• Rowan Fortune

Moral Cyborgs

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This week continues a focus on the work of Chris Bateman, this time reviewing his book The Virtuous Cyborg. It was published July 21 2018.

Prior to reading Chris Bateman’s The Virtuous Cyborg, I was becoming infatuated (somewhat late to the fad) with the augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go, which Bateman uses as a (qualified) example of the good kind of cyborg, making exercise ‘essential to its play (for all that it also trades on the player’s compulsions through the free-to-play business model).’ This is illustrative of the types of analysis Bateman offers of what he will call cybervirtue, but I am getting ahead. Like any thoroughgoing philosopher, Bateman begins not with case studies, but terminology:


What I mean by “cybervirtue” is nothing more than the desirable qualities that a cyborg might possess, and what I mean by “cyborg” is a combination of living being and inanimate thing that acts with a greater range of possibilities than either being or thing can achieve alone.

The rest of the book robustly expands and unpacks this idea and (just as significantly) its antonym, cyborgs that are ‘cyber-debilitating, which is to say, they bring out moral debilities.’ Central to all of this is virtue ethics (the notion that morality is best understood in the good and bad qualities of moral agents) and Chaos Nova, a metaphor for ‘the near-infinite diversification of identities that resulted from the fracturing of traditions’ entailed by the collapse of virtue ethics. Bateman offers no simple generalisations about either.


This core analysis might be familiar to readers of Alasdair McIntyre and especially his After Virtue. And indeed, Bateman is indebted to McIntyre, not only in deploying virtue ethics, but in critiquing what he terms the moral disaster of individualism, which ‘sacrifices any more substantial freedom in favour of merely pre-prescribed market decision,’ and the moral disaster of consequentialism, with morality ‘reduced to mere mathematical calculations’ that fail to discern what is truly at stake in moral judgements. That is, Bateman has McIntyreian reasons for deciding not to examine the morality of cyborgs from a deontological or utilitarian stance.


For him, as with McIntyre, virtues are defined as ‘qualities that acquire their meaning from practices that people pursue together, since only in a shared context do qualitative judgements possess a common ground.’ This shapes his thesis, since he is less concerned with the types of calculations and intentions that preoccupy many accounts of the morality of new technologies, and more with the way technologies shape and change the humans who use them (for good or ill), ‘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 Virtuous Cyborg is a look into that ever changing moral space.


Bateman always draws from a range of philosophers (in this book, as diverse a set of thinkers as Ivan Illich and Kant), which reflects a conscious methodological pluralism, but here he also draws from a more specific set of religious-philosophical traditions that coalesce around virtue. He presents a list of cybervirtues not as ‘a complete set, but rather[…] signposts that mark out the territory we are currently lost within.’ Finding inspiration in Taoism he starts with restraint, respect (or humility) and kindness (which find their opposites in compulsion, disdain and cruelty, respectively). Courage, justice and honesty are derived from McIntyre’s philosophy, to which Bateman also adds the virtues of tact, tenacity, fidelity (especially as a free commitment to a tradition) and deep-sightedness (as opposed to shallow-sightedness).


For this last virtue, he turns to Michel Callon and Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), to outline the idea of the cyberg, ‘the network that produces and maintains the more complicated cyborgs’. Discerning the obscured cybergs from the cyborgs that make them up is deep-sighted in that it permits both a greater nuance and a fuller comprehension of cyborgs as they exist in their contexts. That is, deep-sightedness is a meta-virtue, permitting or enhancing the others at an analytical level. Often, the larger the cybergs, with the largest termed gigacybergs and containing billions of constituents, the more morally relevant they are too; gigacybergs include cars, larger nation states (such as India and China), Microsoft, television, Facebook, the Internet and, largest of all, money in aggregate.


Bateman is not a neo-luddite, but perhaps a cyber-sceptic. He argues strongly for imagining robots that enhance virtues; for example, drawing on Illich’s notion of convivial tools, he encourages cyber-fidelity, ‘technology that empowers individuals within their communities, rather than creating dependence and dividing or destroying community in the name of “progress.”’ Nonetheless, it is often more pressing to indicate where technology has gone wrong, where it has been morally debilitating. He reserves some of the harshest judgement for where the stakes are highest and the debility most extreme, such as the evil of drone warfare, but also a lot of condemnation for the online social networks that are presented as hubs of community, but engender nothing of the sort.


He asks ‘what are Twitter and Facebook’s “follow” counters if not an invitation to judge quantity over quality?’ And more harshly still, ‘The cyber-cowardice engendered by our digital public spaces so successfully isolates trolls from their actions, the risk of reprisal falls to almost nothing.’ In another book, Wikipedia Knows Nothing Bateman addresses the problem of anonymity in peer review and Wikipedia editing, so it is no surprise for him to raise it here in relation to the wider web. He persuasively warns that we cannot expect ‘our robots to plug the gap caused by scaling networks beyond our human capacity to form a community.’


At the end of reading one feels a mixture of pessimism and hope, which is perhaps what a worthwhile book about morality ought to convey. I was also left wanting more, as The Virtuous Cyborg is not exhaustive, and I am glad that Chris Bateman is currently writing a blog project entitled A Hundred Cyborgs. There are many attempts to provide this type of analysis right now—even in popular shows such as Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror—but what is provided by this book is not simply a fearful look at the dystopian possibilities of our current technological and moral impasses, but a theoretically informed attempt to traverse this nightmarish portrayal in the hopes for something, I hope, more utopian.


The Virtuous Cyborg is available from the publisher for £10.99

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