Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 2. Why Virtue?

I here offer three broad lines of argument for the necessity of personal virtue.

First, to dismiss any role for personal virtue is to take a one-sided view of technological systems, placing all causal efficacy on the side of technical hardware and institutional software while reducing ordinary people to passive recipients of whatever the system happens to allow them. This suggests a grim technological determinism, or at least an unquestioned hegemony for powerful players in business and government. Instead, I would opt for the view that technological systems are heterogeneous, with the choices and actions of ordinary people playing a part in giving the system its shape. To use the language of technology studies, technological forms are both cause and effect of social forms. [2]

This is not to say the relationship between technology and society is symmetrical.  As Thomas Hughes has argued, it becomes more and more difficult for people to change technological systems once they have matured. An important turning point in the development of what Hughes calls “technological momentum” occurs when a system comes to be intertwined with the values and habits of ordinary people. [3]

It seems to follow that the character and choices of ordinary people play an important role in shaping and maintaining complex technological systems, from which it follows that the character and choices of individuals may have an important role to play in changing those systems. At the very least, policy makers would have a much more difficult time changing systems of energy production, distribution, and consumption without the good will and active support of ordinary people.

This brings me directly to the second line of argument, which draws out some of the pragmatic consequences of the heterogeneity of technological systems. In short, an energy policy framework that does not engage ordinary people and seek to bring out the best in them is likely to be hollow, inflexible, and therefore unstable in the face of an uncertain future.

This is partly a matter of commitment. If ordinary people are not personally committed as willing participants in the project of reshaping or replacing the vast system of energy production and distribution, then they will only go so far in their own efforts to contribute to the project’s success. To alter Hughes’ metaphor, ordinary people would in this case be part of the inertia of the system that, at best, will delay the emergence of a new system and, at worst, will hold the system in its current configuration.

There is a historical parallel in early efforts toward soil conservation. As Aldo Leopold saw it, centralized efforts to rein in soil erosion (i.e. “government conservation”) would always fall short of what was really needed. Concerning such efforts in Wisconsin, Leopold writes: “we asked the farmer to do what he conveniently could to save his soil, and he has done just that, and only that.” As a consequence, the soil conservation districts set up by the Wisconsin legislature in 1937, is “a beautiful piece of social machinery” that is nonetheless “coughing along on two cylinders because we have been too timid, and to anxious for quick success, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obligations.” [4] What Leopold would ask of farmers is that they develop a particular moral virtue that might be called community mindedness, with the extension of the community to include ecological systems.

The practical need for virtue is also a matter of flexibility. When ordinary people are paying attention to the broader context, continually rethinking their choices and redirecting their efforts, the entire system can be more finely tuned. When energy supplies fluctuate or environmental conditions change, adaptation can then begin at the ground level and work its way up.

In September 2008, in the wake of Hurricane Ike, gas shortages in the Atlanta area went on for weeks. The causes were complex: refineries on the Gulf coast of Texas had shut down as a precaution as the storm approached, power outages after the storm delayed efforts to restart them, the distribution system did not have much excess capacity to make up for missed deliveries, and gas stations in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area were just switching from the summer formula to the winter formula in keeping with federal regulations. However, what might otherwise have been a short-term dip in supply became something of a crisis as consumers panicked and began hoarding gasoline, reportedly topping of their tanks whenever they happened to pass a station that still had gasoline. As a consequence, more stations ran out of gas and recovery from the fluctuation was delayed still further. Some efforts to address the problem from outside may have helped, including a one-time relaxation of federal regulations, but certainly a greater degree of virtue on the part of the drivers of Atlanta could have prevented it from getting as bad as it did: the intellectual virtues required to understand the broader context, and the moral and civic virtues required to resist their own panic in order to ease the problem for the whole community.

The third line of argument draws out the normative consequences of the heterogeneity of technological systems. As Aristotle would remind us, personal virtues are never merely personal, they are also political: virtues are good to the extent they contribute to the health and vibrancy of the polis. In our own context, the personal virtues involved in conservation either contribute to or complement the virtues of citizenship in a democratic society. The normative bottom line is this: without the active and thoughtful engagement of ordinary individuals as citizens, the public sphere is moribund and public policy regarding energy – or anything else – is illegitimate.

Oddly enough, a parallel to this point can be found in Garret Hardin’s argument regarding population growth. Hardin maintains that appeals to conscience, which he terms “propaganda”, are not a sufficient response to the crisis of population growth. To paraphrase, personal virtue is self-eliminating. Instead, the only way to make people responsible in matters of reproduction is by way of “definite social arrangements.” On its face this seems to call for a top-down solution engineered and administered by experts, but Hardin adds in a democratic twist: the social arrangements are a function of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”[5] So, even if he is correct that private virtue is all but pointless, Hardin at least assumes that people as citizens do – or ought to – possess enough civic virtue to agree to mutual imposition of constraints.

Of course, civic virtue can play a role in policy formation only in a robust democratic system with an open and active public sphere. It assumes a degree of equality in fact and not just in principle: not only should all votes be counted, but all voices should be heard in effective public deliberation about public goods. As democracy is actually practiced in the industrialized world, particularly in the United States, it may well be that political life is in fact lopsided, with much of the weight on the side of corporations and government agencies. It may well be that ordinary citizens in fact have little or no voice in the policy process. It need not be this way and, I would insist, it ought not to be this way. That it will be difficult to push toward a more fully democratic energy policy is no reason not to make the attempt, and a good first step is to foster personal and civic virtue.

[Up next . . . Which Virtues?]


2. Pinch, T.J. and W.E. Bijker, "The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit One Another," in The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, W.E. Bijker, T.P. Hughes, and T.J. Pinch, Editors. 1987, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. p. 17-50.

3.Hughes, T.P., "Technological Momentum," in Does Technology Drive History?: The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, M.R. Smith and L. Marx, Editors. 1994, MIT Press: Cambridge. p. 101-113.

4.Leopold, A., A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. 1949, New York: Oxford University Press.

5. Hardin, G., "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science, 1968. 162(3859): p. 1243-1248.

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