Summary contributed by Tim Gorichanaz, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the College of Computing & Informatics at Drexel University, where he teaches courses in human–computer interaction and design and conducts research in information ethics.
[Original paper by Tim Gorichanaz]
Overview: As the ethical consequences of digital technology become more and more apparent, designers and firms are looking for guiding frameworks to design digital experiences that are better for humanity. This paper introduces designers and researchers to virtue ethics, a framework first developed millennia ago but which has not been much appreciated in contemporary circles.
In recent decades, technology research and design has been largely concerned with productivity and efficiency. But lingering beneath these issues are the deep human questions of what makes life worth living and how to make the world a better place. As digital technology plays a bigger role in our lives, these moral aspects of design are starting to take center stage. But how might we design technology to support morality? In this conceptual paper, I argue that virtue ethics is uniquely well suited for this purpose. Virtue ethics focuses on the traits, situations and actions of moral agents, rather than on rules (as in deontology) or outcomes (consequentialism), meaning that virtue ethics is useful amidst the pace of sociotechnical change and the complexity of society today. The paper introduces virtue ethics and shows how existing lines of human-computer interaction (HCI) research resonate with the practices of virtue cultivation, paving the way for further work in virtue-oriented design.
What is virtue ethics?
Virtue ethics posits that people can achieve the good life through cultivating specific moral qualities, called virtues, within themselves. What qualities are considered virtues is socially local, rather than universal; still, some virtues are upheld across cultures and epochs, such as courage, justice and honesty. Besides helping identify the virtues, virtue ethics contends that we can become more virtuous. How is this done? A recent and highly regarded account of this is given by Shannon Vallor in Technology and the Virtues. In this book, Vallor synthesizes a tremendous literature spanning the philosophy of technology and several other philosophical traditions, as well as case studies of several emerging technologies. As part of this work, she provides a framework of seven practices by which the virtues are cultivated: learning by doing, reflecting on our social roles, reflectively examining ourselves, choosing our goals, learning to attend to morally relevant features of the environment, learning to judge wisely, and extending our circles of moral concern. These practices are mutually reinforcing; and they are not just the road to virtue, but also constitutive of virtue itself.
Why virtue ethics for digital technology?
With today’s technologies, humanity has unprecedented power and reach, and the future is less predictable than ever before. How does this bear on morality? Recall that ethics is the search for the good life. Life, of course, depends on the material qualities of our lived environment as well as our technologies. Most ethical traditions rely on the moral landscape of the future being more or less as it is in the present, with technological change coming slowly enough for our moral faculties to evolve alongside it. In our sociotechnical environment, we cannot rely on fixed rules of conduct (we need to know when to bend the rules or even rewrite them) or on predicting outcomes. Virtue ethics, on the other hand, provides a balanced, dynamic and responsive framework for discerning and moving toward the good life using tools and concepts that have been with humanity for millennia and which are still relevant, even given the tremendous change of the last few centuries.
Connecting existing lines of research to virtue ethics
Even as ethical questions have seen tremendous attention in HCI and other fields of digital technology design, there has been scant attention to virtue ethics, and sometimes misunderstandings. Still, there are many existing lines of HCI research that could be directed toward the virtues by connecting to the seven practices for virtue cultivation that Vallor describes in her book, mentioned above. For example, the tradition of work on perception, and the development of technomoral concepts such as “dark patterns” can connect to the practice of moral attention; and work on goal setting and goal modeling can connect to that of self-direction. There is quite a lot of existing work in HCI that implicitly relates to the seven practices of virtue cultivation, but mostly it has been developed amorally (for example, in terms of habituation rather than specifically moral habituation). Future work in these areas can readily contribute to ethical design by orienting toward the virtues (for example, helping people build habits of honesty or courage).
The challenge for virtue-oriented design
If virtue ethics is so useful, we may wonder why it has been virtually ignored within HCI. Perhaps this is because virtue is difficult to operationalize in strictly technical terms, and in our technocratic age we tend to prefer purely technical solutions. For better or worse, virtue is tuned toward the human, rather than just the technical. This means that, just as technology cannot be designed “for mindfulness” (there is an inextricable human element to this), we cannot hope to design technologies that automatically create virtue. But this is no reason to discard virtue ethics. On the contrary, as Vallor contends, “important as they are, the engineers of the 21st century who fashion code for machines are not as critical to the human mission as those who must fashion, test, and disseminate technomoral code for humans—new habits and practices for living well with emerging technologies.” In applying virtue ethics to HCI, then, we must remember that we aren’t designing “for virtue” but rather designing to support the human practices of cultivating virtue, from moral habituation to extending moral concern. Design to support human virtue may be exactly what is needed to start off a flywheel of morality.
Between the Lines
Within philosophy, virtue ethics is the oldest approach to ethics (but of course the name itself is fairly new), but it fell out of favor a few centuries back. Starting in the mid-20th century, virtue ethics started to make a comeback as philosophers discovered it overcame the limitations of the newer ethical theories. Virtue ethics is now a vibrant field within philosophy, and it is starting to percolate outwards into other fields. I believe, following Vallor and other scholars, that virtue ethics deserves attention in technology design and can serve as a foundation for our technological future. This paper is a broad starting point, painting the big picture and demonstrating many specific avenues for future research: for instance, digging into how concrete designs can support each practice of virtue cultivation, and how the virtues themselves can be supported (or not) by given technologies.