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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The deGrasse Tyson Philosophy vs. Science Debate: The Authority of Science, Instrumentalism and Technology

Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made some comments questioning the value of philosophy. Massimo Pigliucci who writes on the blog Scientia Salon has addressed his comments directly in a recent article, but the whole debate on the value of philosophy as opposed to the value of science raises some interesting questions and concerns that I would like to consider.

Often, critics of philosophy, condemn philosophy as a useless practise because it does not seem to lead to any tangible benefit for society. This was not deGrasse Tyson’s exact criticism, but this critique is so prevalent within society that it has become a banal commonplace that philosophy is a useless endeavour that does not benefit mankind in any way. Interestingly, this is the same critique that Francis Bacon made of the Scholastics within the New Organon, and the critique that Marx makes of previous philosophers within the Theses on Feuerbach; apparently the philosophers will never learn to just get in line already and devote themselves to improving the world. However the fact that this critique of philosophy is prevalent reveals that the popular conception of value within postindustrial societies is one that is fundamentally instrumental. Or to put this more clearly, it is a conception of value that sees something valuable if it can help us efficiently pursue desirable ends. This instrumental conception of value is theoretically problematic, as it cannot explain some of the most basic experience of value that appear within everyday life. Furthermore, the prevalence of this conception of value is problematic as it reinforces the idea that science’s authority derives from its ability to contribute to the development of technology. Consequently, this conception of value distorts our understanding of authority of science itself.

Our everyday experience of value attests to the fact that activities can be valuable for instrumental reasons, but it also attests to the fact that activities can be intrinsic valuable (be valuable on their own account). For example, even though it is true that we might say that a dishwasher is only valuable because it allows us spending less time washing dishes, and consequently only valuable for instrumental reasons, it does not make sense to say that friendship is valuable only for instrumental reasons. Friendships might be valuable because they open doors for people, but the main value of friendships seems to be an intrinsic one as opposed to an instrumental one, as what we value about friendship is not some end-state that friendship produces, but rather the fact that we are in a position of sharing our lives with another being who we respect or admire. The value of such a state cannot be made sense of from an instrumental perspective, so from a purely theoretical angle it seems that a purely instrumental conception of value is fairly implausible, as it is not able to adequately explain the everyday experience we have of value.

The prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value which not only condemns philosophy, but also the arts, is not only problematic because it does not stand up to criticism at a theoretical level, rather it has a pernicious influence on the way that people understand the authority of science. People tend to see science as an authority within postindustrial societies and associate science with the development of technology. As a result of this people tend to think that what gives science its claim to authority is that science has lead to the development of extensive technology and technological systems. This is quite clearly not a logical deduction, but if you ask non-scientists why we should listen to science they will ordinarily point to its ability to produce various forms of technology and technological solutions. The awe that surrounds science has less to do with the fact that people find that science explains the world, and more to do with the fact that people think that science has led to the great technological progress that society has experienced. Furthermore, a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science’s claim to authority derives from its ability to facilitate technological progress, as a purely instrumental conception of value can only see value in the ability of science to contribute to the production of particular ends like technology, not in the ability of science to develop theories that adequately explain the world. Consequently, the prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science gets its authority because of its ability to facilitate technological progress.

The notion that science gets its authority from the production of technological progress is deeply troubling because this neglects the fact that science ought to have authority in society, over mere conjecture, not simply because it makes our lives more convenient, but because science give us reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. Science is not only a machine from which great technological gifts are bestowed upon the faithful, rather it represents the human attempt to understand. Consequently, while a purely instrumental conception of value seems to justify the value of science while rejecting the value of philosophy and the arts, in so doing it encourages the vulgarization of the value of science within the public, as science begins to be seen as an assembly-line for society rather than as a spirited attempt to understand the world. Interestingly enough then a conception of value that can recognize the intrinsic value of truth is better placed to provide the public with a proper appreciation of the authority of science than a purely instrumental conception of value, as the former conception of value can recognize that science has its authority because it provides s with a reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. In this way it seems that in order to truly appreciate the value of science we must move past thinking of value in purely instrumental terms.

The Place of Progressive Historicism in Modern Consciousness

Progressive historicism is the notion that historical forces have a direction, and this direction is towards the fullest development of humanity. In an academic context, this idea tends to be ridiculed as it is viewed as an archaic, western metanarrative that is not only false, but also pernicious in the way that it has been and is still used to justify colonialism and other evils. However, despite the fact that this idea is not taken particularly seriously among academics, it is still a large part of the popular consciousness of modern post-industrial societies. Furthermore, while progressive historicism provides an intelligible answer to the question of how we have arrived at this point in history, we should be suspicious of progressive historicism, because while there have been significant improvements in well-being throughout the development of human society, these improvements are not necessarily tied to a necessary process, and these improvements have also included historical losses in forms of value. Similarly, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it encourages a form of close-mindedness which discourages people from properly considering what the good is.

The tendency to write off progressive historicism as an antiquated theory is problematic, because even though its premises seem questionable and it has been used as a justification for problematic practises it has become a large part of the consciousness of post-industrial societies. For example, we often refer to people with ideas we disapprove of as backwards or medieval, and refer to those with ideas that we approve and admire as ahead of their time. Furthermore, I have heard seemingly intelligent people write off Plato and Aristotle, among others because the fact that they had lived an earlier era necessarily means that they are stupid and must be wrong about everything. This suggests that the way that individuals think about history fits in with the progressive historicist narrative as people tend to see the past as having been superseded by the present, and see humanity marching towards a bright new future.

The appeal of progressive historicism partially lies in the fact that we know that people in early ages have been subject to mass famine, disease, suffering and oppression, and at the very least, in post-industrial societies, it seems that we have begun to overcome famine and disease, and furthermore traditionally oppressed groups (women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals) have been able to gain legal, and perhaps social equality. In this sense, it seems that there has been progress in terms of justice as more and more people have their dignity respected, and progress in terms of technology as humanity becomes less endangered by the forces of nature and has more control over their destiny.

However, there are a few reasons why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism. Firstly, the idea of a necessary historical process while effective at explaining societal development is not necessary to explain such development. We can recognize that there has been a process of development, but consider it to be something that was contingent, and thus not inevitable, but rather one possibility among many. In this case we might consider history as something that is path dependent in that at one point there were certain events that could have led to a multiplicity of differing trajectories for the development of society, but particular choices that were made caused the current path of historical development to be much more likely. Unless we are already strongly committed to the idea of necessity determining societal change, it seems that the alternative that I have articulated is at least equally plausible to the progressive historicist story.

Secondly, the other issue with the progressive historicist story is that it pays keen attention to the gains that have occurred for humanity, but is troubling silent about the losses that have occurred throughout societal development. The development of society is partially a story of the gradual expansion of the recognition of dignity, but as a result of this development and particular technological changes certain forms of practise that constitute unique forms of value have been lost. For example, even if we are deeply disturbed by the brutality of the warrior way of life and the ethic of honor that goes along with it, we also admire the kind of courage that was necessary to live this life. And while this way of life had to be set aside to make way for egalitarian justice, certain forms of value were lost. Likewise, while finding certain elements of Ancient Athenian democracy particularly troubling (ie slavery), we can also see something deeply valuable in the solidarity that the citizenry of Athens achieved at particular points in its history. But this solidarity was probably made far more likely by the fact that the citizenry had slaves who could provide for their daily needs while they were active within the public sphere. Thus, the ending of slavery while necessary for the expansion of the recognition of all as equal, likely also lead to the loss of forms of value, such as the solidarity that could be achieved among the citizenry of Ancient Athens. Consequently, we should be suspicious of the progressive historicist narrative as it does not seem to tell an accurate story of the development of value throughout society’s history. Clearly, the equal dignity of all is more important than the courage of the warrior or the solidarity of Ancient Athens, but nonetheless these are still losses in value that must be taken account of.

Thirdly, the last reason why we should be suspicious of progressive historicism is the fact that the progressive historicist narrative encourages a kind of close-mindedness that sees the wisdom of the past as having been superseded by the wisdom of the modern era. This close-mindedness closes off people from deeply asking the question of what the good life is, as individuals under the grip of progressive historicism only seriously consider modern alternatives that share their own basic assumptions about what the good is, and do not deeply consider the wisdom of previous ages. If there is an inevitable process that is leading to the fullest development of humanity, then why would we need to learn from the wisdom of the past? Consequently, it seems that the progressive historicist narrative is problematic in its tendency to encourage close-mindedness. As a result while there seems to be a grain of truth within the progressive historicist notion that societal development has involved a long march towards equal respect for the dignity of all, this is only one element of the story of our history, and if we myopically focus on this one element we may fail to properly answer the question of what the good is.