What is Cybervirtue?


Rashid Rana.What Lies Between Skin and FleshIf virtues are the positive qualities of beings, what are the positive qualities of cyborgs? We call the admirable habits of humans ‘virtues’, so we can call the exemplary properties of the systems they form with their robots cybervirtues.

For the majority of the recorded history of our species, the concept of virtue has been the primary vehicle of morality. Whatever grasp individuals may or may not have had of their wider situation, the idea that it is a good thing to be brave, polite, patient, generous, or kind was easy to grasp – even if it was not always so easy to put into practice. In 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue traced the history of virtues up to their contemporary near-demise, supplanted by two new moral systems devised in the Enlightenment: Kant’s moral philosophy that leads to human rights, and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism that leads to contemporary corporate consequentialism – a system that no longer resembles morality at all, as the late Derek Partfit accused.

We are beset by moral disasters, in particular where a laudable moral system has become corrupted into a distortion of itself. This is the nature of the two major disasters of contemporary ethics – the moral disaster of individualism, which confuses selfishness or paternalism for collective responsibility, and the moral disaster of consequentialism, which boils down situations to the point that decisions are easy to make, and in the process destroys the essential context of every ethical challenge. In terms of the disaster of individualism, there is an urgent need to repair our broken concepts of rights now that nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom have abandoned them while individuals still angrily invoke ‘their rights’ without any understanding of what that claim implies. There is an even more vital requirement to reconfigure the kind of consequentialist thinking that leads both nations and corporations to act in appalling ways because their definitions of what is good is reduced to the merely calculable. But neither of these projects has much hope of proceeding without a substantial reboot of moral thinking, and the academic community cannot achieve this – not without engaging with the wider populace it has been regrettably isolated from.

Reawakening an interest in the qualities of moral agents might be the best chance of reconfiguring our devastated moral mythologies, because we can have productive discussions concerning virtues without requiring much in the way of theoretical meanderings. What’s more, virtues are qualities that form a set that no-one would expect everyone to possess, making it easier to foster virtues in practice since the moral standard that they set is attainable by everyone in at least the minimal case of expressing at least one virtue. Rules and consequences suggest an absolute, all-or-nothing approach to morality that seems to require (when not approached with care) superhuman powers. Yet virtues sit firmly within human experience, and the key objection against virtue ethics is their failure to be absolute, which only serves to show how hypnotised by the Enlightenment’s moral systems we have become. Besides, if we can rescue virtues, we can rescue rights and outcome-focussed ethics too. One step at a time.

However, there is a crucial new complexity that we must be able to take into account: moral agency can no longer be constrained to humans. On the one hand, we have thankfully abandoned the intellectual conviction that animals cannot behave ethically, a perspective that was dominant right up to the 1980s. Animals are moral beings too, they possess a form of morality that Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce call ‘wild justice’, and cannot be treated as entirely excluded from moral consideration, as was the prevailing belief until quite recently. The embargo on accepting the moral value of animals was ended through the efforts of philosophers like Peter Singer, Mary Midgley, and the aforementioned Alasdair MacIntyre, who (with different methods and different motives) all undermined the assumption that animals did not matter.

But that has not been the only sea change in moral thought, for now we recognise that things have a moral agency too, as Bruno Latour, Peter-Paul Verbeek, and Isabelle Stengers have all touched upon in various ways. It is not that our tools act without us, but through modifying our capabilities for action the things we use reconfigure the moral space we move within – the presence of a gun changes the moral potential of a situation; ultrasound introduces moral complexities to pregnancy that were previously absent; armed drones invite the leaders of nations to turn to assassination as a mere expediency. Allowing for the moral agency of things (even as just the modification of moral possibilities) changes the question of what is a virtue into something radically new and different.

What I mean by a cybervirtue are those desirable qualities that a cyborg might possess, and what I mean by cyborg is any combination of beings and things that acts with a greater range of possibilities than either can achieve alone. Of particular interest to me at this time is the cyborg each of us forms with a robot, such as a laptop, a smartphone, or a desktop computer. If you are reading these words, you are a cyborg in the relevant sense since you could not have encountered what I am writing here without participating directly or indirectly in a network of humans and robots. The qualities of these networks, whether with just a single human and robot, or with a vast plurality of beings and things, is precisely what is at task when we think about cybervirtues.

So if virtues are the desirable habits of humans and other beings, cybervirtues are the equivalent properties humans possess as cyborgs. There are at least two senses that we can identify such qualities, and the current Cybervirtue Campaign here at Only a Game is interested in both of them. Firstly, the personal side of cybervirtue concerns the relationship between a robot and its human; the way your smart phone is designed (both in terms of its hardware and its software) governs its moral relationship with you. A simple example of such a personal cybervirtue is the recycling bin, which offers the kindness of protecting against the permanent loss of digital material by separating the decision to discard from the decision to make such discards permanent. Personal cybervirtues offer an internal sense of the term, internal to any given human-robot pairing.

On the other hand, social cybervirtues concern how the human-robot cyborg relates to other cyborgs, the external sense of the term. Here it is perhaps easier to demonstrate situations that show a lack of virtue, such as when anonymity in digital public spaces such as Twitter encourages appalling behaviour, especially (for some sad reason) towards female cyborgs. Yet the very presence of these machine-invoked moral debilities points to the possibility of cybervirtue in this external sense – the design of hardware and software to encourage virtuous behaviour in the cyborgs that result from the intimate relationship between a robot and its human. Here, we must be careful to avoid the moral disaster of individualism in its guise of paternalism: it is not cybervirtuous to forcibly censor online swearing (although it may be prudent to do so in some situations), because doing so does not encourage virtuous habits in humans.

What of autonomous robots? The capacity for a robot to take independent action once launched into a designed program of action somewhat conceals the way these are also cyborgs, always involving a human element in their constitution and operation. A cyborg (which is a contraction for cybernetic organism) could be constituted entirely by robots, provided ‘organism’ is taken metaphorically, as is often the case. But the question of whether there might eventually be robots made by other robots and entailing no assistance, direction, or maintenance by humans draws us away from the problem at hand. If such imagined future robots were beings in the relevant sense, they could possess virtues – and if they did not or could not, they would not be beings in any important sense.

Through the concept of cybervirtue I seek to draw attention both to the meaning of traditional virtues when considered against the backdrop of our vast networks of technology, and also to suggest ways in which the design of our robot’s hardware and software could be made to encourage virtue. Currently, this does not happen: our perverse mockery of Enlightenment ideals has been used in precisely the opposite way it was envisioned; instead of empowering individual autonomy and mutual respect, a shallow individualism devoid of context bankrolls a commercial consequentialism where only profit matters. The corporations cannot be blamed for this; they act in precisely the way they have been designed. It is up to us to create better cyborgs – either by changing our robots, or by changing ourselves.

The opening image is What Lies Between Skin and Flesh by Rashid Rana, which I found here on his artnet page. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Librarians on File-sharing

File Sharing Before It Was CoolWhen pirates make copies of music, television shows, movies, or books, they don’t just keep it for themselves, and they don’t sell them on for money – they share their files freely with their (illegal) community. That means file-sharing pirates are operating as underground librarians. Yet despite this, the most noise about piracy has come from musicians (whose album sales have fallen sharply because of it) and especially the media corporations who market them. But the people I most want to hear from about the ethics of file-sharing are the librarians themselves.

What do the librarians think about file-sharing? What do they think are appropriate penalties for operating an unauthorised library? Are there any librarians who would consider allying with pirates for legal distribution of material (e.g. out of copyright books)? Do you think the future of libraries and the future of file-sharing are related in any way?

If you are a librarian, I would love to hear from you, either in the comments here, or in a reply to the tweet that pointed to this post. And if not, please promote the discussion by retweeting the original tweet.


Prologue to the Cybervirtue Campaign

KanayamaWhen file sharing first exploded onto the technology scene, it was something many of my friends were involved in. For some, it was just exciting and new – hear The Orb’s new album before it’s released on Napster, get torrents for new episodes of Battlestar Galactica months before any British television station airs them... There wasn’t much thought about what was being done or indeed why, and if it was ever approached as a moral question, the standard justification was that it was the giant multinational media corporations who were taking the loss and thus that this was a victory for the little guys.

I eventually came to repudiate that view: because of the scale of their operations, the corporations still had something to gain by having their media shared and talked about; it was precisely artists like The Orb who were losing out in this arrangement. If you file share a Disney movie you may get the schadenfreude of denying them payment, but you still contribute to the domination of their intellectual property by participating in that cultural activity (watching Disney movies – including Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars films) rather than any of the other things you could have been participating with. What’s more you will, in the process, have denied money to the cinemas or the shops who would otherwise get a share of the money being exchanged; you have concentrated cultural power, not disrupted it.

Personally, I began to have severe qualms about what I was taking from the black library, as I call it (since it is like a black market, but no money is exchanged), but when I did, the unexpected result was that I simply stopped listening to music altogether. My experiences with file sharing led me to conclude that the packaged goods model that was being used to market music was painfully overpriced, but I wasn’t willing to take music without the creators permission either. I simply stopped participating in music entirely (since I am now too middle-aged and family-bound to relive the glories of my gigging years). This situation persisted until Spotify gave me a passable compromise. I hear people complain that the cut that artists get from Spotify is too low, and this is probably the case: but at least there is once again a line of revenue between myself and musicians. Free, in this case, was far too cheap.

This simple example of the moral dimensions of new technologies illustrates the complexity of our inter-relationships in the light of the cybernetic explosion of the last century. This is about more than just computers; cybernetics is a field concerned with communication and control systems, including such systems where they occur biologically, and radio is a clear example of a cybernetic system that did not require computers. The term has also given us a striking new word for the kind of beings we are: cyborgs, cybernetic organisms. Yet as Donna Haraway made clear in 1991, we were always cyborgs, and as I have argued elsewhere, the ants and the beavers were cyborgs before us. All life is cyborg life, it is never biological versus inorganic since all organisms are systems of both kinds, and inorganic matter is part of the field for all organic life.

Ethics entered an entirely new phase when people like Haraway, Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, and Peter-Paul Verbeek began to look at the relationship between humans and tools from different perspectives. The Enlightenment had taught us that humans were the centre of ethical considerations, and that tools (as objects) were morally neutral, a position already coming into doubt in 1954 with Heidegger’s lecture and essay The Question Concerning Technology:

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

According to the secular animist view that is currently being developed in various different ways, agency cannot be afforded to humans alone. Our tools have a role in our agency or, equivalently, agency emerges from networks of beings and things (or just things, for those who prefer to simplify rather than untangle). In making media forgery nearly effortless, file sharing had a significant moral impact; it changed the entire relationship between artists, corporations, and consumers of media, in a way that could not adequately be reduced to an attempt to defend the old monetary exchanges nor indeed to ‘sticking it to the man’. We are cyborgs: our ethics entails our robots as much as ourselves.

These ideas, which grow from thoughts expressed here at Only a Game for about a decade now, lead me to the pressing need to interrogate the idea of cybervirtue, the positive moral qualities of cyborgs, and in particular, the ethical dimension of human-robot relations. That smartphone in your pocket may not look like R2D2 but it is still a robot – as the operating system ‘Android’ makes quite clear, and as programmed assistants like Siri also reveal. For my purposes, a robot is merely a tool with any capacity for independent function; the jukebox is just one example of an unrecognised robot, one that has been around for more than a century. Robots have been with us for longer than we think, but we were so hung up on our expectation of humanoid robots (androids) that we failed to spot them as they surrounded us.

Bringing moral reflection into our relationship with robots is challenging, because it requires us to think in new ways, but this is thankfully an area where philosophy has plenty of experience – indeed, it is the exemplar of having to think through new problems, and indeed to create new problems by thinking through existing situations. Moral philosophy, more commonly called ‘ethics’, is the place where we contemplate (collectively, if we are doing it right!) the problems of how to live. While ethics has three faces – that of outcomes and thus decisions; that of actions and thus rules; and that of agents and thus virtues – the manifest problems with corporate and national consequentialism, and the disaster we have made of rights (both discussed in Chaos Ethics), make it clear to me that disentangling our ethical crisis may have to begin with virtues. This leads inevitably to the issue of cybervirtues – and the important question of what they might be.

Back in the day, I joked that this blog was a non-fiction role-playing game and held campaigns like the Metaphysics Campaign in 2006 and the Ethics Campaign (which concluded in 2008), where I would explore a topic and the players (i.e. the readers and commenters) would help me explore it. The last campaign I attempted was the Fiction Campaign… but there was not much by way of players. ‘Stickier’ cybernetic systems like Twitter and Facebook have swallowed up the available attention, and virtuous discourse has become endangered. But I have never learned how to stop tilting at windmills, so here we are now at the start yet another campaign, one about the moral relationship between robots and their humans.

You are invited to play, by reading, by commenting, by sharing your thoughts here or in the more addictive digital public spaces that have swallowed us up. I will write and share my thoughts on this topic, but every idea in this undiscovered country is open for debate, resistance, transformation, usurpation, and playful experiment. Please, feel free to mess around with these concepts; I do not own them nor would I wish to. Use the hashtag #cybervirtue, tweet, retweet, and share random thoughts about your robots and their influence upon you, and help anyone who is interested participate in this game of communal ethical enquiry.

Welcome to the Cybervirtue Campaign.

The opening image is a 1957 machine painting by Akira Kanayama, which I found at Wikiart. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.


Apropos of Nothing

Pixel Chris BatemanWelcome back to Only a Game, the curious meanderings of philosopher and game designer Chris Bateman!

Last year, I published a short-form philosophy book, Wikipedia Knows Nothing, which asks us to consider whether knowledge is best understood as practices (and thus knowing cannot be reduced to the mere repetition of facts). It’s available as a free PDF, so if you’re unfamiliar with my philosophy this is a great place to start. Drawn to the merits of short-form philosophy, I have already begun work on my next project, tentatively entitled The Virtuous Cyborg, and my preparations for this will go down here on Only a Game. More on this very shortly.

I am also still working on the wealth of material that came out of my discussions last year with Babette Babich, and hope to have another installment of this some time in the Spring. If you missed the first dialogue, where we discussed continental philosophy and its current state of endangerment, check out December’s Last of the Continental Philosophers. The next discussion should dovetail with the thread that I’ll be opening up in the Tuesdays to follow. 

Hope you’ll join in when the spirit moves you, and I’ll see you in the comments here or on Twitter, which has largely usurped Typepad as the source of commentary on my material.

The Game begins in earnest next week.


Choose-Your-Own Winter Festival

Frost CrystalsWishing you all (delete as applicable) an Auspicious Dhanu Sankranti, Happy Milad-un-Nabi, Serene Buddhist New Year, Happy Hannukah, Merry Yalda, Solemn Zaratosht No Diso, Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa, Happy Solstice, Blessings upon the followers of Bahá'u'lláh, and Felicitations on the birth of the tenth Nanak. If you’re not celebrating any of these, then Happy Swik!

Only a Game will return in the Gregorian New Year.