What Confucius, The Buddha, and Aristotle can teach us about technology
Does the key to managing today's technology lie in ancient philosophy?
Philosophy professor Shannon Vallor studies ethics and emerging technology. She argues that to deal with the relentless pace of technological change, we should take inspiration from traditional virtue ethics: in particular, the philosophical work of Confucius, Aristotle, and The Buddha.
Virtue ethics of different cultures share a focus on developing moral character through particular disciplines and practices. The goal is to develop skills in 'practical wisdom'. It's not about learning a set of ethical rules; it's about refining the ability to make wise decisions in a variety of circumstances.
The kind of ethical wisdom that you need from ethics is very different from the sort of intellectual skill that you use, say, in mathematics
"Aristotle...made the observation that ethics deals with the field of human social behaviour," Vallor said, and that this field "is so infinitely complex, and unpredictable, and blurry...that the kind of ethical wisdom that you need from ethics is very different from the sort of intellectual skill that you use, say, in mathematics."
Our abilities to stay ahead of technological change are diminishing.
This skill in making good decisions in shifting, complex situations is precisely what we need in today's technological environment, she argued. "The speed and scale at which new digital technologies operate is becoming a qualitative difference in the relationship between technology, human character, and the character of our societies," she said. "Our abilities to stay ahead of technological change are diminishing." Whole fields of human society, like education or law, run the risk of becoming dated, because it's so hard for them to keep up, Vallor said.
Although there are many traditions of virtue ethics, in her book, Technology and the Virtues, Vallor focuses on Confucius, Aristotle, and The Buddha.
"There's a lot of wisdom in the past that can be recovered," she said. "Not used in its original form. The societies that we are trying to govern today, and the technologies and challenges that we are facing today, are entirely different." she said. "But what they have in common is a focus on the importance of...developing a culture, and especially systems of education, that promote and reinforce moral self-cultivation as a practice."
There's a lot of wisdom in the past that can be recovered.
Since we don't live in a world where education in moral self-cultivation is the norm, are there things we can do to get better at dealing with the technologies in our own lives wisely?
Vallor argued for something like mindfulness in our use of technologies, and weighing that use against our broader goals for ourselves and the social world around us. "Think about what are the qualities in our life that we want our technologies to enhance. What are the experiences that we want our technologies to enhance? And are those in fact the qualities that we are getting," she said.