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Tool Without A Handle: Spirituality, Virtue, and Technology Ethics”

"If one loves righteousness, whose works are virtues,She teaches moderation and prudence, righteousness and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful than these." Book of Wisdom 8:7

A review of Shannon Vallor’s excellent book Technology and the Virtues, which details perspectives on virtue from Aristotle, Confucius, and Buddhist perspectives, suggests the inquiry would benefit from engagement with Christian Neo-Platonic and derivative perspectives.[1] I agree, though here I extend the engagement to a more general set of Christian perspectives on virtue.

I say “more general” quite intentionally, as I think the examination of virtue ethics and technology will most benefit from a more general treatment of Christian ethics. That’s in part for economy; there’s not room in a blog post to fully compare, e.g., the Neo-Platonic authors noted in that book review, such as Augustine and Bonaventure, and modern thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich, impacted by more recent trends such as existentialism and post-modern philosophy.

This inquiry is also not to posit that Christian doctrine should become law; I’ve written critically of that position elsewhere.[2] Even apart from concerns with civil liberties, Christian scriptures are often more inspirational than instructional. Psalm 139, for example, is cited by both anti-abortion and pro-LGBT interest groups.[3] Christian teaching can inform issues of life, autonomy, sexuality, and social inclusion, but that process needs to acknowledge that the Psalmist, and other biblical authors, were often writing poetically rather than legalistically.[4]

Law and policy should continue to be established through democratic processes and rigorous debate, free from constrains of a state religion. Every political actor, after all, has a world view. And as I’ve written before, there are real weaknesses in law and policy not sustained by broad consensus, no matter how logical or moral those laws and policies may seem)[5]. My point is only to say Christianity can, like Aristotle, Confucius, and Buddha’s teachings, inform what constitutes virtue, how to cultivate it, and how to apply it to technology policy.

Finally, to the extent “Christian” is seen to stand for beliefs that are judgmental, primitive, exclusionary or anti-scientific, I sadly understand why some would hold that perspective. Christianity contains groups and beliefs that possess those characteristics. But a Christianity co-opted by political and economic powers, white supremacists, or homophobia is not mine,[6] and it is not presented here.

For understanding virtue and the ethics of technology, we can look to a Christianity emphasizing universal love and reconciliation for all people, of all types (including race, gender, sexual orientation). We can look to a Christianity that aims at deriving a “communal meaning and significance” of suffering, one available to all regardless of their particular worship practices.[7] A Christianity emphasizing humility[8] is preferable to one emphasizing difference and retribution.[9] The goal is to be a candle, not a torch.[10]

Christian Perspective on Virtue

It’s with that framing in mind, then, that I list below 5 candidate Christian concepts to inform contemporary discussion of technology, ethics, and virtue.

Their informational power derives not only from the strength of their insights but also from broad consensus between Christians and other faith traditions on key points, and from the contrast between this perspective on virtue and other common assumptions about technology and human nature.

I’ll address only the first of these in this post (sequels to follow), but for completeness the principles are:

Human beings are not consistently rational actors;

Consumer preferences are not always the same as consumer interests;

Winning is not the most important thing;

Solitude matters as much as engagement;

The optimal situation is neither order nor anarchy but one allowing flow between those states.

Principle #1: Human beings are not consistently rational actors

Technology and the Virtues is such an important book, in part, because it re-centers the technology / ethics conversation on human beings, rather than on technology. Much conversation has focused on some variation of “what technology is doing to us.”[11] But “us” are, of course, both the creators and the users of technology, and we are the interpreters of what meaning to give to tools, events, and ideas. That act of interpretation and application of meaning can be too often conceived of as a rational calculation; one that neutrally and efficiently weighs one own’s interests in arriving at preferences.

Assuming that rational calculations are at work in producing undesired outcomes, critiques of technology and its effects line up against various “rational calculation” principles of social organization thought to inform technology design, use and commercialization: consumerism, libertarianism, and rational choice theory.[12]

In contrast, consider St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, where the author observes the strange and decidedly non-rational phenomenon of doing what he hates, rather than what he wants, along with some befuddlement as to why this happens.[13] Christianity is well aware humans are often guided more by sub-conscious adaptations and mental shortcuts than by objective analysis and rational choice.[14]

The “ego is the enemy” as one author put it.[15] Which is to say, importantly, that the person is not the enemy; the person is not the problem. The person is goodness, worthy, and worthy of love. It is only that the person may be “asleep,” guided by voices and beliefs formed without full awareness, clung to as a comforting illusion. Divine wisdom is also a birthright for everyone and everything.[16]

Put differently, Christians do not shy away from the reality of evil, and in particular from the fact that evil is less about individual failures than about collective indifference and rationalization of wrongdoing.[17] Cyber-utopian views asserting that online communities will naturally affiliate in a cooperative manner[18] have been undermined by recent facts, to be sure, but a Christian perspective on virtue would not have assumed communities would be naturally benevolent in the first place.

This understanding of human nature makes itself known in both privacy and data security matters. With respect to data security, there are few more useful and concise statements than the “Charney Theorem,” which states: “there’s always a percentage of the population up to no good.”[19] That is, despite the personal and legal risks of engaging in online crime, it will persist as an attractive pursuit, often for financial gain or espionage, but at times solely for purposes of egoic gratification.[20]

Or, with respect to privacy, it makes itself known through advocacy seeking to shift emphasis from notice and choice to ethically bounded design choices. These advocates start from an assumption that online users are less rational actors who read privacy notices and decide accordingly, but instead habitual and impulsive actors susceptible to influence by application design.[21]

This is sometimes expressed with reference to faults in privacy policies themselves, i.e., that they are too long, too hard to read, and/or don’t convey useful information.[22] In other cases, though, criticism captures that we are not always rational actors, prone to acceptance of illusions or misinterpretations of privacy disclosures,[23] or given to trade off our own well-being for immediate gratification.[24]

Technology and the Virtues notes, to this point, that virtue requires cultivation.[25] To that, then, we can add a sense that virtue is not necessarily the dominant feature of human nature; that our passions are at war within us.[26] Guilty disobedience is, after all, the prominent point of the first story in the Bible concerning human beings. Whatever the role of the snake in that garden, it is human choices that defy God’s instructions, just as it is human choices who would rather crucify Jesus than honor his teachings.

It’s important, therefore, to design and operate technology from the assumption, then, that human beings will find ways to misuse it to cause harm to themselves and others. And that human beings will find ways around rules and settings designed to discourage such harms. And therefore, to set a path towards defining virtue, and applying rules to advance it, that incorporates Christian understanding of human weakness (though bearing in mind that is not the same thing as human guilt).[27] And so the “privacy paradox,”[28] for example, is less a product of technology than a product of human nature.

This helps frame the stage for discussion of Principle #2: that consumer preferences are not always the same as consumer interests. Technology and the Virtues acknowledges this principle, though indirectly, in its prescriptive components. For example, Vallor writes that, to make progress towards better ethics for technology use, we must first enhance the moral capacity of human beings and establish the value of moral goods over the “immediate, subjective and often arbitrary preferences of private individuals.”[29]

Just as we can study Christianity’s description of human beings containing self-interest and blindness, along with divinity and worth, for greater understanding of the “my actions don’t match my stated preferences” privacy paradox, we can study the same concepts for an understanding of why a rule elevating the satisfaction of stated preferences is incomplete as a principle of virtue.

The instruction is to recognize those preferences are rooted in unawareness. We do not know, as St. Paul says, what we ought to pray for.[30] This points to ethical weakness if the goal of technology is framed as delivering the content our behavior suggests we value most (i.e., to deliver content designed to maximize the time people spend engaged with a technology platform).[31] Better to recognize our preferences are at best crude proxies for our genuine self-interest[32] and design tools to foster something other than gratification of preferences. More on that in the next post on these principles.

I want to stop first, though, to emphasize the equally important point that human preferences are not exclusively self-interested, fickle, guided by the subconscious or lacking in capacity for discernment. Within each person, of any status, race, sexual or gender identity, age, or religious practice, is the divine and the good. As I began with, I think it’s a mistake to place blame on what technology is “doing to us.”

Thus, comparing information technology to tobacco or brain implants,[33] gives insufficient weight to the extraordinary capacity for discernment each of us hold, and to the divine virtue that grows with personal discipline and practice. So I will end this post by noting St. Paul’s lament for his absence of self-control comes with a note of hope: though we do not know what we ought to pray for, and we do not always act rationally, we are fortunate that there is a Spirit who intercedes for us.[34]

Or, to put it in more modern terms, in the “software” of our DNA is a superior human capacity, one that can hear divine goodness. Rather than ignore it and treat humans as inexorably enslaved to our prejudices, a principle of virtue should aim at not only changes in technology design but also at defining a social consensus of personal accountability to emotional growth. It’s on us, not our tools, to “wake up” and thus to yield the change of mind needed to foster virtue.

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