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Moral Deskilling and Upskilling in a New Machine Age: Reflections on the Ambiguous Future of Character

Abstract

This paper explores the ambiguous impact of new information and communications technologies (ICTs) on the cultivation of moral skills in human beings. Just as twentieth century advances in machine automation resulted in the economic devaluation of practical knowledge and skillsets historically cultivated by machinists, artisans, and other highly trained workers (Braverman 1974), while also driving the cultivation of new skills in a variety of engineering and white collar occupations, ICTs are also recognized as potential causes of a complex pattern of economic deskilling, reskilling, and upskilling. In this paper, I adapt the conceptual apparatus of sociological debates over economic deskilling to illuminate a different potential for technological deskilling/upskilling, namely the ability of ICTs to contribute to the moral deskilling of human users, a potential that exists alongside rich but currently underrealized possibilities for moral reskilling and/or upskilling. I flesh out this general hypothesis by means of examples involving automated weapons technology, new media practices, and social robotics. I conclude that since moral skills are essential prerequisites for the effective development of practical wisdom and virtuous character, and since market and cultural forces are not presently aligned to bring about the more salutary of the ambiguous potentials presented here, the future shape of these developments warrants our close attention—and perhaps active intervention.

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Notes

  1. While the concept of moral deskilling is alluded to in Whitby (1996, 2008), Manders-Huits (2006), and Coeckelbergh (2013, discussed further below), it has not been a central theme of analysis in the literature on the ethics of emerging technologies.

  2. A similar account can be found in the writings of Confucian virtue ethicists, in which the skillful moral practice of the “village honest man” (xiangyuan) is contrasted with the genuine moral virtue of the exemplary person (Confucius 1998; Mencius 1970).

  3. See Coeckelbergh (2012) for a related discussion of the importance of cultivating moral skills.

  4. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for recommending this clarification.

  5. See Held (2006), Kittay (1999), and Tronto (1993) for a fuller articulation of the skills implicit in successful caring practices, and Parks (2010) for a discussion of these as related to carebots.

  6. Here I rely on a double-meaning that alludes both to Foucault’s (1988) use of the phrase “technologies of the self” to refer to classical philosophical techniques of moral self-cultivation, as well as a more literal reference to the technologies that mediate our worldly relations and hence guide our self-formation in the world. My claim is that we retain the ability to imagine and develop new and alternative forms of these relations, even as our present powers of moral imagination continue to be shaped by our existing technology relations. The future trajectory of human moral abilities is technologically conditioned, but not technologically determined.

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Vallor, S. Moral Deskilling and Upskilling in a New Machine Age: Reflections on the Ambiguous Future of Character. Philos. Technol. 28, 107–124 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-014-0156-9

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Keywords

  • Deskilling
  • Virtue ethics
  • Automation
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Robots
  • New media
  • Autonomous weapons