Two Modes of Criticism of Technological Mastery

Within the popular imagination technological progress is typically viewed as a defining mark of the value of North American and Western European civilization. However, there are many vocal critics of the project of limitless technological progress and so called technological mastery. Some of these critics are deeply religious and motivated by their faith, while others are motivated by a more secular set of concerns. The objection that all of these critics have in common is not that we should not develop technology to help deal with certain problems, but that there is something problematic about a way of life that is dominated by forms of technological power that allows us to create or achieve anything that we desire. I want to look at two tradition that are critical of technological mastery. One is a rule based approach, and the other is virtue centred approach. I will argue that the latter is superior as it better captures our intuitions and is able to give a stronger account of what makes technological mastery problematic.

The rule based tradition lays out a whole catalogue of prohibitions against use of technology in certain areas of life, and in that sense can be said to provide a relatively comprehensive account of how technology ought to be used and developed. For example, within certain Christian circles this rule based approach dominates especially in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics. A whole set of rules are set out regarding which forms of procreation and sex are legitimate and which are not. For example, for some, reproduction using artificial means like artificial insemination, IVF and surrogacy are prohibited forms of reproduction. However, these rules are often just asserted as the word of God, or in the case of non-religious varieties of this approach, the voice of Reason or Nature. No account is given of why following these rules would help us to lead better lives. Furthermore, sometimes the argument is made within this tradition that we should not use unnatural or artificial techniques to achieve certain ends. But this account too does not justify itself, because in this context people are typically working with a teleological, or at least normative, conception of nature, which states that are certain ways of being in the world that are not justifiable because they are contrary to nature. However, this raises the question of why this conception of nature accurately captures our essence and how we ought to live, so until this question is answered the rule remains as an empty prohibition. So, this account does not really explain why technological mastery is problematic; it merely asserts it.

On the other hand, there is a virtue centred critique of technological mastery. The main thrust of this approach is that the problem with technological mastery is that it can inhibit the development of particular virtues such as temperance, moderation, patience and justice, among others. If our technological power allows us to get whatever we want by relatively effortlessly deploying some kind of instrument or technique then we are able to get more of what we want without having to engage in certain practises that are instrumental to and constitutive of the development of virtue. For example, imagine I can take a pill that gives me the body that I have always wanted; this pill requires no exercise or changes in diets for its results. Ordinarily, in order to develop the body that I want, I would have required discipline, patience, prudence and moderation so that I can properly alter my life to ensure that I exercise often enough and eat properly. Furthermore, perhaps even at the end I may have not gotten the body that I wanted, as it turned out to be an unachievable phantasm, in which case this development would help me to learn the virtue of acceptance of what is not in my control. While, this is but one example, it shows how if we have the technological power to get whatever we desire we are tempted into not engaging in practises that develop particular virtues. In essence, under conditions of technological mastery we are tempted to become beings dominated by will and desire who can get whatever they want. While getting whatever we want may seem attractive if this is done at the expense of development of virtue we become vacuous shells who simply will, desire and consume, and part of the dignity of humanity is that he is not merely a willing, desiring, consuming being, but a being who can develop certain qualities in himself such as courage, patience, generosity and compassion. Would humans be that valuable if we just willed, desired, and consumed, and never showed courage, generosity or love? Consequently, the project of technological mastery can threaten the development of virtue if we are tempted to pursue all of our goals through merely technological means that effortlessly allow us to get what we want, rather than practises that not only instrumentally develop virtues, but also form part of a way of life that is constitutive of a life of virtue.

What I mean by practises is recognizably influenced by the work of MacIntyre in After Virtue, although different from it, and can be best clarified if we look at something like a sport. Often people who play sports do so to win, and for the recognition, and honour they will achieve for winning, but sports require certain virtues in order to be played well whose point is not to win, but to play the game excellently. A good hockey player is not just one that scores lots of goals, but one that is a team player, is responsible in all parts of the game, and works hard under every circumstance. This is why a lot of people frown upon Phil Kessel, as while he scores many goals he does not exemplify the teamwork, defensive responsibility and industriousness that is constitutive of what it means to be a good hockey player. Many of the practises that ordinarily we engage in not only instrumentally help us to achieve certain admirable qualities (virtues), but constitute a part of a form of life that is valuable, at least in part, because it involves the practise of those virtues. Consequently, because virtues can only be realized through their practised, if practises that develop and involve the presence of particular virtues are replaced with an effortless technological solution that do not require these virtues we are in danger of losing the element of a good life that is constituted by the practise of virtue.

We can now see that what makes this virtue centred approach better than the rule based approach as it provides us with an image of what it means to be a well-developed person, and shows the way in which technology can threaten this. It does not just say this technological practise is bad, it points to the way in which it can harm our development and lives.

However, some followers of the rule based approach might point out that their rules imply a conception of virtue and that conception of virtue is what underlies the rules. Thus, the rules are only guides for how to become virtuous, they are not a replacement for a conception of virtue. While this is a coherent and intelligible response, it is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it makes rules derivative of virtue, and thus accepts the case that virtue is what is most fundamental in the critique of technological mastery. Furthermore this argument most would not support the conclusions that most followers of the rule based approach want to pursue, as typically they want quite specific rules about how to use technology, rather than an overarching approach of how to ensure that we avoid being tempted into not engaging in practises that develop and constitute the practise of the virtues. For example, those who have a moral prohibition against IVF, artificial insemination, and commercial surrogacy often do not have a problem with many other technologies that make our lives much more effortless and tend to eliminate other valuable practises. Their approach is thus inherently moralistic and code oriented. For them the evil is the use of technology itself in a certain area of life, not that the advent of technological solutions can threaten the existence of certain valuable practises.

Consequently, it seems that the virtue centred approach offers a much more compelling critique of technological mastery as it shows what goods are threatened by technological mastery, and how technological mastery threatens these good.

Theory, Habit and Agency

There is one image of the relationship between theory and human agency that I would like to problematize. This image suggests that human beings have certain theories and as a result of these theories they act in certain ways. On this image it as if the person engaged in sexual ecstasy is applying a theory of how to engage in sex. This image not only seems wrongheaded because it gives an implausible image of our agency, it is also problematic because it makes us think that the theories that people seem to buy into are what is fundamentally responsible for the state of the world. Theories certainly influence the world, but are rather one factor among many, rather than the dominant factor ruling our world.

It should seem obvious that while the theories we have influence our action they are often not the sole guide to our action as human agency tends towards the habitual and prereflective. We go about our day to day lives doing things habitually without really thinking about what we are doing. It is only at particular moments like when we encounter a problem or find ourselves captured by an insight that we begin to think theoretically about what we ought to do. At these moments theory seem to be the fundamental cause of our action, but when we are actually habitually we are acting on a prereflective understanding of the world which is often opaque to ourselves and not linguistically articulated. For example, when I play my guitar I do not think in order to play this song I need to hold my hand in this way, and move my hand this many times. Instead I have an embodied understanding of how to play this song and I can thoughtlessly engage in playing it. In fact it is when I start thinking about how to play the song that I stop being able to play the son well because my mind is then split between this embodied prereflective understanding of playing the song and more explicit thoughts. Of course when we learn to play a song on the guitar we have to think to get through it, but once we have developed the capacity to play it our understanding is a prereflective (or nonreflective) embodied understanding, as opposed to a theoretical understanding. Furthermore, this is not unique to the playing of instruments. When a kind person offers their seat to someone who needs it on the bus they typically do not do so thinking I ought to be kind, but rather just respond to the situation based on a prereflective sense of what they ought to do. Consequently, this theorycentric view of agency seems deeply problematic and implausible. For the sake of consistency I will refer to the view of agency critiqued above as “the theorycentric view.”

Nonetheless, while the theorycentric view seems implausible when we reflect it still seems to be the underlying assumption of a lot of social criticism and commentary on society. For example, we often hear that the reason for the decay of modern society is that the theories that people accept such as the notion of authenticity, or the theory of liberal individualism leads people to be selfish, narcissistic and vapid. These critiques seem to suggest that what is afflicting modern society is bad theories that are leading us to act badly. But if my critique of theorycentric view of agency is correct than it seems that this positing of theory as the reason behind modern problems is at best hyperbole, and at worst deeply misleading.

Certainly, the theories that people adopt will impact their actions but this is not the only factor impacting their action. Instead, in addition to the theories that people hold, the traits, habits, dispositions, qualities and embodied understandings that people possess will also impact their activity. For example, I can think of many times in my life where I have engaged in some action as a result of a habit or disposition that was opposed to one of the theories that I held about the world. In particular, I loathe cowardice at a theoretical level, but because I have developed the habit of being agreeable, polite and somewhat conflict averse I sometimes will not challenge people’s ideas even when I find them repugnant. On reflection this failure to challenge is a mark of cowardice, as at that moment I lacked the courage to stand up for what I believe in. As a result we can see that theories are not the fundamental cause underlying the state of the world, as there are other factors at play, such as habit and embodied understandings, which seem to be at least equally determinative of our actions and consequently the state of the world. Therefore, it seems that social criticism cannot just focus on being critical of people’s ideas, but rather must focus on fully understanding and critiquing the habits, dispositions and embodied understandings that people have, as these nontheatrical elements of agency impact action and are not reducible to any particular theory that people hold.