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The Rule of Virtue: A Confucian Response to the Ethical Challenges of Technocracy

Abstract

The idea of technocracy has been widely criticized in Western literature in the philosophy and sociology of technology. A common critique of technocracy is that it represents an “antidemocratic” and “dehumanizing” ideology. This paper invites Western scholars to reconsider their oppositions to technocracy by drawing on resources from Confucian ethics. In doing so, this paper synthesizes the major ethical challenges of technocracy mainly concerned by Western scholars in philosophy, political theories, sociology, and policy studies. This paper argues that incorporating Confucian resources such as the rule of virtue into technocracy may be helpful for reexamining these ethical challenges to technocracy that are deeply rooted in Western liberal democratic ideologies. The Confucian rule of virtue means that social policies should be made by the virtuous and capable and these policies need to have impacts on the moral progress of the society. Confucian values provide ethical guidance for technocrats in assessing the moral quality of the sociotechnical systems they build. From the Confucian perspective, sociotechnical systems are often assessed based on the criterion whether and how these sociotechnical systems contribute to a process of harmonization. This paper will introduce some practical cases that demonstrate how technical experts and expertise contribute to organizational and social management. In these cases, virtues and the rule of virtue do play a crucial role: virtues either determine the selection of technocrats and the legitimization of their political power or are embedded in engineering design and affect human behavior in the use context.

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Notes

  1. However, in technocrat political systems, as political leaders are often selected but not elected, there are cases in which discriminatory and exclusionary practices may exist (e.g., women and ethnic minorities have not been well represented among senior political positions in China’s central government).

  2. Most critics of technocracy may still find the four criticisms listed earlier still apply to the new context of social governance which is mediated by emerging technologies, although they may find that discussions on the four critiques may become more complicated.

  3. Ideas and examples in this paragraph were mainly derived from a reviewer’s comment.

  4. The notion of “Confucian technocrats” mainly refers to technocrats whose views of technology and society are deeply influenced by Confucian values. Nevertheless, we are not suggesting that these Confucian technocrats need to learn Confucian classics and apply teachings from Confucian classics into their engineering and management work. Contemporary technocrats in China may have never systematically learned Confucian classics, but they may still be called Confucian technocrats insofar as the values that guide through their everyday decision-making are either influenced by or aligned with key ideas in Confucianism. In other words, one does not have to learn Confucian classics to be a Confucian insofar as this person acts like a Confucian (it is possible that this person grew up in a family or a community which is dominated by Confucian values). Critics may also argue that in the Chinese intellectual history scholars from other schools of thought such as Daoists and Mohists might care more about technological innovation than Confucians. While we do agree that Daoists and Mohists historically showed greater interests in scientific and technological practices, we argue that quite a few teachings in Confucian ethics are in fact valuable for reflecting on the social impacts of technology and therefore “Confucianism matters in ethics of technology” (Wong, 2020b).

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Acknowledgements

Part of this project was supported by the 2018 Outstanding Innovative Talents Cultivation Program at the Renmin University of China.

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Correspondence to Qin Zhu.

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Lan, L., Zhu, Q. & Liu, Y. The Rule of Virtue: A Confucian Response to the Ethical Challenges of Technocracy. Sci Eng Ethics 27, 64 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-021-00341-6

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Keywords

  • Technocracy
  • Confucian ethics
  • The rule of virtue
  • Comparative ethics
  • Meritocracy
  • Engineering cultures