Miscellany: “Ethics and technics”

I have been thinking of technology as something that serves to increase our “reach.” Whatever is my armspan, it is greater if I augment it with a stick, and greater still if I augment it with a flying drone. It struck me that, in some ways, technology serves as a means to overcome space. I think it is overcoming time too but that is perhaps too much of a tangent to explore here. The notion that technology serves as a means to overcome space fits very neatly with your own motive, as you described it, for spending so much time on your phone. The spatial distances are no longer as formidable when we can maintain contact in this way. Another way to think of it is that our presence becomes less local and less bound to the spatial coordinates of our bodies. We become “smeared out” over space just like the electron as imagined by quantum mechanics. 


I am left to wonder about your opinion on whether technology is either good or bad, or whether this kind of judgment depends, in each instance, on the end towards which it is being deployed. Some people seem to regard technological development as a good in itself but I am tempted to regard this view with suspicion. In fact, I think this kind of worship of technology, in which technology is used to substitute for other goods and values, tends to distract us from those very goods and values in a way that is deleterious to our humanity and our society. I think technology is great as long as it is ordered towards a purpose that is good. But when it itself becomes that purpose or aim, then I think it is very problematic and we become the subordinate to our creations, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. But again, these are my views and I would like to hear yours.


Reflecting on the nature of censorship or criticism, I was left with the question of whether most antagonistic parties in fact agree on the end and come into conflict only in respect to the means to achieve that end or whether they do not share a common vision of the end in the first place. I think most people assume that the second scenario is more common and I probably would have done the same. But the more that I consider it, the more I think you are right to say that most disagreement and censorship stems from divergent conceptions of the proper means to achieve an outcome and not the outcome itself.

It might sound abstract but it is a place to begin: most people think both “liberty” and “safety” are civil ends worth achieving, and yet they find a thousand ways to squabble and fight over specific means to achieve them. To what degree people should be compelled to wear Corona masks in public places, for instance, is an example of an issue that invites people to disagree over the means to achieve these ideals. Perhaps we have to settle for imperfect realizations of such ideals on earth, and yet I don’t think it is without value to recognize our common affinity and striving towards them because I think this can serve to remind us of what we share in a time when what we do not share seems so often to be presented in the sharpest relief.


It was written:

“Technology is one of the greatest inventions.” 

I wonder if it is more accurate to simply say that “technology is invention.” I struggle to come up with a single instance of the one class that is not contained in the other and this leads me to suspect that they are co-extensive, like “fevers” and “elevated body temperature.” What do you think of this? Can you think of inventions that are not technologies?

I think your conclusion that the best way to relate to technology is to attempt to strike a proper balance between its use and the restriction of its use. It reminds me of Aristotle’s notion that a virtue is not the opposite of a vice—which is the common naïve view of the matter—but rather the mean between two opposing vices. The example he gives is “courage,” noting that it is not merely the contrariety of “cowardice.” Instead “courage” refers to the proper balance between the contrarieties of “cowardice” and “brashness.” It strikes me that Aristotle’s conception of good and evil as virtue and vice very neatly corroborates the view that many people hold that good and evil depend on one another. In a sense, one could even say “evil is the raw material of good; out of vice, I weave virtue.” 


 I have on many occasions contemplated the logic and illogic of our conventional classification of the various academic disciplines. I have sometimes thought of “Philosophia,” as Plato conceived of her, to be something like a mother, who in the Middle Ages gave birth seven daughters, known collectively as the Artes liberales or “The Liberal Arts”: Grammatica, Logica, Rhetorica, Astronomia, Geometria, Arithmetica, and Musica. This image helps me understand how the scope of meaning of a word like “Philosophia” once compassed a great deal more than it does today, including, I believe, the area of concern now indicated by the term “psychology,” which is literally, “the science or study of the soul” (-logia + psyche). Given that not a single one of Plato’s dialogues fails to address the soul, I think I have a firm basis for this view. An “anatomization” of meaning similar to that which “Philosophia” has undergone can be observed—thought through the opposite end of the telescope—in a words like “wind,” “spirit,” “breath,” and “inspiration,” which in Latin are designated by the same word: spiritus. 


In respect to means and ends, one way to understand them within the frame of the example that you gave is to think of “hiking” or “walking” as the means. Obviously there is nothing wrong with walking per se, but when by walking we are trampling underfoot rare and delicate flora and damaging the ecosystem, then walking, which as a means is basically neutral, has been ordered to an unseemly end. Does this help clarify the relation of these terms? Often it is a question of hitting upon a way to frame a given scenario that makes sense within these terms and helps us see something that we might otherwise have missed. In this way they are conceptual “technologies.”


It was written:

“How I foster a proper relation with technology is by remembering it is a tool.”

I think that is a very crucial insight. The risk is that our tools begin to use us. I think they do this in the first instance by infatuating us with the promise of infinite improvement of them and so this sort of technological progress becomes an end in itself and begins to substitute for more legitimate forms of progress. Is this consistent with what you had in mind?


Do you think that saying “technology is but another tool, among many other forms of tool” is the most accurate way to express the relation between these concepts? I am tempted to think of “technologies” and “tools” as roughly synonymous but perhaps you can show me where they come apart.

This leads to my next question: do you think tools as such can be good and evil, or only they “why” towards which they are levied? For instance, a knife seems like a good thing if I am slicing and orange but a bad thing if I am threatening to harm someone with it. Obviously the knife as such is not responsible for the goodness or badness in each of these instances, and instead the knife only serves to concentrate and magnify my intentions. 


It sounds like you are somewhat ambivalent about the value of technology as such and to me, this suggests that technology in itself is neither good or bad but rather merely a means to do other things that can be good or bad. I think people actually make a mistake when they start to regard technology as either good or bad in itself. It is a mistake that is not unlike asking “what shape is the colour orange?” 


I was struck by your mention of the Dunning-Kruger effect because it occurred to me that it is a way to understand the condition of the prisoners in Plato’s cave. We have the idea that they are “prisoners” and that someone other than themselves is their jailer, but I don’t think this is how it is. Rather we all bind ourselves in this prison by taking our delusions to be true. By the same token, we can liberate ourselves through a sort of reversal in which we begin to assume our “truths” are delusions. When we can regard an error as an error, then we have achieved a correct perception and this is the beginning of something. I wonder what you think of this connection.


Thank you for submitting your reflection. I appreciate your example of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to illustrate the way in which an appeal to an end that is deemed sufficiently significant can be used to justify almost any means at all. It is something of a “blank-check” scenario.

I follow a similar practice to the one you described in respect to using my phone. As a rule, I believe the person sitting across the table from me deserves my full attention. That being said, I often find myself making exceptions to this rule. Even in these exceptions, I always acknowledge to the other person that I am going to look at my phone and I have found that this is a way to indicate that I am not doing it out of disrespect for him or her, or out of unconscious compulsion, which is also a form of disrespect. This is somewhat of a tangent but I have also found that the immediate access to the internet that our phones provide now runs the risk of stifling many conversations before they are even given the chance to kindle, as it were. I have in mind when somebody speculates about something and the next person directly consults Google. It seems to put a stop to the discussion before it has even begun, and moreover can be felt as a subtle breach of privacy, as though the Internet had been allowed to interlope on the conversation without everyone’s consent.

Below is a lecture on the theme:

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