Virtues and Technology: Forgotten lessons

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by Mauricio C. Serafim

It was part of the imagery of ancient Greece the distinction between human perfection through the virtues and the technique/technology as a minor activity. The technique was considered a way of “cheating” physical reality, creating artifacts whose mere course of nature would not be able to do, in order to satisfy certain human desires. But the infinite desire was limited by the “being” of things, and the discernment between what could be changed, motivated by desire, and what is permanent, regardless of that desire, was valued.

The virtues were the acquired and operative habits that enabled the human being to know this reality and to adapt his desires and his will according to it, having as final aim the self-realization of the human being. In other words, the human being would have a full life – that life that would be worth living – if he knew his own nature and ordered it according to the structure of reality. Wisdom and prudence – which would enable the human being to know his inner and outer cosmos and to distinguish between what is false and what is true – and the courage, self-control, and justice – that would order his desires, drives, and emotions according to this knowledge – are examples of virtues. To attempt to deceive this human reality is what the Greeks called vices.

There was a clear hierarchy: without these virtues, technology would inevitably lead to catastrophic consequences. The myth of Icarus, in a way, shows us this: he tried to escape from the island of Crete with pairs of wings created by his father (technology), which warned him not to get too close to the sun (prudence). But Icarus did not listen to his father and the wax that bound the feathers of the wings melted, which made Icarus plummet to his death at sea. Certainly, the fault was not of the technology, but it had limits that were despised by the folly of Icarus. He allowed himself to be invaded by the vice of pride, which leads people to believe that they possess a power which, in contact with reality, turns out to be totally false.

Turning to our time, it seems that this lesson is forgotten. Virtues as a means for personal improvement and associated human life have been replaced by the bet on technology. Pop culture gives us an intriguing metaphor about this: the contrast between Captain America and Iron Man, especially in the movie Avengers: Infinity War (Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, 2018).

Tony Stark is the typical “postmodern” man: immature, selfish, insecure about his personal life, an inner struggle on what is right to do, but so as not to commit himself too much … and a genius of technology. We could even compare it to Steve Jobs, an icon of the generation who believes that one gadget will change the world, entrepreneur model for many people, but it is not an example of character. Stark’s armor compensates for what he lacks in virtues, but the bet on technology does not provide the recognition of his peers when he claims to be a leader of the resistance against Thanos.

Who can do that is Captain America. It embodies the lost hierarchy of the classical Greeks: the technology subordinate to the virtues. The puny Steve Rogers was, above all, an example of courage and determination (virtues) and, upon receiving the serum (technology), becomes Captain America. The serum has amplified his strength and endurance and, with them, his virtues. Despite being one of the less powerful heroes, he will lead the others against Thanos. The recognition is given more by the power of his virtues and his character. His peers relied on their considerations and decisions, which was not the case with Stark.

The horizon of our current imaginary hardly goes beyond the belief that the solutions to our problems, in any scope, are one step away from the next app or gadget. In the field of Administration, there is the inveterate bet on the control of human behavior, through some psychological technique, process design, alternative forms to bureaucracy – and the eternal return to it – or leadership lessons.

The technology itself is not the problem. But the belief that it alone will ultimately redeem us from our faults and problems – transforming ourselves into better human beings and transforming the world in our own image and likeness – is a naivety that is justified only by the ignorance of our human nature and its relationship with reality. Without the virtues to guide it, technology is only a panacea that can turn against us, annihilating us or tyrannizing us.

And that’s why lessons like Icarus’s, passing through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Arthur C. Clark’s HAL 9000, and the Marvel Comics Avengers can’t be forgotten.

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