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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?

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2 Comment on this post

  1. We typically under-plan for many risks, since they are rare enough that they are not salient when we plan. Then they happen, we wow “never again!”, install safeguards… and over time these expensive redundancies are removed (for cost reasons or because there is a need elsewhere), forgotten or just decay.

    Clearly, it would be better to maintain safeguards. It can be done by retaining stories about Last Time or what happened to the people who did not do it, or by externalised rules about safety standards. But seeing maintaining safeguards as an ethical action might be a way of bolstering these methods.

  2. The moral dimension of maintenance: this is just downright brilliant. As someone who is professionally involved with technology (telephone switching engineer) and subscribes to a strict professional ethic about the reliability of what I build, and who also spends far too much of my time contemplating philosophical issues, I’m surprised (shocked, really) that I haven’t put 2 + 2 together on this issue before. In my industry, conscientious maintenance is assumed, and failure of maintenance is considered to be an ethical transgression. What I surprisingly missed thus far was that my particular attitude, and my industry’s attitude, could be generalized as a philosophical paradigm: “ethics for maintenance.”

    This is immediately relevant to a debate that is presently occurring locally in my area, involving “volunteer” hobbyist groups building community telecom infrastructure, who are wholly ignorant of the maintenance issues involved. Failure to consider maintenance becomes more than a practical issue, it becomes an ethical issue in the larger context of other types of infrastructure.

    Most interesting; I’m going to be giving all of this serious thought.

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