More Than Just Design: Affordances as Embodying Value in Technological Artifacts

by Fabio Tollon

It is natural to assume that technological artifacts have instrumental value. That is, the value of given technology lies in the various ways in which we can use it, no more, and no less. For example, the value of a hammer lies in our ability to make use of it to hit nails into things. Cars are valuable insofar as we can use them to get from A to B with the bare minimum of physical exertion. This way of viewing technology has immense intuitive appeal, but I think it is ultimately unconvincing. More specifically, I want to argue that technological artifacts are capable of embodying value. Some argue that this value is to be accounted for in terms of the designed properties of the artifact, but I will take a different approach. I will suggest that artifacts can come to embody values based on their affordances.

Before doing so, however, I need to convince you that the instrumental view of technology is wrong. While some technological artifacts are perhaps merely instrumentally valuable, there are others that are clearly not so There are two ways to see this. First, just reflect on all the ways which technologies are just tools waiting to be used by us but are rather mediators in our experience of reality. Technological artifacts are no longer simply “out there” waiting to be used but are rather part of who we are (or at least, who we are becoming). Wearable technology (such as fitness trackers or smart watches) provides us with a stream of biometric information. This information changes the way in which we experience ourselves and the world around us. Bombarded with this information, we might use such technology to peer pressure ourselves into exercising (Apple allows you to get updates, beamed directly to your watch, of when your friends exercise. It is an open question whether this will encourage resentment from those who see their friends have run a marathon while they spent the day on the couch eating Ritter Sport.), or we might use it to stay up to date with the latest news (by enabling smart notifications). In either case, the point is that these technologies do not merely disclose the world “as it is” to us, but rather open up new aspects of the world, and thus come to mediate our experiences. Read more »

The Emptiness of Pluralism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

1274595994XBH6HaxIn last month’s post, we argued that value pluralism is the view that there are objective and heterogeneous goods, goods that are distinct and irreducible. To hold that there are distinct and irreducible goods is to hold that there is no summum bonum, no ultimate good that explains the goodness of all other goods. It also is to hold that there is no master good against which to measure the value of the other goods. According to the value pluralist, then, there is at least one pair of objective goods, A and B, such that A is neither better than B, worse than B, nor equal in value to B. This is to say that, according to value pluralism, some goods are incommensurable with other goods. Value pluralism thus is the three-pronged thesis that (1) there is a plurality of objective goods, (2) of these goods, some are irreducible to any other good, and (3) these irreducible goods are incommensurable with other irreducible goods. That’s pluralism in a nutshell. Pluralism about anything comes to this tripartite thesis, mutatis mutandis.

When presented in this way, value pluralism may seem an esoteric view. The meager degree of precision introduced above suffices to dampen the halo effect of the term. Now the term no longer seems like a catch-all for a collection of virtues or term of approval for a moral disposition. Rather, what we have with value pluralism is a philosophical thesis about the nature of value.

We will not attempt here to determine whether value pluralism is true. Instead we seek to defeat a consideration commonly offered in support of value pluralism. Consistent with its status as a paradigmatic halo term, advocates of value pluralism often claim that their view is uniquely positioned to supply philosophical backup for a politics of inclusion, toleration, open-mindedness, diversity, and difference. In fact, the father of value pluralism, Isaiah Berlin, went further than this in his famous essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty.” Berlin held not only that value pluralism entails a politics of toleration and individual liberty, he also claimed that value monism – the view that all good things are good in virtue of sharing some single property – fosters intolerance, tyranny, and despotism.

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