The normative force of the possible: The scientific-technical constitution of controllability attributions as a driver of normative change
In his sociological dissertation project, Florian Irgmaier develops a theoretical framework for explaining a peculiar pattern in the relation between science, technology and norms: In the wake of scientific and technological change, well-established norms face increasing problematization. This becomes evident, for instance, in debates on climate protection or on liability in autonomous driving, but especially in Behavioral Public Policy, the dissertation’s main example.
This policy approach draws on theories on the cognitive regularities shaping human behavior in order to develop techniques (often called “nudges”) for modifying people’s behavior. At the same time, this knowledge about cognitive regularities and their exploitability sparks intense normative debate on whether the public deployment of such instruments can be deemed legitimate or even necessary. This concurrence of epistemic, technical and normative change is interpreted as the result of fictions regarding the controllability or uncontrollability of specific events.
The dissertation argues that science and technology contribute to the problematization of norms by shaping the creation and credibility of fictions regarding the possible and the feasible. Such changes in assumptions on the intentional attainability of specific events lead to a redistribution of accountability and burdens of justification (e.g., from individuals to the state) which, in turn, induce normative reflection.