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 »
In 2007 Wesley Autrey noticed a young man, Cameron Hollopeter, having a seizure on a subway station in Manhattan. Autrey borrowed a pen and used it to keep Hollopeter’s jaw open. After the seizure, Hollopeter stumbled and fell from the platform onto the tracks. As Hollopeter lay there, Autry noticed the lights from an oncoming train, and so he jumped in after him. However, after getting to the tracks, he realized there would not be enough time to get Hollopeter out of harm’s way. Instead, he protected Hollopeter by moving him to a drainage trench between the tracks, throwing his body over Hollopeter’s. Both of them narrowly avoided being hit by the train, and the call was close enough that Autrey had grease on his hat afterwards. For this Autrey was awarded the Bronze Medallion, New York City’s highest award for exceptional citizenship and outstanding achievement.
In 2011, Karl-Theodore zu Guttenberg, a member of the Bundestag, was found guilty of plagiarism after a month-long public outcry. He had plagiarized large parts of his doctoral dissertation, where it was found that he had copied whole sections of work from newspapers, undergraduate papers, speeches, and even from his supervisor. About half of his entire dissertation was stuffed with uncited work. Thousands of doctoral students and professors in Germany signed a letter lambasting then-chancellor Angela Merkel’s weak response, and eventually his degree was revoked, and he ended up resigning from the Bundestag.
Now we might ask: what explains this variation in human behaviour? Why did Guttenberg plagiarize his PhD, and why did Autrey put his life in danger to save a stranger? Read more »
I want you to take a moment to reflect on the answer that first came to mind upon reading this question. Was it something related to your job? Are you a baker, a writer, a physicist, a construction worker? Or did you start thinking about your passions—the things you love, the things that drive and inspire you? Perhaps you define yourself by your values: you are who you are, because of what you hold right and good.
Identity has become a central, and somewhat fraught, topic in contemporary discourse. I believe that, in itself, is a sign of progress: in earlier times, identity was not something that was up for discussion; by and large, what made you you was decided by circumstances of your birth. You were born either noble, or a commoner; male or female; free or in bondage—and whichever of those buckets happenstance chose to place you in, would be the central driving force of your fortune. That today, we can worry about, struggle with, and redefine our identities is a sign of increasing self-determination—who we are is no longer just who we were born to be, but a matter of discovery and deliberation. Read more »