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Living well in the technosocial world – a review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues

When new technologies are unveiled the conversation is usually dominated by excited comments regarding all of the things for which these newfangled devices or platforms will be good. This new smartphone will be better for taking pictures than any phone to have come before it, this social media platform will make it even easier to share things with your friends and family, this Internet of Things home assistant will make it a snap to order groceries, and the list goes on. New technologies invite would be users to think of what those devices will do for them, but rarely ask the same users to consider what those devices will do to them. Yet, what is often missing from the discussion of all of the ways in which a given technology is good, is a serious consideration of the ways in which this technology impacts our conception of the good.

According to the philosopher Shannon Vallor, our present moment demands that we (as individuals and collectively) work to cultivate, what she terms, “technomoral virtues.” This need flows from the fact that, to a significant extent, “our daily lives are technologically conditioned” (2), and thus we ignore the ethical implications of the technologies we use at our own (and our collective) peril. While a range of thinkers have sought to draw upon various philosophical traditions to develop an ethics for technology, in Technology and the Virtues, Vallor argues that the tradition of virtue ethics is particularly well-suited for developing the type of “technomoral” attitudes needed to allow humans to flourish, not in spite of technology, but alongside it. Technology and the Virtues is an immensely timely book, and a useful guide to the sorts of questions that need to be asked. Admittedly, it is a book that does not proffer a set of simple solutions, but as Vallor wonderfully demonstrates we don’t need simplistic solutions, we need “ethical strategies.”

The “technosocial” world in which we live is one wherein our technologies cannot be safely fenced off, instead our changing technologies are “embedded in co-evolving social practices, values, and institutions” (5). Yet, even in the midst of the “technosocial” our ability to discern where we are going, or where we even are now, is quite deficient. As Vallor notes, we are beset by “growing technosocial blindness” a condition she calls “acute technosocial opacity” which makes it “increasingly difficult to identify, seek, and secure the ultimate goal of ethics—a life worth choosing; a life lived well” (6). Our “acute technosocial opacity” keeps us from recognizing that when we choose to use certain technologies we may be choosing to go along with these technologies’ vision of “a life lived well” instead of our own. Alas, the vision of the “life lived well” by many of these technologies is simply a life that supplies an endless stream of data to be processed and sold to advertisers; it can be profoundly antihumanistic and relentlessly capitalistic. Indeed, many of the habits that technologies seem to encourage and celebrate are the opposite of virtues: they are vices.

While terms such as “virtue” and the figure of the “virtuous person” may seem outdated, Vallor highlights that a “virtuous person” is someone “not merely conceived as good” but someone “moving toward the accomplishment of a good life; that is, they are living well” (19). This “moving toward” is a key element of the virtuous life, for virtue has less to do with the dogmatic following of rigid moral principles, and more to do with the careful consideration of what is morally appropriate in each particular situation. And the bevy of new technological situations that confront people today provide for ample opportunities to reflect upon what is morally appropriate in such situations. After providing a useful summary of past attempts to develop ethical approaches to technology, Vallor considers the common threads that can be found amongst a variety of classic approaches to virtue ethics. Looking to Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist virtue ethics Vallor notes that all three share conceptions of: “the highest human good,” “moral virtues as cultivated states of character, manifested by those exemplary persons,” a “practical path to moral self-cultivation,” and an idea “of what human beings are generally like” (44). Such a comparison is key for Vallor’s argument as she emphasizes that what is needed is “a global technomoral virtue ethic” and for it to succeed it will need to “resonate broadly enough to motivate significant social cooperation on a global scale” (52). And the need for this “technomoral virtue ethic” to function at a global level, Vallor emphasizes, is key as “no one on the planet today is fully insulated from the failures of human beings to jointly and wisely deliberate about the collective impact of their actions” (53). From the technologically caused drivers of climate change to technological solutions to that existential threat, and from new social network platforms to ever more capable robots – the impacts of new technologies are felt by people all over the world.

While highlighting, and arguing for the continued validity, of various key elements of the classic schools of virtue ethics, Technology and the Virtues presents a framework of twelve specific “technomoral virtues” that are presented as the “most” crucial. These are: “Honesty, Self-Control, Humility, Justice, Courage, Empathy, Care, Civility, Flexibility, Perspective, Magnanimity, and Technomoral Wisdom” (120). While many of these virtues may seem (hopefully!) familiar, Vallor presents them in a new light by emphasizing what they mean in a specifically technosocial context. These twelve key virtues are not cast in terms of optimism or pessimism, but as ways of thinking about what it means to act rightly in relation to technology and other people. Amidst the onslaught of social media “honesty” takes on a new gloss, “self-control” becomes linked to our ability to avoid checking a smartphone every 30 seconds, “humility” recognizes the need to admit that there are limits to our knowledge, “courage” to face our true hopes and fears as they relate to technologies, “empathy” not just to allow ourselves to be moved by what we see/learn about others through technology but also the chutzpah to do something about it beyond hitting “like” or “retweet,” and “technomoral wisdom” the continual pursuit of a “general condition” that allows for the rest of the “technomoral virtues” to be expressed “in order to live well with emerging technologies” (154). Were Technology and the Virtues nothing more than a short treatise on these twelve technomoral virtues, the book would still be immensely valuable, and well worth reading. Luckily there is much more to the book, and in the book’s final chapters Vallor applies these virtues to some of the emerging situations with which these virtues will need to reckon to demonstrate the utility of this framework.

Social media represents an important technosocial challenge, and one with which every social media user is at least vaguely familiar. That social media platforms can so often leave users angry, jealous, lonely, embittered, apathetic, or feeling “addicted” to the platforms demonstrate the need for technomoral virtues. Recognizing that “consumption itself is the most valued activity of citizens” (166), Vallor dares to ask what kinds of technologies could be developed and used if those doing the developing and the using practiced greater “technomoral” care, and possessed greater wisdom. Evidently “the new Eden of social media has yet to fulfill its promise” and “thus let us ask not what social media technologies are doing to us and our world, but what our technologies are doing with us, and what we ought to do with them” (181).

While a common refrain in philosophical circles is Socrates’ famous remark “the unexamined life is not worth living,” this line undergoes an interesting transformation in light of life amidst ubiquitous surveillance. Is the life in which every step and every calorie is carefully recorded really more of an “examined life”? As Vallor makes clear “a dataset is not a life at all,” and all of these self-surveillance technologies provide another opportunity to dwell upon what type of ethics (what vision of the good life) undergirds these devices. It is not, in Vallor’s estimate, that these technologies cannot provide some useful assistance in nudging people in various directions, but that these nudges may lead people to “relinquish” their “moral lives…into the shapes programmed by Silicon Valley software engineers and technocrats” (204). After all, it’s one thing to turn over keeping track of your schedule to your smartphone, but it’s another thing to turn over moral responsibility for your behavior to your smartphone.

Robots represent a particularly thorny technosocial (and thus technomoral) challenge: particularly as the term “robots” includes everything from the machines that replace workers on the assembly line, to companions and assistants for the infirm, to machines that rain death from the skies, to automated vacuum cleaners. Thus to treat “robots” as any single thing is to risk being reductive – yet robots raise some particular issues. Will military robots make it so that the nations with those robots are less wary of going to war as they know that none of their own soldiers will be killed? And in terms of care robots: what happens to virtues like empathy and care when such trying tasks can be passed on to robots? While robots may seem to provoke particularly worrisome issues, there is still time to think through the matter: “this is not the time to surrender our moral hope. Rather it is time to cultivate renewed technomoral courage” (218).

The scale of the technosocial challenges humans face are daunting. Challenges raised by new technologies seem to pop up daily, even as the consequences of years of unwise technology use endanger the planet (climate change), and as old technological demons reemerge to threaten life again (nuclear weapons). A central question that undergirds much of the present situation is thus the matter of “knowing what it is that we ought to wish for” (241). To some, such as transhumanists or accelerationists, the desire may simply be for unfettered technological progress even if this results in widespread social (and moral) regression; while for some there may be a desire to apply the brakes to much technological development until the implications can be truly determined. Yet as Vallor notes: “if we lack the virtue to safely push ahead, we also lack the virtue to safely stay put. We are at an impasse, and the cultivation of technomoral virtue is our only way forward” (243). Technological troubles lurk on the horizon but by cultivating the proper technomoral virtues people (and societies) will be able to face these situations wisely and successfully. It is true that there is much in history that may make it seem that humanity will not rise to the challenge, but as Vallor reminds her readers: “humans are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past” (253).

With Technology and the Virtues, Shannon Vallor has not simply written an excellent book, she has written an important book. There can be little doubt that living in the technosocial world requires grappling with the ethical implications of emerging technologies and this is a case that Vallor makes with insight, wit, well-chosen examples, and without brow-beating her readers. This is not a book that treats technology in a facile or reductive way, rather it recognizes the complexity and puts forth an appropriately nuanced ethical vision that has space for (even hinges upon) an acceptance of the difficulties ahead. In short, this is not “black and white” morality for those desperate for easy solutions, this is morality for adults. It is a type of morality that is desperately needed particularly at a time when so much technology seems to infantilize people. While the book’s sixth chapter (wherein Vallor lays out the 12 technomoral virtues) should, in and of itself, be required reading, the way in which Vallor applies these virtues in the chapters on emerging technologies proves Vallor’s point that virtue ethics are well-suited to technosocial problems.

Technology and the Virtues is a book that manages to simultaneously be fiercely radical and impressively conservative. These terms are not meant here in terms of the way they are generally bandied about in popular political discourse. But, in truth, there does seem to be something faintly conservative about concepts like “virtue” and “the good life,” and Vallor acknowledges that “virtue ethics stood in general disfavor in the West for much of the 19th and 20th centuries” (20). Alas, a person who speaks too much about “virtue” will likely find that they receive many eye-rolls and occasionally get denounced as being a fuddy-duddy. And, granted, some of the challenge likely has to do with the way in which “technological progress” has become synonymous with “progress” and thus any who criticize such “progress” may find themselves tarred as inherently backwards, romantic, technophobic, or as a carrier of Luddite tendencies. Or, to put it slightly differently, people who love their iPhones will likely chafe against anything that makes them question whether or not such devices are really their friends.

Thus, there is something extremely radical (in the best sense) about Vallor’s book, insofar as she dares to raise the question of “the good life.” Are we leading the “good life”? Are these technologies helping us to live such a life? What do these technologies mean, in terms of that life, for other people? Can “the good life” of the smartphone user truly be considered “good” if it requires the exploitation of those who assembled the phone and the eventual poisoning of those who will live nearby the e-waste dump where the phone goes to eventually rest? Such questions recall the opposition that the great 20th century social critic Lewis Mumford drew out regarding the difference between “the good life” and “the goods life.” Alas, living amidst the world of gadgets, it increasingly feels that it is “the goods life” that is ascendant. Vallor is not arguing for the virtue of the ascetic hermit who retreats from a decadent society to practice a virtuous life in the woods, rather this book argues for the engaged pursuit of virtue by those who are willing to put forth a vision of the good life and then fight for it.

Lurking in the background of Technology and the Virtues – along with Aristotle, Confucius, and Buddha – is the philosopher Hans Jonas whose comment “we need wisdom most when we believe in it least” is cited at several junctures throughout the book. Jonas’s classic book The Imperative of Responsibility (1984) as well as his essay “Toward a Philosophy of Technology” (1979) both represent important touchstones in terms of the discussion of ethics and technology. To be frank, these are works in which Jonas is less than optimistic. Indeed, The Imperative of Responsibility builds much of its argument around the precautionary principle, with Jonas repeatedly emphasizing that “the prophecy of doom is to be given greater heed than the prophecy of bliss” (Jonas, 31). Much of Jonas’s concern was focused on nuclear weapons, and his argument was that in assessing a new technology (or whether to even develop it) the focus needed to be placed on the worst case scenario. Some may dismiss of such a stance as “backwards looking,” but the point is that when looking forward to the future Jonas did not blinker himself from noticing all of the ruins. It may be easy to dismiss of Jonas’s concern as hyperbolic, but it is important to emphasize that Jonas and philosophers of his ilk philosophized out of the memory of World War II wherein technological advances turned a continent into a charnel house. This was hard-won pessimism, informed by experiences that saw more reasons for concern than reasons to be hopeful. And to be frank, Jonas was a fair bit more optimistic than many of his contemporaries like Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, and Jonas’s personal friend Günther Anders. All of which is to say, that the pessimism of thinkers like Jonas deserves to be taken serious. For it was a pessimism born of life experiences that wholly justified dark premonitions. Indeed, it does not take much speculation to argue that the likes of Jonas, Ellul, Anders, and Mumford would not have been in the least surprised by our current technosocial morass. Though they might dolefully note that they had tried to warn us.

The reason to focus on Jonas is because he troubles the measured hopefulness of Technology and the Virtues. Vallor takes great care throughout the book to walk the line between optimism and pessimism, carefully insulating herself from charges of being “anti-technology,” but it seems that it is worth asking whether there is some merit in (an albeit limited) degree of technological-pessimism? After all, at risk of being provocative, is not a book arguing that a technomoral virtue is sorely needed a little bit of a confirmation that this virtue is dangerously lacking? Such an argument would not have surprised the aforementioned thinkers who lamented that humanity’s morality had not kept pace with its heightened technological powers. Jonas argued that humans confronted with their technological capabilites desperately needed to assume responsibility for their actions, and Vallor’s book seems to confirm that since Jonas’s time most humans have not truly risen to that challenge. This, of course, is not to deny the many worthwhile technological achievements that have been made since Jonas’s lifetime –rather it is to highlight that the problem is not strictly optimism or pessimism, but what people do with these stances. And it is worth considering which of the two is more likely to motivate people to make the types of changes that are necessary, especially if those changes are difficult. If a person trusts Elon Musk and/or Mark Zuckerberg to save the day, why should that person accept more personal responsibility? Certainly, shrugging off such responsibility is a failure of many of Vallor’s technomoral virtues – but is it the techno-optimists or the techno-pessimists who are encouraging people to invest their trust in the likes of Musk?

Staking a firm claim to moral absolutes may not be particularly productive, but even amidst a nuanced account of virtue there may be some space for drawing clearer oppositions. Writing about military robots, Vallor emphasizes that “as with all technologies” these “are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ in themselves; yet they afford or invite human choices and habits of varying virtue or vice” (213). This is an important point, but drawing upon a more pessimistic line of thinking (a la Jonas) – would it not be fair to say that there really are certain technologies that do not “afford or invite” any good choices at all? Jonas certainly seemed to argue that nuclear weapons were one such technology. And if we accept that some technologies actually are genuinely “bad” than what are we to do with them? How do we deconstruct the technological systems that are inimical to virtue and the good life? Furthermore, how do we put control of technological development into the hands of those who demonstrate that they have technomoral wisdom?

Of course, these are questions that do not have simple answers. And these are questions that are all the more challenging because merely asking them is uncomfortable. Those who feel a compulsion to check their phone every minute, those who always log off social media feeling worse than they felt when they logged on, those who worry about what modern technology does to the planet – all of these people may feel that there are real shortcomings with the technosocial condition…but how far are they willing to go to address these feelings? That is not clear.  And, importantly, those who have grown accustomed to the faint buzz of military drones flying over their homes probably have a much different conception of the morality of those drones (and those controlling them) than the engineers developing such machines. Nevertheless, the technomoral virtues that Vallor writes about provide a key starting point for navigating our technosocial morass. The virtuous life is not so much a destination as it is a journey, one of constant assessment, careful reasoning, and self-improvement. And when confronting the technosocial world there are few questions more important than what these things mean for “the good life.” Especially if we show the moral courage to recognize that a “good life” for some that relies on a wretched life for others, is not actually a “good life” at all.

Technology and the Virtues is an important book, it is troubling in all of the best ways. Reading the book does not provide a person with a simple cheat sheet for living a “good life” informed by technomoral wisdom – but reading it is certainly a valuable step in the pursuit of such a life.


The Book:

Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting

by: Shannon Vallor

Oxford University Press, 2016


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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

2 comments on “Living well in the technosocial world – a review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues

  1. James
    August 27, 2017

    Ellul was the first thing that popped into my mind after I read this sentence. “Vallor emphasizes that “as with all technologies” these “are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ in themselves…” Ellul wrote The Technological Society precisely to refute that claim and does a masterful job IMO. Whatever technology may ultimately be (good or bad) it most certainly is not neutral.

  2. michaelj51
    August 28, 2017

    Reblogged this on snave51.

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