Shannon Vallor’s “technomoral virtues”

Shannon Vallor is the first Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the Edinburgh Futures Institute. She is the author of Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting. She believes that we need to build and cultivate a new virtue ethics appropriate to our technological era. The following summarizes some of her arguments and observations:

Why Do We Need New Virtues?

Vallor believes that we need to discover and cultivate a new set of virtues that is appropriate to the onslaught of technological change that marks our era. This for several reasons, including:

  • Technology is extending our reach, so that our decisions have effects with broader ethical implications than traditional moral wisdom is prepared to cope with.

  • Technology is also starting to make human-like (un)ethical decisions.

  • We exist in a time of “acute technosocial opacity” — that is, technology is reshaping our societies and our potentials much more rapidly than we can be aware of, react to, or understand the implications of.

  • Technology has also given us a new ethical concern: existential risk. We have entered technological realms that contain threats to human existence as a whole. And some of the problems we are encountering require collective action, not just individual moral decisions.

Why Virtue Ethics?

Most historical ethical philosophers have considered the human condition to be roughly static and universal (perhaps with some allowance for cultural differences, divine revelation, or slow moral progress). The resulting philosophies are too brittle for our current situation. In particular, deontological/​Kantian rules are too inflexible to keep up with technological change, and consequentialist/​utilitarian calculation is nigh impossible as the future becomes increasingly difficult to predict.

However, Vallor believes the older tradition of “virtue ethics” is up to the challenge. This is in part because it is potentially more flexible and better able to cope with environmental change and uncertainty. It is a form of ethics that has been rediscovered and redesigned to fit specific cultural and historical niches in the past, and we can again rediscover and redesign it today to come up with “technomoral virtues” appropriate to our time.

In the opening chapters, Vallor reviews what virtue ethics is, and looks at three virtue ethics traditions in particular: Aristotle’s, Buddhism, and Confucian ethics (the ABCs). She hopes to find the commonalities in those traditions and then use them as a foundation for creating her new technomoral virtues.

A virtue ethic has the following characteristics:

  1. “A conception of the ‘highest human good’”

  2. “A conception of moral virtues as cultivated states of character, manifested by… exemplary persons”

  3. “A conception of the practical path of moral self-cultivation”

  4. “A conception of what human beings are generally like“

Vallor believes we need new “technomoral” virtues because our new technologies bring along with them new better-or-worse ways of interacting with, using, and designing them. To be a human being today means to be in a technological context, so in order to human well, one must tech well.

So for example, the new potential for global communication that we have now is a new human phenomenon. There are worthwhile ends/​goods achievable through this (for example, “global community, intercultural understanding, global justice, human security, and collective human wisdom”); and so we need to identify and cultivate the virtues that help us to achieve those ends/​goods.

How to Cultivate the Virtues

How does one practice moral self-cultivation? After reviewing the ABCs, Vallor says these are the core elements of the process:

  • “Moral Habituation”

    • “A gradual transition from an uncultivated state to a morally habituated one;

    • “One typically motivated and guided by moral exemplars in the community;

    • “One effected by repeated moral practice of right (or nearly right) conduct that strikes the appropriate mean relative to the circumstances;

    • “A practice that gradually accustoms the individual to actions which were previously seen as painful or unattractive;

    • “Which eventually leads to greater comfort, ease, pleasure, and even joy in performing moral action, enabling the cultivation of the virtue of temperate self-control or discipline;

    • “Which in turn enables and strengthens the ongoing commitment to moral self-cultivation required for more specific moral habits to be developed and integrated;

    • “The full development and integration of which constitute the achievement of, or increasing approximation to, a genuinely virtuous character — that is, a cultivated state of moral excellence that promotes a life of flourishing with others.”

  • “Relational Understanding”

    • Ethical decisions take place in the context of specific human relationships and from the perspective of particular human roles. Virtue ethics is skeptical of “an impartial observer” or “the veil of ignorance” or other such thought experiments of other ethical systems. To behave ethically, you have to be attentive to these relationships and roles and to how they interact.

  • “Reflective Self-Examination”

    • Know thyself. You can best improve if you know your particular weaknesses (otherwise you have to rely on less-useful general-purpose advice). Regularly reflect on your specific daily behavior and examine it in the light of your ideals/​aspirations. Correct your faults and take pride in your improvement.

  • “Intentional Self-Direction of Moral Development”

    • This is an important stage in moral development in which you take responsibility for your character and identify the virtuous life as what you personally, sincerely aspire to. Maslow’s hierarchy comes into play here, as this is harder to do unless you have some basic needs met first. Getting to this stage makes the process go a lot easier, as you realize being virtuous is what you want to do and what you value.

  • “Perceptual Attention to Moral Salience”

    • Be attentive to the salient facts of the situation you’re in that potentially call for or shape virtuous action. Understand the truth about those facts and also why they are morally salient. Unfortunately, says Vallor, the question of how to develop this sort of attention and insight is “undertheorized in classical virtue ethics”.

  • Prudential Judgment

    • “[T]he cultivated ability to deliberate and choose well, in particular situations, among the most appropriate and effective means available for achieving a noble or good end.”

  • “Appropriate Extension of Moral Concern”

    • Especially in our new global, technologically-connected context, it takes a lot of deliberate attention to know how to appropriately extend moral concern “appropriately — that is, to the right beings, at the right time, to the right degree, and in the right manner.” Vallor says this is “the most challenging to cultivate” but mentions the “exchanging self and others” meditations in Mahayana Buddhism as one example.

What Are the “Technomoral” Virtues?

Vallor then presents her proposed list of “twelve technomoral virtues” — as a starting point, not a dogma (she reminds us that whatever virtues we choose today need to be provisional, and we should remain flexible enough to adopt new virtues as our technological environment evolves new human excellences that demand them). For each of her proposed virtues, she consults the ABCs and also asks how this virtue looks in a specifically technological context. Here they are in a nutshell:

  1. honesty (related to trust, reliability, and integrity) — “an exemplary respect for truth, along with practical expertise to express that respect appropriately in technosocial contexts”

  2. self control (temperance, discipline, moderation, patience) — “an exemplary ability in technosocial contexts to choose, and ideally to desire for their own sake, those goods and experiences that most contribute to contemporary and future human flourishing”

  3. humility (modesty, reverence, wonder) — “a recognition of the real limits of our technological knowledge and ability; reverence and wonder at the universe’s retained power to surprise and confound us; and renunciation of the blind faith that new technologies inevitably lead to human mastery and control of our environment”

  4. justice (responsibility, fairness, reciprocity, beneficence) — “a reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies [and] a characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups“

  5. courage (hope, perseverance, fortitude) — “a reliable disposition toward intelligent fear and hope with respect to the moral and material dangers and opportunities presented by emerging technologies”

  6. empathy (compassion, benevolence, sympathy, charity) — “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (in particular, distinguished from various forms of “virtue signalling”)

  7. care (generosity, love, service, charity) — “a skillful, attentive, responsible, and emotionally responsive disposition to personally meet the needs of those with whom we share our technosocial environment”

  8. civility (respect, tolerance, engagement, friendship) — “a sincere disposition to live well with one’s fellow citizens of a globally networked information society: to collectively and wisely deliberate about matters of local, national, and global policy and political action; to communicate, entertain, and defend our distinct conceptions of the good life; and to work cooperatively toward those goods of technosocial life that we seek and expect to share with others”

  9. flexiblity (patience, forbearance, tolerance, equanimity, mercy) — “a reliable and skillful disposition to modulate action, belief, and feeling as called for by novel, unpredictable, frustrating, or unstable technosocial conditions”

  10. perspective (discernment, attention, understanding) — “a reliable disposition to attend to, discern, and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole”

  11. magnanimity (equanimity, courage, ambition) — something like Aristotle’s “great souledness” — a sort of moral ambition or leadership that scoffs at petty arguments and ego-driven squabbles and adopts a well-earned nobility of character.

  12. techno moral wisdom — integrated moral living by means of the seven components of “moral habituation” (see above) and the above eleven virtues