Technology, Moral Discourse, and Political Communities

According to Langdon Winner, neither ancient nor modern culture have been able to bring politics and technology together. Classical culture because of its propensity to look down its nose, ontologically speaking, at the mechanical arts and manual labor. Modern culture because of its relegation of science and technology to the private sphere and its assumptions about the nature of technological progress. (For more see previous post.)

The assumptions about technological progress that Winner alludes to in his article are of the sort that I’ve grouped under the Borg Complex. Fundamentally, they are assumptions about the inevitability and unalloyed goodness of technological progress. If technological development is inevitable, for better or for worse, than there is little use deliberating about it.

Interestingly, Winner elaborates his point by reference to the work of moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In his now classic work, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, MacIntyre argued that contemporary moral discourse consistently devolves into acrimonious invective because it proceeds in the absence of a shared moral community or tradition.

Early in After Virtue, MacIntyre imagines a handful of typical moral debates that we are accustomed to hearing about or participating in. The sort of debates that convince no one to change their minds, and the sort, as well, in which both sides are convinced of the rationality of their position and the irrationality of their opponents’. Part of what MacIntyre argues is that neither side is necessarily more rational than the other. The problem is that the reasoning of both sides proceeds from incommensurable sets of moral communities, traditions, and social practices. In the absence of a shared moral vision that contextualizes specific moral claims and frames moral arguments there can be no meaningful moral discourse, only assertions and counter-assertions made with more or less civility.

Here is how Winner brings MacIntyre into his discussion:

“Another characteristic of contemporary discussion about technology policy is that, as Alasdair MacIntyre might have predicted, they involve what seem to be interminable moral controversies. In a typical dispute, one side offers policy proposals based upon what seem to be ethically sound moral arguments. The the opposing side urges entirely different policies using arguments that appear equally well-grounded. The likelihood that the two (or More) sides can locate common ground is virtually nil.”

Winner then goes on to provide his own examples of how such seemingly fruitless debates play out. For instance,

“1a. Conditions of international competitiveness require measures to reduce production costs. Automation realized through the computerization of office and factory work is clearly the best way to do this at present. Even though it involves eliminating jobs, rapid automation is the way to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number in advanced industrial societies.

b. The strength of any economy depends upon the skills of people who actually do the work. Skills of this kind arise from traditions of practice handed down from one generation to the next. Automation that de-skills the work process ought to be rejected because it undermines the well-being of workers and harms their ability to contribute to society.”

“In this way,” Winner adds, “debates about technology policy confirm MacIntyre’s argument that modern societies lack the kinds of coherent social practice that might provide firm foundations for moral judgments and public policies.”

Again, the problem is not simply a breakdown of moral discourse, it is also the absence of a political community of public deliberation and action in which moral discourse might take shape and find traction. Again, Winner:

“[…] the trouble is not that we lack good arguments and theories, but rather that modern politics simply does not provide appropriate roles and institutions in which the goal of defining the common good in technology policy is a legitimate project.”

The exception that proves Winner’s rule is, I think, the Amish. Granted, of course, that the scale and complexity of modern society is hardly comparable to an Amish community. That said, it is nonetheless instructive to appreciate Amish communities as tangible, lived examples of what it might look like to live in a political community whose moral traditions circumscribed the development of technology.

By contrast, as Winner put it in the title of one of his books, in modern society “technics-out-of-control” is a theme of political thought. It is a cliché for us to observe that technology barrels ahead leaving ethics and law a generation behind.

Given those two alternatives, it is not altogether unreasonable for someone to conclude that they would rather live with the promise and peril of modern technology rather than live within the constraints imposed by an Amish-style community. Fair enough. It’s worth wondering, however, whether our alternatives are, in fact, quite so stark.

In any case, Winner raises, as I see it, two important considerations. Our thinking about technology, if it is to be about more than private action, must reckon with the larger moral traditions, the sometimes unarticulated and unacknowledged visions of the good life, that frame our evaluations of technology. It must also find some way of reconstituting a meaningful political contexts for acting. Basically, then, we are talking not only about technology, but about democracy itself.

3 thoughts on “Technology, Moral Discourse, and Political Communities

  1. Good post. I hadn’t heard of Langdon Winner for years. Do you think there is a class issue here? People who advocate automation and invoke ‘international competition’ are very often those who have an interest in minimising labour costs in the short term. The opposite argument, about the importance of skills, contribution to society, is the position taken, in Britain anyway, by the increasingly extra-parliamentary left.

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