An Ethics for Maintenance?
Last Sunday, Sasago Tunnel – a major tunnel in Japan – collapsed and caused nine deaths. And, according to the latest report, Central Nippon Expressway (Nexco), the company in charge of the tunnel, might be the party to blame as it is reported that they “had relied on rudimentary visual inspections…, with no reinforcement or repairs since construction [of the tunnel] in 1977”.
This tragic incident has prompted me to (re)consider the ethical dimension of maintenance of technologies and infrastructures. Surprisingly, although philosophers and ethicists have began to explore ethical issues surrounding new and emerging technologies, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, etc., not many of them have written on the normative issues of maintenance. This is curious, because, unless we assume the technologies and infrastructures will last forever without degradation, there is minimally a need for assigning the responsibility for maintaining their functionality. Here, the case of Sasago Tunnel might be relatively easy, as we could point at Nexco, which, in some sense, owns the tunnel; and, the same may be true of many consumer products too. Since they are ours, we are responsible for maintaining them. Perhaps, this is why the questions about maintenance are very much ignored by philosophers and ethicists, as they present no special ethical problem.
Now, for Sasago Tunnel, or for many other consumer products, it is relatively easy to pinpoint the responsibility for maintenance, but what about technologies and infrastructures that are not owned by a single party? Or, what about technologies and infrastructures that are distributed across different countries? In those cases, how should we assign the responsibility of maintenance? Should we assign it equally, or should we assign different level responsibility based on ability, etc.
I would imagine there are other ethical issues concerning maintenance that go beyond assigning responsibility. If maintenance is necessary for any technologies and, more importantly, infrastructures, to work properly, maybe we should pay more attention to its normative dimension?