Political Virtues in the Age of Technology

Online Workshop | Zoom | June 14 2024 | Start 13:30 CET/7:30 EDT

Humanity has undeniably entered the age of technology. Many of our daily conversations now revolve around headline grabbing claims concerning AI and whether it will rule the world, blockchain and whether it will unleash the next revolution in commerce and politics, and so on. We are so confronted with it that the very idea has become a platitude. Yet, beyond the frenzy of the news and the avalanche of systems and gadgets that invade our daily lives, we tend to forget to look into the mirror, at our own, human, being. Our own being, it may be argued, had also been lost from sight in technology ethics, as the field increasingly focused on ‘impacts’ of technology and how to account for them. Technology assessment emphasises the impacts of technologies on humans on society, but implicitly considers these latter unchanged. Yet, technologies profoundly impact our being, our character and qualities, our dispositions. In the past years, this insight has led to a redirection of discussions on ethics of technology towards this ancient ethical category: virtue.

Virtue ethics has enriched the discourse surrounding technology ethics, and yet, it shares one of the field’s drawbacks: an inadequate treatment of political and collective structures. Virtue ethics, as a tradition in moral philosophy, has primarily drawn from a methodological individualism, for instance grounded in an individualist notion of eudaimonia. Once virtue is mediated by political institutions, as already argued by Aristotle in the Politics, it is transformed. It sits, as it were, between the individuals and political institutions. Virtue could also inform our thinking around the common good worth wanting in a technological age.

To respond to this lacuna, scholars have recently taken up philosophical discussions of organisational virtues, collective virtues, perfectionism in institutional settings, and civic virtues, in light of the current technological transformations. This workshop brings together an international group of scholars to discuss how new technologies mediate political virtues, and how the latter may be strengthened in light of new challenges posed by AI, blockchain, and other emerging technologies.

The aim of the workshop is to kickstart an international academic conversation around the theme, which may lead to a special issue with a journal like Philosophy and Technology.


13:30 Introduction by Avigail Ferdman and Wessel Reijers
13:45 Marco Meyer
14:15 Mandi Astola
14:45 Break
15:00 Don Howard
15:45 Break
16:00 Marc Steen
16:30 Sarah Spiekermann
17:00 Warp up and discussion


Mandi Astola

Collective Moral Creativity and Practical Wisdom

While philosophers like to think of things in terms of dilemmas, real life situations are hardly ever real dilemmas. There is almost always a potentially infinite number of ways in which an agent can respond to a moral problem. Solving and relieving moral problems therefore requires creativity. Creativity seems to be a large part of practical wisdom, as some philosophers have argued. This means that there are good reasons to want creative governments, organisations and communities. Fostering creativity in a collective has its own philosophical challenges: what is collective creativity? What kind of creativity is conducive to practical wisdom? I will discuss examples from the design of new technologies to answer these questions.

Marco Meyer

Institutional Epistemic Virtue in the Technological Age: Lessons from the IMF and World Bank's Forecasting Practice

I argue for three claims: First, in the era of technology, the significance of epistemic virtues greatly increases. Second, it is institutions and organizations, rather than individuals, that must embody these virtues. Third, our current institutions and organizations significantly underperform against the standards of epistemic virtue we ought to hold them to. I illustrate these claims with a case study of the IMF and World Bank's methodologies for Debt Sustainability Assessments (DSAs). The forecasts at the heart of these assessments are not only inaccurate but also exhibit systematic bias, indicating underlying issues of favoritism and defensive forecasting. Despite these flaws, crucial borrowing decisions rely on these forecasts. I propose reforms to the forecasting practices of the IMF to enhance its epistemic virtue and consider what we might learn more generally for making organizations and institutions epistemically virtuous.

Don Howard

AI and Civic Virtue

We face a rapidly growing arrays of serious ethical challenges with the ever more widespread employment of ever more powerful artificial intelligence. Prominent problems include algorithmic bias that can reinforce or exacerbate patterns of discrimination in the criminal justice system or the hiring and promotion practices of corporations and government agencies, the risk of the misuse of AI for purposes of political repression and control by authoritarian regimes, the corruption of democratic political practice by deepfakes, and the integration of AI in automated weapons systems. In most of the literature on such ethical challenges, the focus is on the ethical responsibilities of individual makers, marketers, and regulators of technology. This talk will suggest that a helpful complement or alternative to this individualist ethical perspective is the perspective of civic virtue. Technology making and technology deployment are usually the work of whole communities of makers, marketers, and regulators, and the ethical impacts often affect not just the individual users but the well being and well functioning of the communities within which those individuals live and work. With reference to a few specific cases, we will ask what are the impacts that are either corrosive to or promote the flourishing of relevant communities, what are the virtuous habits of action of whole communities and individuals in community that are maximally conducive to human well being, and how do we socially engineer the relevant communities to maximize the likelihood that such virtuous habits of action will emerge and be sustained.

Marc Steen

Virtues for living well together

First, let’s look at some virtues that we would need in order to live well together: justice, self-control, courage, practical wisdom, civility, empathy, care, collaboration, inclusion, and empowerment. Let’s call these ‘civic
virtues’. Unfortunately, these virtues are often corroded by the ways in which big tech and big state design and use digital technologies, in order to increase their power over people. Second, let’s look at some examples of alternative ways to design and deploy digital technologies; ways that empower people to cultivate these civic virtues. Now, if we want to live well together, a key question would be: How can we promote these alternative ways to design and deploy digital technologies?

Sarah Spiekermann

Political Virtues in the Age of Technology

The ever-accelerating digital transformation and the complexity this transformation causes for political and economic organizations implies that more than ever leaders need to decide wisely on how they navigate the current space of change. But what is wisdom? What are wise decisions with a view to technology? This talk is pulling from the Aristotelian tradition and combines it with Max Scheler’s value hierarchy as outlined in his Material Value Ethics. Spence (2011) defined wisdom “as a type of meta-knowledge that is used ... to make right judgments ... that are of value and good for us in our lives personally ... and that are of value and good for others in their lives (ethically good) for the ultimate attainment of ... eudemonia” (p. 266). The definition embraces a number of dimensions, which I want to start from in my talk. His emphasis of eudaimonia in life (as opposed to happiness) points us to the essence of wisdom, which reaches beyond the gratification of immediate desires of interested parties or what is considered of ‘value’ in the economics literature. Instead, eudaimonia points us to consider that wisdom always implies a consideration of the living. Any wise decision has the fostering of the living at its core. But many leaders in capitalist societies do not look at the living, human life values or eudemonia any more as a compass for their decision making. Instead, they look at lifeless, abstract, and mediating utility values such as productivity, efficiency, unlimited growth, etc. and their value bearers like contracting debts, new technology, disruptively altered workflows, etc.. Building on Scheler’s hierarchy of values (Scheler 1921 (1973)) I argue that by prioritizing such extrinsic utility values over high intrinsic values, contemporary leaders turn the objectively given hierarchy of values in the world upside down.
They lack virtue because they work against the world’s most inner order.


Scheler, Max. 1921 (1973). Formalism in Ethics and Non-formal Ethics of Values: A New Attempt Toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Evanston, USA: Northwestern University Press.

Spence, Edward H. 2011. "Information, knowledge and wisdom: groundwork for the normative evaluation of digital information and its relation to the good life." Journal of Ethics in Information Technology 13:261-275.

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