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.

Weaponized Consumption

Boycotts and procotts are by now commonplace and predictable, the skirmishes involving a certain fast-food chain being only the latest prominent instance. This got me thinking about the boycotting impulse, particularly when it is aligned with social issues. It seems to reflect the breakdown of public reason. What I have in mind is the situation described by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening of After VirtueUnable to reasonably debate differences in a consequential manner because of the absence of a broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life, it would seem that we are left with acts of will. Of course, in a consumer society what other form could such action take than marketplace transactions. Perhaps we can describe it as the commodification of public debate. Like war, boycotting is politics by other means. It is weaponized consumption.

Body and Soul

From Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals. Speaking of Aristotle’s many commentators:

“They have underestimated the importance of the fact that our bodies are animal bodies with the identity and continuities of animal bodies. Other commentators have understood this. And it was his reading not only of Aristotle, but also of Ibn Rushd’s commentary that led Aquinas to assert: ‘Since the soul is part of the body of a human being, the soul is not the whole human being and my soul is not I” (Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians XV, 1, 11; note also that Aquinas, unlike most moderns, often refers to nonhuman animas as ‘other animals’). This is a lesson that those of us who identify ourselves as contemporary Aristotelians may need to relearn, perhaps from those phenomenological investigations that enabled Merleau-Ponty also to conclude that I am my body.”

This passage struck me for two reasons. The first is the host of assumptions that are challenged by that one line from Aquinas. That line alone troubles all sorts of commonly held misconceptions regarding the theological anthropology of the medieval Christian tradition. Misconceptions held both by those inside and outside of the tradition.

The second, of course, is MacIntyre’s recommendation of Merleau-Ponty and his investigations of the body’s role in structuring experience. Seconded.

What’s Wrong with the News

Reading After Virtue, more than a few years ago now, was an important milestone in my intellectual journey.  Its author, moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, has remained an influence on my thinking ever since.  In the pages of Prospect, John Cornwell recently reflected on a lecture MacIntyre delivered about our ongoing economic troubles.  In doing so, Cornwell offers a useful, and not uncritical, overview of MacIntyre’s career and the trajectory of his thought.  There are some interesting, and to my mind, compelling observations in Cornwell’s synopsis including the following:

MacIntyre maintains, however, that the system must be understood in terms of its vices—in particular debt. The owners and managers of capital always want to keep wages and other costs as low as possible. “But, insofar as they succeed, they create a recurrent problem for themselves. For workers are also consumers and capitalism requires consumers with the purchasing power to buy its products. So there is tension between the need to keep wages low and the need to keep consumption high.” Capitalism has solved this dilemma, MacIntyre says, by bringing future consumption into the present by dramatic extensions of credit.

This expansion of credit, he goes on, has been accompanied by a distribution of risk that exposed to ruin millions of people who were unaware of their exposure. So when capitalism once again overextended itself, massive credit was transformed into even more massive debt, “into loss of jobs and loss of wages, into bankruptcies of firms and foreclosures of homes, into one sort of ruin for Ireland, another for Iceland, and a third for California and Illinois.” Not only does capitalism impose the costs of growth or lack of it on those least able to bear them, but much of that debt is unjust. And the “engineers of this debt,” who had already benefited disproportionately, “have been allowed to exempt themselves from the consequences of their delinquent actions.” The imposition of unjust debt is a symptom of the “moral condition of the economic system of advanced modernity, and is in its most basic forms an expression of the vices of intemperateness, and injustice, and imprudence.”

One, of course, expects a moral philosopher closely associated with virtue ethics to judge the merits of an economic system according to the virtues or vices it encourages.  This is not all that can be said, however, as many will point out (including Cornwell), and I’m beginning to think capitalism is too vague and elastic a term to be useful in serious discussion.  Nonetheless, MacIntyre raises important concerns that we should take quite seriously.

In one of those moments of digitally enabled serendipity when linking from one item to another seemingly unrelated item one discovers an unexpected connection between the two, I followed the Prospect piece on MacIntyre with Ted Koppel’s much discussed Washington Post 0p-ed. In his piece, Koppel lamented the eclipse of dependable and objective news coverage by the sensationalized, partisan cable news programs of the Right and the Left. Koppel’s piece got passed around quite a bit online and seems to have struck a chord with those disillusioned by the conflation of news with entertainment.

Koppel’s argument is straightforward:

To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major broadcast networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC’s mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.

On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable.

Until, that is, CBS News unveiled its “60 Minutes” news magazine in 1968. When, after three years or so, “60 Minutes” turned a profit (something no television news program had previously achieved), a light went on, and the news divisions of all three networks came to be seen as profit centers, with all the expectations that entailed.

Perhaps Koppel has read After Virtue, it is interesting, at least, that he employs the language of virtue and innocence.  While he may not have his facts on network news and profitability quite right, Koppel is making an argument that illustrates one of the key concepts laid out by MacIntyre in After Virtue.  MacIntyre begins his argument for traditioned moral communities with the notion of a practice and goods that are either internal or external to it.  MacIntyre defines a practice as follows:

By a ‘practice’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended. (After Virtue, 187)

There are certain goods or rewards that are inherent or natural to a practice, and there are other goods or rewards that may attach themselves to a practice but that are incidental and perhaps even inimical to the practice itself.  There is, for example, what we call playing for the “love of the game,” and there is playing for money.  It may be nostalgia, naivete, or romanticism, but we like to imagine that some, at least, play for the love of the game.

Koppel’s point then, in MacIntyre’s terms, was this:  Journalism lost its way when it began to be driven by the pursuit of external rather than internal goods.  Profit is not a good internal to the practice of journalism, although it clearly can be an external good.  But when the pursuit of that external good was injected into the practice of journalism it displaced the goods properly internal to the practice  distorting and corrupting it.  One can imagine a situation in which external and internal goods are properly ordered and prioritized so that they are both attained without compromising the integrity of the practice in question.  The problem tends to arise when the external goods take precedence over the internal goods making the whole activity mercenary.

There is a lot more to be said, I’m sure, about this specific case.  I’m in no position to judge the reliability of Koppel’s vision of the halcyon days of network news; most golden ages tend to reveal a good bit of tarnish upon closer inspection.  Yet, Koppel’s argument resonates with us (unless you are Keith Olbermann or Bill O’Reilly) because it gives voice to an unease we feel with the commodification of life and society.  Rejoinders about the inevitability and necessity of it all strike us as cynical and callous.

We may not use MacIntyre’s terminology, but we have a sense of the natural connection between internal goods and a practice.  Likewise, we are disappointed with those who pursue a practice merely for the sake of an external good — the athlete that plays only for money, the spouse who marries only for status, the politician who runs only for power.  Increasingly, we are noticing the introduction of the pursuit of profit as a good into realms of social and private life where it could be only an external good, and where it threatens to displace the internal goods, thus bringing distortion and corruption.

Warding off the consequences of large scale displacement of internal goods by economic rationality may appear a losing battle.  But acts of private resistance are not without consequence.  To borrow the title of one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, the life you save may be your own.