Virtue and Technology

“Questioning is the piety of thought,” or so Martin Heidegger would have us believe. It is with that line that he closed his famous essay, “The Question Concerning Technology.” Indeed, the right question or a new question can lead our thinking to fresh insights and deeper reflections.

With regards to the ethics of technology, we typically ask, “What should I or should I not do with this technology?” and thus focus our attention on our actions. In this, we follow the lead of the two dominant modern ethical traditions: the deontological tradition stemming from Immanuel Kant, on the one hand, and the consequentialist tradition, closely associated with Bentham and Mill, on the other. In the case of both traditions, a particular sort of moral subject or person is in view—an autonomous and rational individual who acts freely and in accord with the dictates of reason.

In the Kantian tradition, the individual, having decided upon the right course of action through the right use of their reason, is duty bound to act thusly, regardless of consequences. In the consequentialist tradition, the individual rationally calculates which action will yield the greatest degree of happiness, variously understood, and acts accordingly.

If technology comes into play in such reasoning by such a person, it is strictly as an instrument of the individual will. The question, again, is simply, “What should I do or not do with it?” We ascertain the answer by either determining the dictates of subjective reasoning or calculating the objective consequences of an action, the latter approach is perhaps more appealing for its resonance with the ethos of technique.

We might conclude, then, that the popular instrumentalist view of technology—a view which takes technology to be a mere a tool, a morally neutral instrument of a sovereign will—is the natural posture of the sort of individual or moral subject that modernity yields. It is unlikely to occur to such an individual that technology is not only a tool with which moral and immoral actions are preformed but also an instrument of moral formation, informing and shaping the moral subject.

It is not that the instrumentalist posture is of no value, of course. On the contrary, it raises important questions that ought to be considered and investigated. The problem is that this approach is incomplete and too easily co-opted by the very realities that it seeks to judge. It is, on its own, ultimately inadequate to the task because it takes as its starting point an inadequate and incomplete understanding of the human person.

There is, however, another older approach to ethics that may help us fill out the picture and take into account other important aspects of our relation to technology: the tradition of virtue ethics in both its classical and medieval manifestations.

In Moralizing Technology, Peter-Paul Verbeek comments on some of the advantages of virtue ethics. To begin with, virtue ethics does not ask, “What am I to do?” Rather, it asks, in Verbeek’s formulation, “What is the good life?” We might also add a related question that virtue ethics raises:  “What sort of person do I want to be?” This is a question that Verbeek also considers, taking his cues from the later work of Michel Foucault.

The question of the good life, Verbeek adds,

“does not depart from a separation of subject and object but from the interwoven character of both. A good life, after all, is shaped not only on the basis of human decisions but also on the basis of the world in which it plays itself out (de Vries 1999). The way we live is determined not only by moral decision making but also by manifold practices that connect us to the material world in which we live. This makes ethics not a matter of isolated subjects but, rather, of connections between humans and the world in which they live.”

Virtue ethics, with its concern for habits, practices, and communities of moral formation, illuminates the various ways technologies impinge upon our moral lives. For example, a technologically mediated action that, taken on its own and in isolation, may be judged morally right or indifferent may appear in a different light when considered as one instance of a habit-forming practice that shapes our disposition and character.

Moreover, virtue ethics, which predates the advent of modernity, does not necessarily assume the sovereign individual as its point of departure. For this reason, it is more amenable to the ethics of technological mediation elaborated by Verbeek. Verbeek argues for “the distributed character of moral agency,” distributed that is among subject and the various technological artifacts that mediate the subject’s perception of and action in the world.

At the very least, asking the sorts of questions raised within a virtue ethic framework fills out our picture of technology’s ethical consequences.

In Susanna Clarke’s delightful novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a fantastical story cast in realist guise about two magicians recovering the lost tradition of English magic in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, one of the main characters, Strange, has the following exchange with the Duke of Wellington:

“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.”

Strange’s response is instructive and the context of magic more apropos than might be apparent. Technology, like magic, empowers the will, and it raises the sort of question that Wellington asks: can such and such be done?

Not only does Strange’s response make the ethical dimension paramount, he approaches the ethical question as a virtue ethicist. He does not run consequentialist calculations nor does he query the deliberations of a supposedly universal reason. Rather, he frames the empowerment availed to him by magic with a consideration of the kind of person he aspires to be, and he subjects his will to this larger project of moral formation. In so doing, he gives us a good model for how we might think about the empowerments availed to us by technology.

As Verbeek, reflecting on the aptness of the word subject, puts it, “The moral subject is not an autonomous subject; rather, it is the outcome of active subjection” [emphasis his]. It is, paradoxically, this kind of subjection that can ground the relative freedom with which we might relate to technology.

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