Book Reviews

Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, Oxford University Press, 2016

Some books can be said to represent ‘new beginnings’, opening up new spaces for academic discourse and new methods and perspectives. Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues can rightfully be claimed to be one of those books. There is much about this book that is not only laudable but also urgent. First, it has managed to firmly establish virtue ethics as a tradition worthy of consideration in the field of ethics of technology. Other authors have suggested such a turning (Ess 2009, Coeckelbergh 2012), but none have done it so far in a manner that can live up to the comprehensiveness of Technology and the Virtues. Second, the book has served the virtue ethics tradition well in convincingly arguing for its continuing relevance in a time of serious sociotechnical challenges. As our moral critiques of technologies are increasingly entangled in discussions of existential threats that are claimed to be too complex to be handled by common human beings and call for an enhancement of our species, Vallor’s urgent call back to earth, back to our own human capabilities, will be welcomed by many. Third, it establishes a way of approaching matters in moral philosophy that is quite uncommon today, namely drawing from not only the ‘Western’ perspective but also systematic moral philosophies from other cultures: Buddhist and Confucian ethics. This echoes the increasing need in a multipolar world to build bridges between moral traditions, to construct a global dialogue (insofar possible) concerning the good life and the kind of societies we want to live in.

Vallor’s book is structured in a convincing way and guides the reader from foundational questions to a framework of the ‘technomoral’ virtues, and to a series of in-depth case studies of contemporary technologies: social media, surveillance technologies, robots, and human enhancement technologies. In the introduction and Part I of the book, Vallor has three main objectives. The first is to argue for the existence of a so-called state of “acute sociotechnical opacity” (6) in the 21st century, which means that the practical circumstances of our everyday lives are changing so rapidly due to technological innovations that we cannot reasonably anticipate the impact of future states of affairs on our morality. This notion provides Vallor with the resources to argue against the use of utilitarian ethics, due to its false reliance on transparent choices based on the rational calculation of their outcomes, and against Kantian ethics, due to the impossibility of any categorical rule to respond to highly contingent future states of affairs. Virtue ethics is presented as a modest but viable alternative, in that enables us to acknowledge the existence of sociotechnical opacity and at the same time offers us a strategy for self-cultivation that empowers us to manage it prudently. The second objective is to introduce the revival of the virtue ethics tradition, to connect it to contemporary philosophy of technology, and to make the claim that both should be wary of their Western provincialism and engage in a global dialogue because the problems they address (e.g. climate change) are of a global character. The third objective is to lay down the fundamentals of the three virtue ethics traditions used in the book (Aristotelian, Buddhist, and Confucian) and to argue for their convergence on four major issues: a conception of the highest human good, of virtues as cultivated states of character, of a practical path for moral self-cultivation, and of a the existence of an essence of human beings (44).

In Part II of the book, Vallor presents seven “core elements” (64) or perhaps rather conditions of the practices that mediate the cultivation of technomoral virtues. These conditions pertain to the ‘how’ of the cultivation of technomoral virtue, indicating according to what kinds of standards we could for instance evaluate our educational, mentoring, and training practices. Vallor painstakingly discusses the details of the accounts of cultivation of virtue in the three virtue ethics traditions she draws from to formulate a common ground for each core element. Concerning the first element, she argues that our practices should be engaged with habitually: meaning that one repeats them, guided by moral exemplars and eventually gets accustomed to them in a positive sense (74). For the second element, she contends that practices should be engaged with from within a relational understanding: meaning that they should be understood in the context of our relations with other members of the moral community, making them responsive to the particular aspects of these relations (83). The additional five elements she discusses include reflective self-examination, intentional self-direction, moral attention, prudential judgment and appropriate extension of moral concern. Vallor makes a distinction between the first four elements and the latter three, arguing that the first four enable practical wisdom and the latter three complete or conclude it.

Additionally, Vallor presents a list of technomoral virtues that she argues answers the ‘what’ of technomoral virtue. She emphasises that these technomoral virtues should not be understood as radically ‘new’ virtues that somehow resulted from our living with new technologies, but rather as virtues understood in the context of the particular ways in which they are cultivated in the 21st century. For instance, one could consider that the meaning of ‘bravery’ in war has not remained fixed since Homer’s time, but has changed according to the development of technologies of war, signifying different kinds of cultivation for a hoplite and for a jetfighter pilot. As MacIntyre argued, different historical periods and contexts have brought about different heuristics of virtue (MacIntyre 2007, 118), which thereby also implied different theories of virtue. Vallor lists twelve virtues that she argues are of particular relevance for our contemporary human condition in the context of sociotechnical opacity: honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom (120). For each of these virtues, Vallor aims to find common ‘roots’ amongst the Aristotelian, Buddhist and Confucian virtue ethics traditions and to clarify their particular relevance in relation with new and emerging technologies. We might illustrate her approach through a discussion of self-control (123). Under the heading of this technomoral virtue, Vallor subsumes Aristotle’s virtue of temperance, the Buddhist virtue of right desire and the Confucian virtue of self-discipline. She contextualises the significance of this technomoral virtue in relation to technology, by discussing how ICTs create an environment in which people are constantly primed and distracted.

In Part III of her book, Vallor presents three illuminating case studies of paradigmatic contemporary technologies – social media, surveillance technology, robotics, human enhancement technology – and evaluates these using her virtue ethics of technology approach. Vallor introduces each case by means of a short historical narrative about the technology in question and relates it to relevant scholarly critiques. She then discusses each technology by invoking relevant technomoral virtues. Accordingly, she offers solutions based on the discussion, usually in terms of what virtues should be cultivated in what way. To illustrate: for her analysis of social media (159) she first discusses the rise of social media in contemporary society and some of the problems it brought according to a number of scholars, for instance with regard to anxiety and loneliness of children and privacy concerns. Second, she analyses social media by discussing the virtues of self-control (social media being addictive), empathy (social media generating less face-to-face contact and attention), humility, honesty and perspective (social media shaping distortions of information) and civility (social media individualising the common good). Thirdly, she presents three ways of dealing with the problems she describes: (1) paying attention to the cultivation of character and not merely to progressing technology, (2) creating better spaces for technomoral education and (3) recognising and promoting individuals and groups who show leadership in promoting technomoral virtues.

Due to its originality, clarity and appealing style, Vallor’s book will be a very useful resource for STEM students, scholars and practitioners who want to engage with normative ethics and for ethicists of technology who want to investigate the ethical issues of new and emerging technologies from a virtue ethics perspective. Nevertheless, I will raise two points of critique. First, I believe there is an issue with the conceptual coherence employed throughout the work. Even though this might well be justified with recourse to the pragmatic aims of the book (Vallor 2017, 214), it invokes uncertainty for the reader as to what is actually claimed. For instance, the term “virtue” itself seems to be deployed rather loosely. Vallor sometimes invokes the commonly used definitions of virtue as “excellence”, “stable trait” (17) and “disposition” (18). However, she also discusses virtue as “discerning skill” (37) in her treatment of Aristotelian ethics, and as “recognition” (126) in her treatment of the technomoral virtue of humility.

I believe that this lack of conceptual coherence points at three problems in the book. First, Vallor does not present any philosophical anthropology even though she argues that virtue ethics theories are all based on a “conception of what human beings are generally like” (44). In contrast, one of Aristotle’s primary concerns in the Nicomachean Ethics seems to be to establish the basic concepts of a philosophical anthropology. He thereby made sure to distinguish virtue (arête) from skill (technê), and state (hexis) from capacity (dunamis), and also to distinguish the virtues of character, corresponding to the non-rational part of the soul that obeys reason, from the virtues of the intellect, corresponding to the part of the soul that has reason. Vallor both accidentally identifies virtue with skill and makes no distinction between the virtues of character and of the intellect, even though some of the technomoral virtues are ambiguously positioned as ‘in-betweens’. For instance, she defines honesty as “an exemplary respect for truth, along with the practical expertise to express that respect appropriately in technosocial contexts” (122). How are we to understand this virtue? Does it correspond with a virtue of the intellect that Aristotle denotes as understanding (nous), or does it correspond with some rhetoric skill (technê), or with some mix between the two?

Certainly, one might argue that such conceptual rigour as Aristotle deploys is actually undesirable in constructing a pragmatic outline for a virtue ethics of technology. However, this leads me to a second problem, namely the fairly uncritical conceptual conflation between terms that are used in different virtue ethics traditions. Others have already offered critiques of the book based on concerns in comparative philosophy (Curzer 2017, Mcrae 2017), arguing that for instance some Buddhist ethical concepts are wrongly interpreted or that the doctrine of the mean essentially differs between the three traditions that Vallor draws from. I will not argue along these lines and I find Vallor’s reply fairly convincing, in which she states that she intends to draw from different traditions as sources of “moral imagination about the virtues” (Vallor 2017, 309). However, I argue that in providing “a broad conceptual footing for a new global ethic” (Vallor 2017, 315), greater conceptual coherence within the confines of Vallor’s framework could be expected. Such conceptual coherence would involve a critical discussion of not only the common ground but also of the conflicts between the different virtue ethics traditions as they are appropriated. Sometimes, I believe, this also will have to involve ‘choosing sides’, and being upfront about this. For instance, if justice is to be a virtue to be incorporated in the conceptual footing of a global ethic, the clear difference between the Confucian notion of justice based on the extension of fatherly rule in the household and Aristotle’s notion of justice based on distribution between equals in the polis should be acknowledged. Though Vallor acknowledges that justice is the virtue that is “perhaps the broadest and most varied in its interpretations” (127), she clearly aligns herself with the Aristotelian interpretation and thereby to a significant extent against the Confucian one. Brushing over this difference is not a case of respecting different cultural traditions, but disregarding differences in conceptualisations of justice.

This brings me to the third problem, according to which I find myself in disagreement with Vallor. Even though she argues in agreement with Nussbaum that the “core meaning of a virtue such as wisdom, courage, or justice is fixed by reference to some enduring domain of human experience”, she nonetheless argues, that “as with all taxonomies of virtue, ours remains subject to open-ended elaboration and revision” (119). On the one hand, she argues this to be the case because the virtues have to evolve according to the technosocial conditions of a certain historical period. How would this fit with the earlier statement, if not pertaining to a change in ‘core meaning’? If their meanings would be fixed, it seems unclear how we can end up with different conceptualisations of the virtues. On the other hand, Vallor seems to suggest that a list of all technomoral virtues would be practically inexhaustible. I also cannot agree with this statement, both because different historical versions of virtue ethics have provided exhaustive lists of the virtues (cf. MacIntyre 2007), and because this somehow suggests that we can arbitrarily come up with new human dispositions that should be designated as virtues because they fit the conventional wisdom of a certain epoch. Instead, I believe that every ‘version’ of virtue ethics departs from a philosophical anthropology that is itself bounded by the being of human beings. Just as we can deliberate for instance about what constitutes a ‘sense’ and at the same time do not see the list of ‘human senses’ as open-ended or inexhaustible, so we can deliberate about what constitutes a virtue without recognising an open-ended list of virtues. Rather, the virtues have to be supported by a certain account of the being of human beings, for instance by relating temperance to the modes of being of pleasure and pain. Different lists of the virtue indeed exist, but they are not inexhaustible and they are not properly speaking open-ended and ‘open to revision’, because to revise the list implies revising the philosophical anthropology that underlies it.

My critique pertaining to the conceptual coherence of Vallor’s work is by no means a criticism of the overall significance and usefulness of the book, but rather points at a readership (i.e. virtue theorists) that will find less resources in the book than it might hope for. A similar concern brings me to a second point of critique, though this suggests a potential avenue for future research rather than something that could have been done differently in the current book. That is, Vallor’s book does not offer us new insights into the phenomenon of technological mediation that is central to the field of philosophy of technology. This is somewhat surprising given that she dedicates a whole section to “virtue ethics and philosophy of technology” (23). In that section, she mentions for example Hans Jonas as an important philosopher in this regard, who indeed in his work on technology points at the importance of the virtues (Jonas 1973, 37). We should note, in this regard, that Jonas ultimately wanted to question the changing nature of human action (praxis) (Jonas 1973, 31). In other words, he saw a need for investigating the ways in which praxis itself changes in the modern epoch1, not merely how the virtues gain a different significations in different technological contexts. However, the reader will find out that Vallor mostly wants to put her approach in line with contemporary philosophy of technology, rather than to contribute to it.

Even though Vallor acknowledges the dual character of the central concern of her book, namely to consider what we can do to live well with technologies and what technologies do to us, the emphasis in Technology and the Virtues clearly lies on the first aspect. A clue to Vallor’s limited emphasis on technological mediation of praxis can be gained from her discussion of the challenge posed to virtue ethics by moral psychology. She discusses the argument that is related to the famous Milgram experiments in which “research subjects were asked to ‘punish’ a screaming ‘victim’ with realistic (but simulated) shocks at the polite request of an experimenter” (Merritt et al., 2010)2. Moral psychologists argue that experiments like this one show “that the difference between good conduct and bad appears to reside in the situation more than in the person” (Merritt et al. 2010, 357 – emphasis added). This is conceived as an attack on the notion of human character that is central to virtue ethics, because our character allegedly should enable us to act morally right in a consistent manner. One can start to criticise this interpretation of the findings by arguing that the concept of “situation” is black-boxed in this approach and that the particular context of the experiment is left un-examined. However, Vallor takes another approach to defend virtue ethics, arguing that her approach holds because virtue is “by definition exemplary rather than typical” (Vallor 2016, 22). The fact that a small minority of research subjects refrained from following the requests of the experimenter is seen as decisive for acknowledging the correctness of virtue ethics. In other words, the agency of the human subjects who resisted the request for engaging in the experiment is taken as a reflection of a categorical form of their strength of character that in turn proves the validity of a virtue ethics approach.

This defence seems to be unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. First, the claim that virtue is cultivated by means of following the practices of exemplary figures does not entail that virtue is by definition exemplary rather than typical. Instead, virtue ethics traditions allow for different degrees in virtuous character (hence, having a degree of virtuous character is typical), in which exemplary members of a certain moral community display the highest degrees. Particular groups or communities can consist of mostly vicious or mostly virtuous people, or can be mixed. Second, different experiments in moral psychology show different levels of “virtuous behaviour” (Merritt et al. 2010, 356-357), understood as consistency in engagement in particular actions, which implies that someone whose virtuous character enables her to cope with one challenging moral setting might be unable to cope with another, depending on the context. This does not mean that such a person’s character is not ‘virtuous’, but instead that whether the degree to which her virtuous character is sufficiently cultivated to deal with a particular situation depends in part on the situation, or is mediated by the situation, and not merely by the agent’s character. If we accept this claim, moral psychologists seem to be at least to some extent warranted in drawing their conclusions. Third, the supposed warrant that a minority of people will be able to deal with situations like the one presented in this experiment, which – importantly – is not technosocially opaque (people are aware of the way in which their actions conducted through technologies have certain consequences) is one that no moral philosophy can be satisfied with and especially not one that introduces the additional factor of technosocial opacity. In a world of technosocial opacity, the virtuous conduct of a small minority is not sufficient for safeguarding the flourishing of humanity; and can even less be expected given the greater complexity and opacity as compared to the Milgram experiment. For instance, we can consider whether a person who is not a digital native with the highest degree of virtuous character would be sufficiently capable of dealing with the novel setting of ubiquitous digital technologies. The answer would probably be negative.

Nonetheless, this does not disqualify the project of constructing a virtue ethics of technology. Rather, it shows that technomoral virtues are co-shaped by both people’s characters and by ‘settings’. A philosopher of technology would criticise the conclusions drawn by moral psychologists on the basis that the factor of technological mediation is fully ‘black-boxed’ by sketching the concept of ‘setting’ as something that is somehow separated from a person. Instead, she would argue that on the one hand ‘setting’ – in contrast to what Vallor argues – should be taken seriously, but that on the other hand the concept of setting should be turned into a concept of technological mediation. Especially in the case of the Milgram experiment, the factor of technological mediation seems important for understanding the ‘situation’. The technology of an electronic system being triggered by a voltage lever constitutes a process of what one might designate as ‘distancing’: the research subject does not simply ‘hurt’ a victim, but seemingly hurts the victim in a mediated way, through a device that presents no feedback with regard to the severity of the harm and in an architecture that separates the research subject from the victim and thereby creates a moral distance between them. Such an interpretation is warranted by some recent discussions of the Milgram experiment. For instance, Haslam et al. (2014) argue that the setup of the experiment, which included aspects like its “location, the appearance and behaviour of the experimenter, and the technical apparatus” (Haslam et al. 2014, 275 – emphasis added) mediated the interpretation of research participants of their actions as taking place in the context of the paradigm of scientific research.

Hence, Vallor seems to emphasise the side of human agency in her book, while not delving into the side of technological mediation of human practices. This tendency can be observed in the solutions she puts forward for problems posed by technology, be-it “improved technomoral education”(204), “cultivating technomoral humility” (207) or cultivating “renewed technomoral courage” (218). More importantly, it can be observed in the almost complete absence of discussions of technology in the elaboration of the core elements of technical practice that cultivates the virtues. Exactly with regard to these conditions, which to some extent sketch the outlines of a theory of practice, Hans Jonas’ question of the changing nature of human action could have come to the fore. For instance, if ‘relational understanding’ is a condition for having practices that cultivate the relevant technomoral virtues, how could we theorise the way that emerging technologies mediate this condition? Knowing this would be of crucial importance for designing systems that are conducive for virtuous practices, setting up education for engineers engaging in technical practices, and so forth.

Notwithstanding the abovementioned two points of critique, Technology and the Virtues represents a very important and timely turn in the field of ethics of technology. It provides the reader with a vast amount of resources to engage with ethics in practices of technology development and challenges us to think about the importance of the cultivation of the right kinds of technical practices in the 21st century, in order to live well with emerging technologies. As Vallor (2017) herself indicates, her book is a first, firm step in an academic journey that connects the virtue ethics tradition with philosophy and ethics of technology. For future research, it could be worth delving into the important distinction made by Aristotle between the virtues and the technai, the crafts; especially in the context of Heidegger’s (1977) highly influential critique of technology that, as for instance Wolff shows (Wolff 2008), draws heavily from Aristotle discussion of the virtues. This might draw discussions of technological mediation in philosophy of technology and virtue ethics closer together. Also, on a more practical note, it might be worth considering how Vallor’s approach could contribute to an ethical design approach such as value sensitive design (Friedman and Kahn 2002), in order to make it responsive to the development of the right kind of technical practices that cultivate the virtues.

 

 

Endnotes

1 This is a topic taken up by philosophers of technology such as Ihde (1990) and Verbeek (2005).
2 Even though the ‘victim’ was an actor who had to pretend that he was hurt by the simulated electric shocks, the experimental setup was sufficiently convincing for the participants to be conceived as being real. The overall outcome of this experiment was that 33 out of 40 research subjects continued the experiment after initial protests of the victim and that 26 of them continued through agonised screaming and a final unresponsive silence.

Wessel Reijers

European University Institute

Florence, Italy

References

Coeckelbergh, M. (2012) ‘Care Robots, Virtual Virtue and the Best Possible Life’, in Brey, P., Briggle, A., and Spence, E. (eds) The Good Life in a Technological Age. New York: Routledge.

Curzer, H. J. (2017) ‘Yesterday’s Virtue Ethicists Meet Tomorrow’s High Tech: A Critical Response to Technology and the Virtues by Shannon Vallor’, Philosophy and Technology. Philosophy & Technology, 31(2), pp. 283–292. doi: 10.1007/s13347-017-0269-z.

Ess, C. (2009) Digital Media Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Friedman, B. and Kahn, P. (2002) ‘Value sensitive design: Theory and methods’, University of Washington Technical, (December), pp. 1–8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2007.08.009.

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D. and Birney, M. E. (2014) ‘Nothing by mere authority: Evidence that in an experimental analogue of the milgram paradigm participants are motivated not by orders but by appeals to science’, Journal of Social Issues, 70(3), pp. 473–488. doi: 10.1111/josi.12072.

Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Graland Publishing, Inc.

Ihde, D. (1990) Technology and the Lifeworld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. doi: 10.1049/et:20060114.

Jonas, H. (1973) ‘Technology and Responsibility: Reflections on the New Tasks of Ethics’, Social Research, 40(1), pp. 31–54.

MacIntyre, A. (2007) After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Third Edit. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004.

Mcrae, E. (2017) ‘Finding a Place for Buddhismin the Ethics of the Future: Comments on Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting’, Philosophy and Technology. Philosophy & Technology, Advance On. doi: 10.1007/s13347-017-0287-x.

Merritt, M. W., Doris, J. M. and Harman, G. (2010) ‘Chapter 11: Character’, in Doris, J. M. (ed.) The Moral Psychology Handbook, pp. 1–504. doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199582143.001.0001.

Wolff, E. (2008) ‘Aspects of Technicity in Heidegger’s Early Philosophy: Rereading Aristotle’s Techné and Hexis’, Research in Phenomenology, 38, pp. 317–357.

Vallor, S. (2016) Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vallor, S. (2017) ‘Technology and the Virtues : a Response to My Critics’, Philosophy and Technology, 31(2), pp. 305–316. doi: 10.1007/s13347-017-0289-8.

Verbeek, P.-P. (2005) What things do; philosophical reflections on technology, agency, and design. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press.

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