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From Mind-as-Computer to Robot-as-Human: Can metaphors change morality?

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Over the past three years, I have returned to one question over and over again: how does technology reshape our moral beliefs and practices? In his classic study of medieval technology, Lynn White Jr argues that simple technological changes can have a profound effect on social moral systems. Consider the stirrup. Before this device was created, mounted warriors had to rely largely on their own strength (the “pressure of their knees” to use White’s phrase) to launch an attack while riding horseback. The warrior’s position on top of the horse was precarious and he was limited to firing a bow and arrow or hurling a javelin. The stirrup changed all that: The stirrup, by giving lateral support in addition to the front and back support offered by pommel and cantle, effectively welded horse and rider into a single fighting unit capable of violence without precedent. The fighter’s hand no longer delivered the blow: it merely guided it. The stirrup thus replaced human energy with animal power, and immensely increased the warrior’s ability to damage his enemy. Immediately, without preparatory steps, it made possible mounted shock combat, a revolutionary new way of doing battle. (White 1962, p 2)  This had major ripple effects. It turned mounted knights into the centrepiece of the medieval army. And since the survival and growth of medieval society was highly dependent on military prowess, these knights needed to be trained and maintained. This required a lot of resources. According to White, the feudal manor system, with its associated legal and moral norms relating to property, social hierarchy, honour and chivalry, was established in order to provide knights with those resources. This is an interesting example of technologically induced social moral change. The creation of a new technology afforded a new type of action (mounted shock combat) which had significant moral consequences for society. The technology needed to be supported and sustained, but it also took. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

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