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.

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Unity and Disunity of the Self : Is a unified self a suppressed self?

In the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle the idea that humans could, and should, become unified selves is strongly defended, yet how plausible is this idea? It seems that while there are some reasons to question whether unity is valuable goal, unity gives us the best possible chance to live rich, fully developed lives.

The idea of a unified self posits that all parts of one’s being are integrated in a harmonious way such that one is not conflicted and being driven in one direction by one element of oneself and in one direction by another element of oneself. The Platonic tripartite division of the soul is the classic statement of the idea of the unified self. For Plato, there are three parts of the soul. There is the rational part of the soul, the spirited part of the soul and the appetitive part of the soul. The rational part of the soul must be in control of the other two parts of the soul, so that one is not driven apart by the different desires associated with the spirited and appetitive parts of the soul. This notion of unity is so attractive, because disunity would mean that one was enslaved to particular parts of one’s soul. Whereas, unity would correspond with self-mastery in that one is ordering one’s own soul through reason. Here, it should be noted that when Plato spoke of a soul he merely was referring to animacy, rather than something like the Christian conception of the soul, so soul is not being opposed to body in this context.

Contrastingly, the ideal of unity is seen to be problematic by many for a couple of reasons. Firstly, very few of us if any seem to be able to achieve unity. It seems likely that we all remain slaves to some degree to particular desires and we are driven willy-nilly by them. Consequently, this unity of the self may be an unachievable ideal. Secondly, unity is seen as problematic because any unity may come at the cost of suppressing something fundamental about being human. On this view, there are various fundamental part of the self, and any unity we achieve will come at the expense of something else. For example, if we unify ourselves through reason we will be suppressing the vitality of our emotional life, and if we put our emotions in control we may be suppressing the rational part of our nature. This is powerful critique of the ideal of unity as it seems intuitive to think that if we put one part of our self in control this would suppress other elements of the self that are vitally important to who we are.

The first criticism of the ideal of unity can quite easily be countered by pointing to the fact that even though most of us fail to achieve unity, we tend to know at least one person who has approached this ideal or met it. It may not be an ideal that all can achieve, but it does not seem to be out of reach of all human beings by any stretch of the imagination.

The second criticism poses a deeper challenge but it can be rebutted. While it may be true that there are a variety of elements of the self that are vitally important our humanity, there is really no attractive way of living that does not involve developing the self into some kind of unity. The alternative to unity would be merely to follow whatever drive catches you at that given moment, and to live in this way is to merely be a slave of whatever drive you happen to be beholden to at a particular time. In this case you are not truly self-directing, or in control of the direction of your life. Consequently, the alternative to unity hardly seems attractive.

Even though the alternative to unity presented above seems unattractive I have still not shown why unity might be more attractive. It is that task that I will handle for the rest of this entry. The danger with unity is that we will suppress something fundamental about ourselves and because of that live a life that is impoverished in a certain regard. However, this danger is an inescapable part of living itself, rather than a danger that is associated with the ideal of unity. No matter how we live we will have to make choices that guide us down certain paths and draw us away from others. For example if I choose to live my life as a political activist, this means foregoing the life of a solitary monk. In some sense by making this choice I am in danger of impoverishing myself, as I may fail to develop a tranquil spirit because of the choice that I have made, but if I had chosen the path of the monk I would equally be in danger of impoverishing my life by missing the opportunity to develop the social virtues necessary to be a good activist. So too with unity, the development of unity of the self may come with the suppression of certain elements of the self. Likewise, if I live my live without any direction towards a unified self than I will equally be in danger of impoverishing myself as there is no reason to think that my drives will direct me towards a fulfilling life. Therefore, it seems that ideal of the unity of the self is defensible, and to some extent the only choice we have, for if we do not try to achieve unity we are putting our fate into the hands of whatever our drives happen to do at any particular time, and there is little reason to think that this will lead us to lead rich, fully developed lives.

It should be noted that my defense of unity above is very different from Plato’s, as Plato thought that any person with a unified soul would live the same kind of life and have the same values, whereas I see unity of the self as consistent with individual leading a plurality of different lives and holding a variety of values. However, my defense of unity like Plato’s seeks to defend unity and show that unity gives us the best chance of living a fully developed life.

Experience, Value, Fortune and Mastery

On the planet of Rinsk lived a diligent, simple set of beings known as the Farfallan. The Farfallan resembled human beings of Earth, and shared many of their aspirations. They desired friendship, love, community and beauty and held a great disdain for cruelty and malice. However, in distinction of humans the Farfallan had a mystical connection with Quotsi, a gem that was mined across Rinsk. If the Farfallan inhaled the vapour that was produced through heating Quotsi over a fire they were able to have any experience that they desired. The Farfallan would simply think of the experience they wanted to have and that experience would transpire. The Farfallan would sometimes use the Quotsi to experience sexual ecstasy, while at other times they would use Quotsi to experience beautiful music, or familial affection. Quotsi enabled the Farfallan to truly have control over the experiences they had. Before the discovery of the potentialties of Quotsi the Farfallan were victims of chance and fortune, now that they had a ready supply of Quotsi they were truly masters of their own lives.

One day two interstellar explorers from Earth, came upon Rinsk, and made contact with the Farfallan. The explorer’s names were Annette and Laura, and both of them were scientists who were sent to other galaxies to investigate the forms of life that existed in other places, to try to assist with solving the problems that human kind faced in the year 2300 AD.

When encountered with the Farfallan, Annette was amazed by them. There was little conflict among the Farfallan. Not only were murders, and thefts unheard of, but also domestic conflict was exceedingly rare. The Farfallan would go to work each day, to make enough money to buy what was required to physically sustain them, and to purchase Quotsi, then they would go back to their humble homes and heat up some Quotsi to make their evening more enjoyable. They were not concerned with honour or glory and did not feel the need to excel over and above others. This of course meant that there were very few artists and athletes among the Farfallan, but that did not matter as the Farfallan had Quotsi, and if you can control the experiences that you have why do you need artists and athletes?

What Annette saw with the Farfallan was a truly harmonious society, and if humankind could develop a way to control their experiences in the way that the Farfallan could with Quotsi, humankind would be better off in every respect. There would be less violence and cruelty in society and people would be much more satisfied with life as any experience that they wanted would be right at their fingertips.

Laura shared much of Annette’s admiration for the harmoniousness of the Farfallan’s society, but as Laura continued to investigate their way of life she became more and more uneasy with certain elements of their lives. She had spoken with several Farfallen during her investigation about the importance of many subjects. However, the Farfallan tended to relate the value of all things to the sensual experience of that thing. They tended to explain their valuation of love purely in terms of the phenomenological experience of sexual ecstasy and emotional closeness. This irked Laura as while she saw these phenomenological elements as indispensable elements of romantic love, she also saw the value of romantic love in terms of the emotional intimacy that develops between persons and their commitment to one another.

Furthermore, it was not merely in the area of romantic love that Laura found the Farfallan’s explanation of the value of things to be troubling. The Farfallan had little appreciation for the value of the creative activity of artists and tended to see little value in the person who could write a beautiful melody, or create a beautiful sculpture. One male Farfallan named Lorkel had rather bluntly said to her “Quotsi allows me to experience beauty. I have no need for artists.”

Laura and Annette had to jointly write a report about what could be learned from the Farfallan. As expected Annette wanted to suggest that humankind invest in technology that would mimic the effects of vaporized Quotsi on the Farfallan so that humans too had all desirable experiences available to them. However, while Laura recognized the harmoniousness of the way of life of the Farfallan, she could not go along with Annette’s recommendation. Laura’s only piece of advice for learning from the Farfallan was the warning that if we follow the example of the Farfallan we may lose our ability to value anything that is not an experience.