Shannon Vallor on Technology and the Virtues

In recent posts, we’ve commented on Peter-Paul Verbeek’s work on the ethics of technology. Verbeek commends an approach to the ethics of technology focused on what he terms technological mediation. “Artifacts are morally charged;” Verbeek notes, “they mediate moral decisions, shape moral subjects, and play an important role in moral agency.” Additionally, he suggested that the tradition of virtue ethics offers important resources for our ethical reflection about technology.

Later this year, Shannon Vallor, a philosopher at Santa Clara University, will publish Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting. It promises to be a valuable contribution to the field with interesting parallels to Verbeek’s work. Here is an excerpt from the Introduction cited in a blog post reporting on Vallor’s book:

“No ethical framework can cut through the general constraints of technosocial opacity. The contingencies that obscure a clear vision of even the next few decades of technological and scientific development are simply far too numerous to resolve— in fact, given accelerating physical, geopolitical, and cultural changes in our present environment, these contingencies and their obscuring effects are likely to multiply rather than diminish. What this book offers is not an ethical solution to technosocial opacity, but an ethical strategy for cultivating the type of moral character that can aid us in coping, and even flourishing, under such chal­lenging conditions.”

Here’s more from the post:

“In her recent work, Vallor focuses primarily on recent advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, new (social) media, and bio-enhancement. As many have noted, advances in all of those fields are happening quickly—often faster than laws and even social norms can develop around them. Rather than simply noting (or bemoaning) that fact, Vallor asks us, first, to recognize that technologies are not ‘value-neutral’:  that every technology presupposes a vision of what the ‘good life’ is. (Technologists are often reluctant to acknowledge this—or simply assume that their vision of the ‘good life’ is widely shared.) She then points out that technological advances have unpredictable and open-ended consequences, and that current technologies pose ‘new global problems of collective human action,’ many of which have implications for the future of human flourishing on this planet.

With this background in mind, Vallor draws on virtue ethics to ask, ‘What sort of people will deal well with the challenges posed by emerging technology? What qualities will they need in order to flourish?’ In other words, what are the virtues demanded by a rapidly changing world—the virtues that would allow people to anticipate challenges, perhaps meet them before they arrive, or at least respond best to them when they do?”

These are precisely the sorts of questions we should be asking. We look forward to Vallor’s exploration of these matters. It promises to be wise and helpful.