Assessing the impact of technology on human well-being: a capability approach perspective

Forbat, Julien; Vargas Yanez, Ingrid (2018). 'Assessing the impact of technology on human well-being: a capability approach perspective' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


1. Introduction

Technology development is often presented as enabling human societies to better and faster fulfill their needs. However, we argue in this paper, according to the capability approach (CA) (Sen, 1999), that several aspects of new technologies hamper rather than enhance human development. For instance, smartphone use, as it becomes ubiquitous and continuous in time, tends to blur the limits between human beings and technological artifacts, thus modifying the way improvement of capabilities and functionings can be socially conceived and achieved. It is indeed our intention not to consider technology development as a deterministic process, only moved by an “inner technical logic” or “economic imperative” (Williams 1996), but rather to show how socially shaped it is and thus subject to an ethical debate. Kleine (2011) insists on the fact that technology embeds certain ideologies and warns us of the danger it “circumscribes the choices of a user-citizen more than that it widens them.’’ The acknowledgement of an ideological content of technologies demands to reconsider how we assess their impact on human well-being. Coeckelbergh (2011) notes that the concept of constant capabilities to be expanded by the use of technology is problematic. Instead we should consider capabilities as unstable, influenced by technology and thus by ideology. Along this line, Zheng and Stahl (2011), propose the concept of  “situated agency”,  which takes into account how ideologies tend to constrain people’s vision of what constitute a desirable life.

2.  Methods

The CA establishes a normative framework to identify elements contributing to well-being. Using the CA approach, we operationalize the assessment of technological impact on well-being using a set of moral principles. According to Peterson (2017), who argues that moral principles can be aggregated using a geometric approach to establish ethic evaluation of technology, we use the following principles: cost benefit (CB), precautionary (PP), sustainability (SP), autonomy (AP) and fairness (FP).

From an ethical point of view, three approaches can be identified to determine the level of responsibility of individuals in relation to the object they use (Peterson, 2017): the object has no moral relevance (“commonsense view”), the object is morally relevant (“moderate view”) or the object is a moral agent (“strong view”). In this paper, we define the scope of capabilities to be considered and determine which values are essential for the understanding of ethical challenges arising from the use of technological artifacts. We consider technology as instrumental and morally relevant vis-à-vis its impact on well-being. The application of this framework has the objective of producing a systematic process to evaluate the impact of specific technological developments on well-being, read from a CA perspective.

3. Results

We propose an integrated framework to assess the impact of technology on human well-being based on Nussbaum’s list of capabilities and Peterson’s moral principles. Our results include the theoretical foundation for developing models to measure this impact. Using the example of smartphone use and the concept of extended mind (Clark and Chalmers 1998), we illustrate the relevance of our approach to contemporary technological issues.

4. Conclusion

Technology shall be at the service of society. The present framework proposes a way to assess if technology is indeed doing so. As Feenberg puts it: “Technology can be and is configured in such a way as to reproduce the rule of the few over the many.” (Feenberg 2005). Technological artifacts designs do not necessarily aim at expanding human freedoms. Considering the potential harmful effects of technology on human beings, an open and democratic process to design technology is necessary to take into account people’s interests, a process that is anchored in the CA and in this work.


Clark, Andy, and David Chalmers. 1998. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis 58 (1): 7–19.

Coeckelbergh, Mark. 2011. “Human Development or Human Enhancement? A Methodological Reflection on Capabilities and the Evaluation of Information Technologies.” Ethics and Information Technology 13 (2): 81–92.

Feenberg, Andrew. 2005. “Critical Theory of Technology: An Overview.” Tailoring Biotechnologies 1 (January): 47–64.

Kleine, Dorothea. 2011. “The Capability Approach and the ‘medium of Choice’: Steps towards Conceptualising Information and Communication Technologies for Development.” Ethics and Information Technology 13 (2): 119–30.

Nussbaum, Martha Craven. 2000. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peterson, Martin. 2017. The Ethics of Technology: A Geometric Analysis of Five Moral Principles. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf.

Williams, Robin, and David Edge. 1996. “The Social Shaping of Technology.” Research Policy 25 (6): 865–99.

Zheng, Yingqin, and Bernd Carsten Stahl. 2011. “Technology, Capabilities and Critical Perspectives: What Can Critical Theory Contribute to Sen’s Capability Approach?” Ethics and Information Technology 13 (2): 69–80.

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