, applications, and social consequences." He contrasts his own ATE methodology with three forecasting approaches: technology assessment (eTA), techno-ethical scenarios, and the ETICA approach. Brey begins his essay with the epistemological problem of 'the problem of uncertainty', in the ethics of emerging technology, and defines the two broad modes of ethical deliberation for the purpose of his critique. The two broader approaches include generic approaches and forecasting approaches. A generic approach is a mode of ethical deliberation that deals with technologies whose particular applications are unknown, where only broader ethical issues can be discussed with respect to the devices, applications, and social consequences of the technology in question. This approach is in opposition to the forecasting approach, which involves conducting forecasting studies, or relying on previously conducted forecasting studies, to predict the ethical issues that will arise. Brey highlights that a forecasting study is only as useful if the predictive capacity of a forecasting study has a high enough degree of accuracy.

The Ethical Technology Assessment (eTA) Approach

the Ethical technology assessment (eTA) was proposed by Palm and Hansson, with the purpose "to provide indicators of negative ethical implications at an early stage of technological development." The goal of eTA is not long-term predictive power, but continual assessment of "current" practices in technology development, in a constant feedback loop to designers and policy-makers. Brey criticizes the limitation of the vagueness in specifying which knowledge precisely needs to be acquired from technology developers and technology assessments, and how they should be acquired. In addition, he criticizes that parameters for proper ethical analysis are not explicitly defined. Brey further criticizes the nine items on the checklist, as they do not include moral principles like "autonomy, human dignity, informed consent, distributive justice, etc." and that a much longer list would be required to conduct comprehensive ethical assessments of new technologies.

The Techno-Ethical Scenarios Approach

Boenik et al defines Techno-Ethical Scenarios with the purpose of helping policy makers to anticipate ethical controversies regarding emerging technologies, through scenario analysis - an established approach in futures studies. Brey indicates that techno-ethical scnearios are superior to eTA approaches, because of the focus on individual steps, in addition to entertaining patterns of argumentation, over a longer time-frame. Brey points out that the limitations of techno-ethical scenarios include the problem of unintentionally ignoring ethical issues that do not involve a lot of public attention, but are important regardless. Brey argues that many important moral controversies would thus remain hidden from the public eye because of the complexity of the technological constraints and practices.

The ETICA Approach

The ETICA approach engages ethical assessment of ICT technologies (among others). The purpose of ETICA is to provide overviews of ethical issues for emerging technologies that will play out in the medium-term future. Brey praises ETICA in its thoroughness in considering the widest possible range of "technological properties, artifacts, applications, and ethical issues," in addition to its evaluative power and ability to provide recommendations for governance. However, he criticizes ETICA for its weak claim to adopt a futures studies approach, and its dubious claim to locate ethical issues through governmental and political texts, in which unscientific methods of futures research will be employed, and reduce the effectiveness of ETICA. Further, Brey criticizes ETICA's use of analysis of the "overall discourse" of future technologies, as opposed to having independent critical assessments of the predictions of new technologies, within the discourse, before using these predictions as the basis for subsequent ethical analysis conducted via ETICA.

The Anticipatory Technology Ethics (ATE) Approach

Value Sensitive Design

Brey has also contributed to the study of Value-sensitive design (VSD). VSD is an approach that takes human values into consideration of technology design process. VSD is concerned with the welfare of stakeholders, which are the people/groups affected by the design decisions of a certain technology. The VSD methodology uses a tripartite approach as an ethical evaluation process. The three invesitigations are:

  • Conceptual investigations attempt to understand the conceptual ethical values that a system implicates and how its design might affect its stakeholders.
  • Empirical investigations attempt to understand the human context in which a technology will be used. This includes assessing stakeholder values and psychology along with organizational contexts to inform design decisions.
  • Technological investigations study how technical properties of a system can support or hinder human values.

Current Participation

  • The executive board of the Society for Philosophy of Technology.
  • The International Society for Ethics and Information Technology.
  • Director of the European division of the International Association of Computing and Philosophy.
  • The editorial board of the journals Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology.
  • Ethics and Information Technology.
  • The Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society and Nanoethics
  • Ethics for Technologies that Converge at the Nanoscale.
  • Vice editor of the Society for Philosophy and Technology Newsletter.
  • Netherlands Graduate School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture.
  • Dutch-Flemish Network for Philosophy of Science and Technology.
  • Centre for Telematics and Information Technology (CTIT) of the University of Twente.

See Also


  1. University of Twente: Philip Brey.
  3. Brey, 2012, Anticipatory Ethics for Emerging Technologies

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