Can Technology Undermine Character?

by Fabio Tollon

What is “character”? In general, we might say that the character of something is what distinguishes it from other things. Sedimentary rocks have a certain “character” that distinguishes them from igneous rocks, for example. Rocks, however, do not have personality (so far as I can tell). Human beings have personality, and it is thought that there is some connection between personality and character, but my interest does not lie in how exactly this relation works, as here I will be concerned with character specifically. To that end, we might specify that character is a collection of properties that distinguishes one individual person from another. When we say “she is wise” we are saying something about her personality, but we are also judging her character: we are, in effect, claiming that we admire her, due to some feature of her character. There could be myriad reasons for this. Perhaps she takes a keen interest in the world around her, has well-formed beliefs, reads many books, etc. In the case where she indeed displays the virtues associated with being wise, we would say that our assessment of her character is fitting, that is, such an assessment correctly identifies the kinds of things she stands for and values. The question I want to consider is whether the value laden nature of technology undermines our ability to make such character assessments. Read more »

Value, Merit and Desert

by Christopher Horner

Its only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming nakedWarren Buffett

Buffett’s famous remark has usually been applied to the shock of the 2008 financial crisis: the over-leveraged, the under-financed, the chancers and the over-exposed in general were embarrassed when the tide went out and left them shivering on the seashore. But we can apply that image to our present troubles. The tide that has been COVID-19 has exposed those very highly paid professions that do not count as essential, by most people’s standards. How many hedge fund managers, for example, do we need out there, working for us right now? We seem to be getting on just fine without them. Contrast a ‘job’ like that with the much lower paid nurses, care home workers, security guards, service and delivery personnel of all kinds who face the real prospect of illness and even death, often in contexts in which there is insufficient personal protection equipment and where social distancing isn’t observed, either because it would be impracticable, or because their employer doesn’t care enough to ensure it it happens. And beyond what we are learning to stop calling ‘unskilled’ and are now calling ‘key’ workers are a larger group that either keep society going or who help make it something we would want to keep going. Crudely put, we need bricks and mortar but we also want art, entertainment and education. 

Marx’s distinction between use value and exchange value is helpful here. The former, for my purposes, is the rough and ready criterion of adding personal and social value – the things we need and want. The latter is the production of commodities or services to be exchanged for money, with the aim of making a profit. In a capitalist system like ours, the two sides of value are always in an uneasy relationship, to say the least – commodities need to be of some use to the buyer and must produce profit. However, in our current crisis they have split asunder. Not completely, of course: this pandemic is almost perfect for online companies like Amazon, whose profits will surely rocket beyond the already stratospheric up into outer space. But there is now a stark distinction staring us in the face between the two kinds of value and the people who create it. Read more »

How to Drink Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_The_Happy_Violinist_with_a_Glass_of_Wine_-_WGA11668The wine world is never short on controversy. Among the most persistent are worries about how wine quality is assessed. Are scores the best way of assessing quality? Why do I disagree with wine critics so much? Why do price and quality often seem unrelated? Are cult wines worth their cost? And what about those florid tasting notes and esoteric descriptors wine critics use that seem to have nothing to do with what I taste?

We need some distinctions to sort out these issues.

Begin by distinguishing two distinct objects of evaluation.* First, there is the process by which we become aware of the aesthetic properties of the wine. This is the process of appreciation, and the object of attention is an experience which is of course guided by the wine. Secondly, instead of evaluating the experience of wine, we could evaluate the wine itself. This might sound odd. How can I gain access to a wine without experiencing it? And indeed, sometimes there would be no difference between my evaluation of the experience and my evaluation of the wine. However, sometimes there is an important difference because each is focused on a different kind of value. When we focus on evaluating an experience we are focused on intrinsic value, the value of an experience independently of how it is used or for what purpose. We enjoy experiences not because they are useful for some purpose but because they are good in themselves. By contrast, we can evaluate a wine for its instrumental value in causing our experience. Wine is good if it brings about an experience that we enjoy.

Here is why this is an important distinction, although I will use something less esoteric than wine as an example. Most of us value cars because they get us where we want to go. Some people value cars because they are fast and can win a race. In both cases the value of the car is instrumental and there are reasonably objective criteria for evaluating cars as a means of transportation. But some people value cars because they like to drive them or look at them. This is also instrumental value but in these cases the car is useful at causing an aesthetic experience.

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Do Good Books Improve Us?

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_465 Jan. 20 11.14Does reading good literature make us better people? The idea that exposure to good art is morally beneficial goes back at least to Plato. Although he was famously suspicious of the effects that tragic and epic poetry might have on the youth, Plato takes it for granted that art of the right kind can be edifying and that therein lies its primary value. Most educators from Plato's time to the present have made similar assumptions, even though they may disagree over what sort of effects are desirable and therefore which sort of books should be read. In the past a lot of powerful art has glorified tradition, upheld religion, celebrated national identity, and helped foster social cohesion. This is the sort of art that often appeals to conservatives. Today, by contrast, much more emphasis is placed on art's critical function, its capacity to make us more informed, aware, self-aware, thoughtful and questioning, particularly in relation to aspects of contemporary culture that the artist finds troubling.

Obviously, no one expects every important work of fiction to precipitate some great moral awakening or social reform after the fashion of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Nor do we expect to see patrons of a New York literary festival dispensing cash to street people as they wait for their cabs after a reading. The moral and social benefits of art identified by critics are usually more subtle. Typical academic commentary on fiction, for instance, will see its importance as lying in the way it enlarges our moral imagination, helps us to grasp another's point of view, sensitizes us to another's feelings or sufferings, warns us against certain kinds of illusion, exposes insidious forms of cruelty, shows us how to avoid self-deception, impresses on us some profound truth, strengthens our sense of self, and so on. This approach receives theoretical support in works such as Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Martha Nussbaum's Love's Knowledge, and John Carey's What Good are the Arts?

A huge amount of literary criticism is of this sort, and it can certainly be interesting, insightful, and entertaining to read. But I also believe that it might be useful, for once, to meet it with a robust, even vulgar skepticism. I would not deny that literary works are sometimes capable of having desirable effects of the kind just mentioned on individuals and society. But I believe that in most cases, such benefits are either negligible, or short-lived or non-existent. They certainly provide a rather flimsy reason for valuing the works. Compared to the much more obvious good of the enjoyment we derive from reading fiction and poetry, their value as instruments of edification is like the light of stars against the light of a full moon.

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Searching for Pluralism

by Scott Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

JellyBeanSome terms come with a built-in halo. We use words like inclusive, liberation, empowerment, and diversity to characterize that which we aim to praise. For example, when a murderer gets off on a technicality, we say that he has been released rather than liberated. A club that welcomes membership from all who should be invited is inclusive, whereas one which denies membership to some who are entitled to it is exclusionary. Importantly, a club that has a highly restricted membership but does not deny membership to anyone who is entitled to it is not exclusionary, but exclusive. A club is exclusionary when it unjustifiably denies membership to some; it is exclusive when its membership is justifiably limited. In short, many terms do double-duty as both descriptive and evaluative. Or, to put the matter more precisely, some terms serve to describe how things stand from an evaluative perspective.

This is not news. However, it is worth noting that a lot can be gained from blurring the distinction between the descriptive and evaluative senses of such terms. For example, when one succeeds at describing an institution as exclusionary, one often thereby succeeds at placing an argumentative burden on those who support it. Now supporters of the institution in question must not only make their case in favor of the institution; they must also make an additional argument that it is not, in fact, exclusionary. Sometimes what looks like argumentative success is really just success at complicating the agenda of one’s opponents.

The point works in the other direction, too. When one successfully casts a policy as one which furthers diversity and empowers individuals, one has already made good progress towards justifying it. Very few oppose diversity and empowerment, and so a policy which is understood to embrace these values is to some extent ipso facto justified; those who support the policy in question simply need to announce that it serves diversity and empowerment. This is vindication by association.

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