Virtue Ethics in a Virtual Age

Earlier this week, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day at Ian Paul’s Festival of Theology event, a day devoted to eight TED-talk style presentations, each followed by questions. If you don’t already know him, Ian Paul is the blogger at Psephizo—you really should follow his work, he has some exciting things in the pipeline. The day was very successful and there should be other such events in the future!

I gave a presentation on the subject of virtue ethics in a virtual age. Ian has just posted a version of it over on his blog. Do take a look!

The novelty of the Internet and of social media in particular lies in the extent to which our selves and communities are migrating to a realm of representations, spectacle, and simulation, virtual realms that are steadily replacing many aspects of the realities. As the French philosopher Guy Debord wrote in the 1960s, observing the direction society was heading even in his own day: ‘Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.’

The ‘self’ on social media is primarily a represented self, an artifice or projection, constrained by the media in which it operates. You can be whoever you want on Facebook, provided you express that self in the structures that Facebook affords you. For instance, whatever self you express, that self will exist within a framework that is designed to make you scrutable to algorithms and marketable to advertisers.

Read the full piece here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, Guest Post, On the web, Philosophy, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Virtue Ethics in a Virtual Age

  1. Dave Manderscheid says:

    Very interesting post/talk Alastair. I note that you quote Guy Debord. I have The Society of the Spectacle on my book shelf. Do you own it? Have you read it?

  2. Dave Manderscheid says:

    It was the Manics that pointed me in Guy’s direction. As they informed a lot of my reading at that time.

  3. Stephen Crawford+ says:

    Alastair, this seems like the piece where you’ve most effectively identified the dangers of social media. I’m very appreciative. That remarks about our inability to be truly together or truly alone might make it into my sermon on Sunday (Jesus, in the Gospel passage, withdraws to pray).

    Structuring the self: I’m trying to process this distinction. It seems like one strength of a virtue ethic is its recognition that the self isn’t simply a given, but as you point out, it fields the question of what kind of self will someone be. It sees the danger of being a warped, distorted self, a self-that-is-not-fully-itself. Further, certain practices are going to cause damage to the person, the self, engaging in those practices. Social media seems to involve a number of them.

    So what exactly is the difference between “structuring” and “forming”? Do you mean to distinguish the process of formation from what are the conceptions of selfhood we’re working with in the first place? … I don’t know. I’ve started trying to work through the different ideas in play, but let me stop and just ask if you can you say a bit more about what you mean by structuring?

    • The formation of the self occurs through various habits, practices, and disciplines in community that develop virtues and characters. In contrast, the ‘structuring’ of the self relates to the way that, in a realm of representation, the self is powerfully structured by the constraints of the medium upon which it is representing itself.

      The notion of the forming of the self tends to take for granted that the self being formed is the locally-situated and embodied self. My point is that social media abstracts us from this self and that virtue ethics must take this reframing of the self into account, not merely the moral formation to which it is subsequently exposed.

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        Hmmm. I’m trying to square what you’re saying with my own understanding of virtue ethics. I think of virtue ethics as a family of moral philosophies partly held together by a particular way of construing human agency, and that that is a major source of its strengths. Hence, virtue ethics to a large degree sees the self in a way that doesn’t fit with the modern liberal individual. For the latter, decisions are radically free, almost spontaneous events, never constrained by the character of the person deciding. But on a virtue model, the decisions we make emerge from the kind of people we are.

        Part of what I appreciate about MacIntyre is the way he sniffs out the understandings of human agency that are implicit in particular social arrangements. So modern bureaucracies, for MacIntyre, emerge from and reinforce the concomitant modern understanding of human beings as atomized individuals that are best managed. Contrast that then with the understanding of human agency implicit in a Benedictine monastery, which is specifically organized around the notion of formation rather than managerial technique. It seems like you’re analyzing social media in a way that’s similar to what MacIntyre does with bureaucracy in After Virtue.

        Does that touch on some of what you’re getting at when you talk about “structuring”? Does it have to do with the way that social media enact a particular understanding of the self and thereby, in a sense, catechize us into that understanding?

        I’m a bit of a luddite, so your reflections on technology have always been much appreciated. Hence I’m interested in working through this point you’re making.

      • There are definitely commonalities between social media and bureaucratic ordering of persons through alienating technique. However, social media takes things further in the degree to which it absorbs the self into the realm of representations. Social media intimatizes the ordering power of technique and thereby radically extends its power.

      • Stephen Crawford+ says:

        Reading back through your presentation, I think I finally get what you mean by “structuring.” It’s more than just what concept of selfhood is implicit in a practice–like the difference between exercising your individual autonomy by walking to the nearby elementary school and punching a ballot versus sending a text message to vote for your favorite contestant on American Idol (it’s a show people used to watch here in America).

        I’m tweaking the culture-discovers-mirrors idea you use for my sermon tonight: you’re on your lunch break and you look in the mirror and discover you have a big, ugly pimple on your face, making you acutely concerned about how you’re perceived the rest of the day.

        (Our Father sees us. That is enough.)

      • On the mirror analogy, you might be interested in this.

  4. Pingback: The Meanings of Orthodoxy (II) – Pilgrims Rest Stop

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