by Fabio Tollon
In a previous article I argued that, when it comes to our moral appraisal of emerging technologies, the best normative framework to use is that of virtue ethics. The reasons for this were that virtue ethics succeeds in ways that consequentialist or deontological theories fail. Specifically, these other theories posit fixed principles that seem incapable of accommodating the unpredictable effects that emerging technologies will have not only on how we view ourselves, but also on the ways in which they will interact with our current social and cultural practices
However, while virtue ethics might be superior in the sense that it is able to be context sensitive in way that these other theories are not, it is not without problems of its own. The most significant of these is what is known as the ‘situationist challenge’, which targets the heart of virtue ethics, and argues that situational influences trump dispositional ones. In this article I will defend virtue ethics from this objection and in the process show that it remains our best means for assessing the moral effects of emerging technologies.
So, what exactly is the situationist challenge contesting? In order for any fleshed-out theory of virtue to make sense, it must be the case that something like ‘virtues’ exist and are attainable by human beings, and that they are reliably expressed by agents. For example, traits such as generosity, arrogance, and bravery are dispositions to react in particular ways to certain trait-eliciting circumstances. If agents do not react reliably in these circumstances, it makes little sense to traffic in the language of the virtues. Calling someone ‘generous’ makes no sense if they only acted the way that they did out of habit or because someone happened to be watching them. Read more »