Archives For Confucian ethics

Author Information: Val Dusek, University of New Hampshire,

Dusek, Val. “Antidotes to Provincialism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 5-11.

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Please refer to:

Out on the streets of downtown Shanghai this March.
Image by keppt via Flickr / Creative Commons


Bryan Van Norden’s book rightly castigates the exclusion or minimizing of non-Western philosophy in mainstream US philosophy curricula. I was shocked by the willful ignorance and arrogance of those such as able philosopher of biology, Massimo Pigliucci, whom, before reading the quote about Eastern thought, I highly respected. Van Norden is on target throughout with his criticism of Western professional philosopher’s dismissive provincialism. I only worry that his polemic, though accurately describing the situation, will not at all convert the unconverted. Calling the western philosophers who exclude non-Western philosophy “Trumpian philosophers” is both accurate and funny, but unlikely to make them more sympathetic to multi-cultural philosophy.

A Difficult History

Westerners until the last third of the twentieth century denied that there was any significant traditional Chinese science. Part of this was based on racial prejudice, but part of it was that by the nineteenth century, after the Opium War and the foreign concessions were made, Chinese science had degenerated, and superstitious aspects of such things as geomancy and astrology, rather than the earlier discoveries of geography and astronomy dominated.  Prior to the late 1950s for professional Western historians of science, and, until decades later (or even never) the public, scoffed at the idea of sophisticated traditional Chinese science. Chinese insight into astronomy, biology, and other fields was rejected by most people, including respectable historians of science.

The British biochemical embryologist and Marxist Joseph Needham over the second half of the twentieth century in the volumes of Science and Civilization in China gradually revealed the riches of Chinese knowledge of nature. There, is of course the issue of whether traditional Chinese knowledge of nature, and that of other non-Western peoples, often with the exception of Middle Eastern science, can be should be called science. If science is defined as necessarily including controlled experiments and mathematical laws, then Chinese knowledge of nature cannot be called science. Needham himself accepted this definition of science and made the issue of why China never developed science central to his monumental history.

However, Needham discovered innumerable discoveries of the Chinese of phenomena denied in Western science for centuries. Chinese astronomers recorded phenomena such as new stars (Novae) appearing, stellar evolution (change of color of stars), and sunspots in astronomy, None of these were recorded by ancient and medieval Western astronomers. Famously, modern astronomers have made use of millennium old Chinese recordings of novae to trace past astronomical history.

In China, the compass was known and detailed magnetic declination maps were made centuries before the West even knew of the compass. Geobotanical prospecting, using the correlation of plants with minerals in the soil, the idea that mountains move like waves, and on and on. Since field biology, observational astronomy, and historical geology in modern Western science usually do not involve experiments, and many contemporary philosophers of biology deny that there are biological laws, the “experiment and mathematical laws” definition of science may be too narrow.

An example of the chauvinist rejection of Chinese science, and of Needham’s monumental work is that of a respected Princeton historian, Charles Coulston Gillispie. In his review of the first volumes of Needham he warned readers not to believe the contents because Needham was sympathetic to the Communists. Ironically, in the review, Gillispie tended to dismiss applied science and praised the purely theoretical science supposedly unique to the West, accusing Needham of “abject betrayal of the autonomy of science.”

Also ironically, or even comically, in the margin of Gillispie’s reply, doubling down on the denunciation of Communism and defense of pure, non-materialist science was an advertisement recruiting guided nuclear missile scientists for Lockheed! One hopes, but doubts, that Gillispie was embarrassed by his review, as he made similar comments in his Edge of Objectivity, also suggesting that the Arabs and the Chinese could not be trusted with nuclear weapons as “we” can, with our superior moral values.

The Heights of Chinese Philosophy

Even decades after Needham’s magisterial sequence of volumes had been appearing, Cromer in an anti-multicultural book claims not only that China had no science, but that the Chinese had no interest in or knowledge of the world beyond China (neglecting the vast trade on the Silk Road during the ancient and medieval periods, amazingly varied Chinese imports during the Tang Dynasty, the voyages of exploration of Zheng He, the Three Jeweled Eunuch (perhaps a contradiction in terms), and the most complete map of the world before the 1490s (from Korea, but probably from Chinese knowledge and available in China).

Hopefully there will be a process of recognition of non-Western philosophy by American analytic philosophers of the sort that began fifty years earlier for Chinese knowledge of nature among historians. So far this has hardly happened.

One possibility for the integration of Asian philosophy into mainstream philosophy curricula is the integration of non-Western philosophy into the standard history of philosophy courses. One easy possibility of integration is including non-Western philosophy in the standard Ancient Philosophy and Medieval Philosophy curriculum. While teaching Ancient as well as Chinese philosophy in the last two decades I have (perhaps too often) drawn parallels between and contrasts of Greek and Chinese philosophy. However, very few students take both courses. Until this coming year Eastern philosophy was offered yearly, but not as a required part of the history sequence, and few students were in both courses, I worried whether these in-class comparisons fell mostly on deaf ears.

I have thought about the possibility of courses on ancient, medieval, and early modern philosophy including non-Western philosophy of the period. There are a couple of introductory philosophy anthologies, such as Daniel Bonevac’s, apparently now out of print, that include much non-Western philosophy. (Ironically, Bonevac is literally a “Trumpian philosopher,” in the sense of having supported Donald Trump.) Robert C. Solomon included discussion of some Chinese philosophy in his survey but shows total ignorance of modern research on Daoism, doubting that Laozi was an older contemporary of Confucius but rather at least one or two centuries later. Some ways a course that covered both Greek and Chinese philosophy could make comparisons between the two are suggested below. Of course, the usual, casual, comparison of the two involves an invidious contrast perhaps less strong than that of Pigliucci.

A Genuinely Modest Proposal

My proposal involves not introductory surveys but histories of philosophy from the Presocratics to the German romantics and early twentieth century philosophers.

Parallels between the Warring States philosophers and the Pre-Socratics have been noted by among others Benjamin Schwartz in The World of Thought in Ancient China. The Pre-Socratics’ statements have numerous parallels to those of Chinese philosophers of the same period. Qi has some parallels to the air of Anaximenes, in particular in terms of condensation as the source of objects. The Dao of Laozi, as source of all things, yet being indefinable and ineffable has resemblances to the Apeiron of Anaximander.

Of course, many of the paradoxes (that an arrow does not move, the paradox of metrical extension, that a length can be divided indefinitely, that an assemblage of infinitely small points can add up to a finite length) are almost identical with those of Zeno. Of course, the emphasis on Being in Western philosophy from Parmenides through Aristotle to Aquinas and other medieval contrasts most strongly with the emphasis on non-being in Laozi and its presence with less emphasis in Zhuangzi. West’s Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient has many evocative suggestions of influences of the East on the Presocratics. There is extensive work on the parallels and contrasts of the ethics of Mencius and that of Aristotle. The concept and role of the concept Qi has strong similarities to the Stoic notion of pneuma, as described, for instance in Sambursky’s Physics of the Stoics.

A.C. Graham in Disputers of the Dao argues that as the formal logical approaches of the early Wittgenstein, Russell, and logical positivism in the first half of the twentieth century gave way to the later Wittgenstein, and French deconstruction developed, these parts of Western philosophy more closely approximated to the approaches of traditional Chinese philosophy.

Shigehisa Kuriyama has provocatively and insightfully written on the comparison of traditional Chinese medicine and Greek Hippocratic medicine on the body. There have been many articles speculating on the relation of Greek skepticism being influenced by Eastern thought via Alexander’s invasion of India. Diogenes Laertius’s claims that Pyrrho (of later Pyrrhonian skepticism) went to India with Alexander where was influenced by the gymnosophists (“naked sophists”) he met there. C. Beckwith has argued that Phyrronism is a product of Buddhism. Jay Garfield, though thinking the influence question is a red herring, has written extensively and insightfully on the logical isomorphisms between Greek and Tibetan skeptical theses.

Buddhist logic of contradiction can be compared with and at least partially explicated by some twentieth century logics that incorporate contradictions as not illogical. These include presupposition logic as Buddhist. (Though a former colleague told me three people who worked on this died horrible deaths, one by cancer, another by auto accident, so I should avoid studying this area). Other twentieth century symbolic logic systems that allow contradictions as not fatal are Nicholas Rescher’s and Robert Brandom’s paraconsistent logic on applied to Eastern philosophy by Graham Priest, dialethic logic. One can also compare Pai-chang’s Zen monastic rules to the simultaneously developed ones of St. Benedict.

Several, both Western and Asian philosophers, have compared Chan Buddhist mysticism with that of Wittgenstein. Reinhardt May in Heidegger’s Hidden Sources has investigated influences of Heidegger’s readings of Helmut Wilhelm’s translations of Yi Qing and Dao De Jing. Eric Nelson, in his fascinating recent book has traced not only the recently more well-known use made by Heidegger, but also extensive use by Martin Buber, Hans Dreisch, and a number of less famous German philosophers of the early twentieth century.

Perhaps more controversial is the comparison made between the European medieval scholastics’ fusion of Christian ethics with Aristotelian cosmology and the medieval Chinese, so-called neo-Confucian scholastic fusion of Confucian ethics and politics with Daoist cosmology. One can compare the concept of li in the “neo-Daoist of dark learning” Wang Bi and more extensively in the neo-Confucians, most notably Xuzi, as Leibniz had suggested. Beyond parallels there have been provocative arguments that Buddhist means of argument, via the so-called Silk Road in Central Asia, issued in part of European scholastic technique. Certainly, a topic in early modern philosophy is Leibniz’s praise of the Yijing as binary arithmetic, and his claims about the similarity of Xuzi’s metaphysics and his own Monadology, with brief note of Nicholas Malebranche’s less insightful dialogue between a Chinese and a Christian philosopher.

The skyline of Shanghai, today one of the world’s leading cities.
Image by Alex and David Berger via Flickr / Creative Commons.


In western political philosophy the appeals to the superiority of Chinese society to that of Europe, or at least the existence of a well ordered and moral society without the Biblical God, by figures such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Quesnay, Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and others, both using “China as a Model for Europe” as Maverick’s book is entitled, or as a means of satirizing European supposed morals and justice. The Chinese legalists, who were doing behavioral political science and Malthusian population theory of history over two millennia before Western political theorists did so, could be noted in a course in social philosophy that includes behavior political science.

Leibniz’s praise of the Yi as well as his extensive claims of similarity of Xuzi’s Li and Chi to his own form, substance, and monads. Also, Leibniz’s efforts of support for the Jesuit attempt to incorporate Confucian ceremonies into Catholic mass, and the Rites Controversy, detailed by David Mungello and others, deserve coverage in Early Modern courses.

There is a fascinating work by the child psychologist Alison Gopnik on possible connections that may have been made by Hume during his most creative period at La Fleche, where Descartes had studied long before, with missionaries who were familiar with Asian thought, particularly one who had lived in Siam.

In German romantic philosophy we find relatively little sophisticated treatment of Chinese philosophy (Witness Goethe’s fragmentary treatment of China.) However, there was a great reception of Indian philosophy among the German romantics. Schlegel, Schelling, and others absorbed ideas from Hinduism, not to mention Schopenhauer’s use of Buddhism. (Sedlar gives an elementary survey). In late nineteenth century philosophy there is the growing sympathy of Ernst Mach for Buddhism, as well as Nietzsche’s disputed attitudes toward Asian philosophy. Interestingly, Nietzsche copiously annotated his copy of Mach’s Analysis of Sensations, and offered to dedicate his Genealogy of Morals to Mach.

In twentieth century philosophy there have been numerous works of varying quality noting similarities between Wittgenstein’s approach to metaphysical questions and Chan Buddhism. There also are a number or works comparing Alfred North Whitehead to Buddhism.

Despite the severe criticisms that have been made of some best-selling popular treatments of the topic, I think there are significant parallels between some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics and some traditional Asian philosophies. I once had a testy exchange in print with the physicist and writer Jeremy Bernstein on this topic. His Trumpian reply was “Yogic, Schmogic.” A few decades later he wrote appreciatively of the Dali Llama’s attempt to relate Buddhism to quantum philosophy.

An Open Future for Education in Philosophy

I realize that there is always the danger of superficial comparisons between very different systems of thought, but I believe that much of the work I mention is not guilty of this. I also, realize, as a non-specialist, I have mentioned mainly works of comparison from the sixties through the eighties, and many more fine-grained scholarly articles have been produced in the last two decades.

I look forward to the integration of non-western philosophy into the core of the standard history of philosophy sequence, not just by supplementing the two or four-year sequence of history of philosophy courses with non-Western philosophy courses, but by including non-Western philosophy in the content of the history of philosophy of each period.

Contact details:


Baatz, Ursula, “Ernst Mach: The Scientist as Buddhist?” in Ernst Mach: A Deeper Look, ed. J. T. Blackmoore, Springer, 2012.

Beckwith, Christopher I., Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton, 2015.

Bernstein, Jeremy, Val Dusek, and Ed Gerrish, “A Cosmic Flow,” “The Reader Replies” with reply by Jeremy Bernstein, American Scholar, Autumn 1979, p. 572.

Bernstein, Jeremy, “Quantum Buddhists,” in Quantum Leaps, Harvard, 2009, pp. 27-52.

Bonevac, Daniel, and Stephen Phillips, eds. Introduction to World Philosophy: A Multicultural Reader, Oxford, 2009.

Cromer, Alan, Common Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, Oxford, 1995.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, “Prospects,” American Scientist 45 no. 2 (March, 1957), 169-176, and reply no. 4 (September 1957) 266A-272A.

Gillispie, Charles Coulston, The Edge of Objectivity, Princeton, 1959.

Gopnik, Allison, “Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?: Charles François Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network,” Hume Studies, vol. 35, nos. 1 & 2, 2009, pp. 5-28.

Graham, A. C. Disputers of the Dao, Open Court, 1979.

Hartshorne, Charles, et al, “Symposium on Mahayana Buddhism and Whitehead,” Philosophy East and West, vol. 25, no. 4, 1975, pp. 393-488.

Kuyiyama, Shigehisa, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Zone Books, 2002.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Writings on China, trans. Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr. Open Court, 1994.

Malebranche, Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher, American Universities Press, 1980.

Maverick, Lewis A., China, A Model for Europe, Paul Anderson, 1949.

Mungello, David E. The Great Encounter of China and the West 1500-1800, 3d edn., Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1954 -.

Nelson, Eric S., Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth Century German Thought, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Priest, Graham, Beyond the Limits of Thought, Oxford, 2002.

Priest, Graham, One: Being an Investigation into the Unity of Reality and of its Parts, including the Singular Object which is Nothingness, Oxford, 2016.

Reinhardt May, Heidegger’s Hidden Sources: East Asian Influences on His Work, transl. Graham Parkes, Routledge, 1996.

Sambursky, Samuel, The Physics of the Stoics, Princeton University Press, 1959.

Schwartz, Benjamin I., The World of Thought in Ancient China, Harvard, 1989.

Sedlar, Jean, India in the Mind of Germany: Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Their Times, University Press of America, 1982.

Van Norden, Bryan, Preface by Jay L. Garfield, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, Columbia University Press, 2017.

West, M. L., Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford University Press, 1971.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs,

Sassower, Raphael. “The Opening of the American Mind.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 1-4.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Despite Western philosophers frequently treating him as a mere statue, the philosophical traditions that began with Confucius more than 2,000 years ago remain vibrant, living philosophies.
Statue of Confucius in Hunan, China, on the shore of Lake Dongting.
Image by Rob Web via Flickr / Creative Commons


Bryan W. Van Norden accounts for the failure of “academic philosophers” because “they are not teaching the profound, fascinating, and increasingly relevant philosophy that is outside the traditional Anglo-European canon.” (p. 2) What is wrong with the canon?

Three complaints are interwoven: the canon is too narrow, its process of selection is problematic, and the methodological approach with which it is studied is limited and limiting. Even if we consent to condemn the selection process (p. 21) and ask ourselves to think about new selection prospectively (rather than lament the status quo), there is also the danger that the analytic method (mostly associated with Anglo-Americans) may deprive students of the richness of the texts they are reading.

Not only might we find Socratic dialogues reduced to argument analysis (pp. 147-8) and the difference between Spinoza and Nietzsche summarized by how many logical inconsistencies their respective works exhibit (which will strip them of their profundity and cultural settings), but, Norden asks, is it justified to pretend that “what one Western philosopher does is definitive of all philosophy”? (p. 30) What does it mean to read Spinoza “analytically” or understand Nietzsche “logically”? Mockingly, Norden suggests that [Analytic] “contemporary philosophers are more likely to be accused of boring the youth to death with their sentences than they are of being sentenced to death for corrupting the youth!” (p. 3)

The plea for incorporating Asian philosophical texts into the philosophical curriculum is in the name of conceptual enrichment and the broadening of the philosophical conversation about the question, “what is it to live well?” Norden’s offerings include, for example: “The Confucian cardinal virtues are benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom, while the Thomist list of natural virtues is wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.” (p. 5) Numerous other complementary comparisons are introduced in this volume, all of which point to overlapping similarities among different traditions and the illegitimate preference of the so-called “Western” kind.

For Norden, “greater pluralism can make philosophy richer and better approximate the truth.” (p. 36) Recounting the many instances where such enrichment is available, the author pushes further to claim that the division between the Anglo-European philosophy and “the supposedly nonphilosophical [Asian] thought is a manifestation of a broader pattern of xenophobic, chauvinistic, nationalistic, and racist efforts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’.” (p. 84)

The Three Arguments

In this book, Norden seems to make three interrelated arguments. The first is about the need for pluralism in the philosophy curriculum of American universities, the second about the narrow argumentative practices of “academic philosophy,” and the third about the importance of philosophy in general. These three arguments parallel a different, but overlapping, contention about the methodological (and pedagogical and political) divide between so-called Analytic and Continental Philosophy, a divide that has characterized the academic landscape for generations.

However, a divide, if this is what we are faced with, does not necessitate preferential treatment nor the dominance of one camp over the other. Sadly, the dominance of the Analytical camp—in terms of curricula, job openings, and graduate funding—has foreclosed the potential for philosophical communication across this artificial divide (since there is an arbitrary and conventional classification that would puzzle some of our predecessors). When Analytic philosophers (not all of them, of course) claim that their Continental interlocutors are not philosophers at all (perhaps literary scholars, poets, or just curious humanists), the conversation stops; there is nothing more to say, and the best we can do, following David Hume, is retire to play billiards.

The charge of “what you are doing is not philosophy” levelled against Continental philosophers parallels the concern Norden raises about non-western philosophical texts and their authors. The false binary of “A” and “non-A” could be forgiven when one is foraging for mushrooms in the forest and is warned against a poisonous variety, but not when it becomes a power play that privileges one kind over the other (as Foucault illustrated), or that infuses “terror” into what should be a dialogue, as Jean Francois Lyotard reminds us. (p. 150)

Will Continental or Asian or African or Native American philosophy poison the mind, like some appealing, colorful, and somewhat seductive mushrooms? Will any of these varietals necessarily corrupt young minds? Phrased in these terms, one recognizes the ancient Greek allusion to Socrates’ detractors and their eternal fate of killing a martyr. Is Norden’s lament one of martyrdom? Will the dominant Analytic tradition be retrospectively shamed for its poor and dismissive treatment of Continental and by extension all other non-Western texts and philosophies?

Forgive me for remaining skeptical, but unless we first distinguish the Analytic from the Continental, and see the Continental contributions like the ones Norden promotes, we may miss an important underlying danger. And this is that the Analytical grip has not loosened at all, remaining as it were for fifty years a kind of intellectual arrogance and narrowmindedness that can extend over the non-Western philosophies to which Norden rightly points.

Though Norden voices sympathy for Allan Bloom’s position regarding one’s tradition and the importance of reproducing the knowledge base of the Western tradition (however defined, pp. 102-7), I hesitate to cede that much to such normative moves. My worry is that once we agree to a strategy that upholds norms, we’ll be left with minor tactical maneuvers about this or that text, this or that author. Corrections on the margins might appear as victories, but in fact would be minor achievements that change little (but give lip service to inclusion and racial or feminist sensitivity).

Not that individual interventions and personal subversions are meaningless; but without a concomitant transformation of the curriculum, power relations would hardly change. Perhaps the Socratic gadfly will annoy here and there, introduce Asian or African authors where none were expected. But would this empower students and teachers alike to rethink the colonizing power of a specific hegemonic canon and its overly rationalized manner by which ideas and thoughts are engaged?

Why would departments of philosophy make a concerted effort to transform themselves? What would be their incentive? Would an instrumental appeal to the mighty power of China and India be convincing? In the age of Trump, as Norden argues, the reactionary response of philosophy departments parallels Trump’s even if for different reasons, and as such is contrary to what he advocates. Norden’s plea may fall on the deaf ears of conservative ideologues who prop up the political right as well as on those of the arrogant clique of insecure puzzle-solvers, those so-called philosophers dedicated to reduce the meaning of life to a logical exercise (a clever one, of course, but one better left to mathematicians and engineers).

Just as philosophers of economics have physics envy, so do analytical philosophers have math envy. This envy (reminiscent of the one discussed by Freud) is not simply pathological but is dangerous as well: it narrows philosophical inquiry to an economy of protocol sentences with their logics and empirical contests. And, as Norden mentions in passing, this pathology has deep American roots in what Richard Hofstadter termed “anti-intellectualism.” (pp. 121-2) I

In this context, American academics notoriously (and perhaps unconsciously) shy away from their intellectual aspirations (and those foisted on them by the public) and retreat to nominal claims of expertise in ever more narrowly defined fields of research. It’s scandalous that a country of this size may claim only a dozen or two public intellectuals (as distinguished from think tank hacks who pass for intellectuals).

Kongzi and Socrates

Both Socrates and Confucius, as Norden illustrates, reflect his notion of philosophy as a “dialogue about problems that we agree are important, but don’t agree about the method for solving, where ‘importance’ ultimately gets its sense from the question of the way we should live.” (p. 151) In their own respective ways, the two of them were public intellectuals whose voices were heard beyond the confines of formal teaching, and their influence has remained as strong as in their own time.

For Socrates and Confucius, philosophy is far from an intellectual parlor game: it has a significant ethical purpose . . . philosophy is conducted through dialogue. . . dialogue begins in shared beliefs and values, but is unafraid to use our most deeply held beliefs to challenge the conventional opinions of society. . . broadening philosophy by tearing down barriers, not about building new ones. (pp. 158-9)

Parlor games played by Analytic philosophers are rewarding, one must admit. Solving little problems within prefigured contexts, knowing the rules of the game, and being clever enough to get the right answer is what mice learn running through mazes and what monkeys master to receive extra bananas. In these cases, there is a right answer solution. The complexity of human life and the diversity of its conditions, by contrast, demand more nuanced approaches and more source materials. To be responsive and responsible in the age of Trump is to be philosophically minded in many directions, exploring as far afield as possible, and listening to all the voices that dare speak their minds.

Contact details:


Van Norden, Bryan W. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech,

Williams, Damien. “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons


Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

Vallor breaks the work into three parts, and takes as her subject what she considers to be the four major world-changing technologies of the 21st century.  The book’s three parts are, “Foundations for a Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” “Cultivating the Self: Classical Virtue Traditions as Contemporary Guide,” and “Meeting the Future with Technomoral Wisdom, OR How To Live Well with Emerging Technologies.” The four world changing technologies, considered at length in Part III, are Social Media, Surveillance, Robotics/Artificial Intelligence, and Biomedical enhancement technologies.[2]

As Vallor moves through each of the three sections and four topics, she maintains a constant habit of returning to the questions of exactly how each one will either help us cultivate a new technomoral virtue ethic, or how said ethic would need to be cultivated, in order to address it. As both a stylistic and pedagogical choice, this works well, providing touchstones of reinforcement that mirror the process of intentional cultivation she discusses throughout the book.

Flourishing and Technology

In Part I, “Foundations,” Vallor covers both the definitions of her terms and the argument for her project. Chapter 1, “Virtue Ethics, Technology, and Human Flourishing,” begins with the notion of virtue as a continuum that gets cultivated, rather than a fixed end point of achievement. She notes that while there are many virtue traditions with their own ideas about what it means to flourish, there is a difference between recognizing multiple definitions of flourishing and a purely relativist claim that all definitions of flourishing are equal.[3] Vallor engages these different understandings of flourishing, throughout the text, but she also looks at other ethical traditions, to explore how they would handle the problem of technosocial opacity.

Without resorting to strawmen, Vallor examines The Kantian Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism, in turn. She demonstrates that Kant’s ethics would result in us trying to create codes of behavior that are either always right, or always wrong (“Never Murder;” “Always Tell the Truth”), and Utilitarian consequentialism would allow us to make excuses for horrible choices in the name of “the Greater Good.” Which is to say nothing of how nebulous, variable, and incommensurate all of our understandings of “utility” and “good” will be with each other. Vallor says that rigid rules-based nature of each of these systems simply can’t account for the variety of experiences and challenges humans are likely to face in life.

Not only that, but deontological and consequentialist ethics have always been this inflexible, and this inflexibility will only be more of a problem in the face of the challenges posed by the speed and potency of the four abovementioned technologies.[4] Vallor states that the technologies of today are more likely to facilitate a “technological convergence,” in which they “merge synergistically” and become more powerful and impactful than the sum of their parts. She says that these complex, synergistic systems of technology cannot be responded to and grappled with via rigid rules.[5]

Vallor then folds in discussion of several of her predecessors in the philosophy of technology—thinkers like Hans Jonas and Albert Borgmann—giving a history of the conceptual frameworks by which philosophers have tried to deal with technological drift and lurch. From here, she decides that each of these theorists has helped to get us part of the way, but their theories all need some alterations in order to fully succeed.[6]

In Chapter 2, “The Case for a Global Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” Vallor explores the basic tenets of Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist ethics, laying the groundwork for the new system she hopes to build. She explores each of their different perspectives on what constitutes The Good Life in moderate detail, clearly noting that there are some aspects of these systems that are incommensurate with “virtue” and “good” as we understand them, today.[7] Aristotle, for instance, believed that some people were naturally suited to be slaves, and that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men, and the Buddha taught that women would always have a harder time attaining the enlightenment of Nirvana.

Rather than simply attempting to repackage old ones for today’s challenges, these ancient virtue traditions can teach us something about the shared commitments of virtue ethics, more generally. Vallor says that what we learn from them will fuel the project of building a wholly new virtue tradition. To discuss their shared underpinnings, she talks about “thick” and “thin” moral concepts.[8] A thin moral concept is defined here as only the “skeleton of an idea” of morality, while a thick concept provides the rich details that make each tradition unique. If we look at the thin concepts, Vallor says, we can see the bone structure of these traditions is made of 4 shared commitments:

  • To the Highest Human Good (whatever that may be);
  • That moral virtues understood to be cultivated states of character;
  • To a practical path of moral self-cultivation; and
  • That we can have a conception of what humans are generally like.[9]

Vallor uses these commitments to build a plausible definition of “flourishing,” looking at things like intentional practice within a global community toward moral goods internal to that practice, a set of criteria from Alasdair MacIntyre which she adopts and expands on, [10] These goals are never fully realized, but always worked toward, and always with a community. All of this is meant to be supported by and to help foster goods like global community, intercultural understanding, and collective human wisdom.

We need a global technomoral virtue ethics because while the challenges we face require ancient virtues such as courage and charity and community, they’re now required to handle ethical deliberations at a scope the world has never seen.

But Vallor says that a virtue tradition, new or old, need not be universal in order to do real, lasting work; it only needs to be engaged in by enough people to move the global needle. And while there may be differences in rendering these ideas from one person or culture to the next, if we do the work of intentional cultivation of a pluralist ethics, then we can work from diverse standpoints, toward one goal.[11]

To do this, we will need to intentionally craft both ourselves and our communities and societies. This is because not everyone considers the same goods as good, and even our agreed-upon values play out in vastly different ways when they’re sought by billions of different people in complex, fluid situations.[12] Only with intention can we exclude systems which group things like intentional harm and acceleration of global conflict under the umbrella of “technomoral virtues.”

Cultivating Techno-Ethics

Part II does the work of laying out the process of technomoral cultivation. Vallor’s goal is to examine what we can learn by focusing on the similarities and crucial differences of other virtue traditions. Starting in chapter 3, Vallor once again places Aristotle, Kongzi (Confucius), and the Buddha in conceptual conversation, asking what we can come to understand from each. From there, she moves on to detailing the actual process of cultivating the technomoral self, listing seven key intentional practices that will aid in this:

  • Moral Habituation
  • Relational Understanding
  • Reflective Self-Examination
  • Intentional Self-Direction of Moral Development
  • Perceptual Attention to Moral Salience
  • Prudential Judgment
  • Appropriate Extension of Moral Concern[13]

Vallor moves through each of these in turn, taking the time to show how each step resonates with the historical virtue traditions she’s used as orientation markers, thus far, while also highlighting key areas of their divergence from those past theories.

Vallor says that the most important thing to remember is that each step is a part of a continual process of training and becoming; none of them is some sort of final achievement by which we will “become moral,” and some are that less than others. Moral Habituation is the first step on this list, because it is the quality at the foundation of all of the others: constant cultivation of the kind of person you want to be. And, we have to remember that while all seven steps must be undertaken continually, they also have to be undertaken communally. Only by working with others can we build systems and societies necessary to sustain these values in the world.

In Chapter 6, “Technomoral Wisdom for an Uncertain Future,” Vallor provides “a taxonomy of technomoral virtues.”[14] The twelve concepts she lists—honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom—are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible technomoral virtues.

Rather, these twelve things together form system by which to understand the most crucial qualities for dealing with our 21st century lives. They’re all listed with “associated virtues,” which help provide a boarder and deeper sense of the kinds of conceptual connections we can achieve via relational engagement with all virtues.[15] Each member of the list should support and be supported by not only the other members, but also any as-yet-unknown or -undiscovered virtues.

Here, Vallor continues a pattern she’s established throughout the text of grounding potentially unfamiliar concepts in a frame of real-life technological predicaments from the 20th or 21st century. Scandals such as Facebook privacy controversies, the flash crash of 2010, or even the moral stances (or lack thereof) of CEO’s and engineers are discussed with a mind toward highlighting the final virtue: Technomoral Wisdom.[16] Technomoral Wisdom is a means of being able to unify the other virtues, and to understand the ways in which our challenges interweave with and reflect each other. In this way we can both cultivate virtuous responses within ourselves and our existing communities, and also begin to more intentionally create new individual, cultural, and global systems.

Applications and Transformations

In Part III, Vallor puts to the test everything that we’ve discussed so far, placing all of the principles, practices, and virtues in direct, extensive conversation with the four major technologies that frame the book. Exploring how new social media, surveillance cultures, robots and AI, and biomedical enhancement technologies are set to shape our world in radically new ways, and how we can develop new habits of engagement with them. Each technology is explored in its own chapter so as to better explore which virtues best suit which topic, which good might be expressed by or in spite of each field, and which cultivation practices will be required within each. In this way, Vallor highlights the real dangers of failing to skillfully adapt to the requirements of each of these unprecedented challenges.

While Vallor considers most every aspect of this project in great detail, there are points throughout the text where she seems to fall prey to some of the same technological pessimism, utopianism, or determinism for which she rightly calls out other thinkers, in earlier chapters. There is still a sense that these technologies are, of their nature, terrifying, and that all we can do is rein them in.

Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.

The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.

While the implications of climate catastrophes, dystopian police states, just-dumb-enough AI, and rampant gene hacking seem real, obvious, and avoidable to many of us, many others take them as merely naysaying distractions from the good of technosocial progress and the ever-innovating free market.[17] With that in mind, we need tools with which to begin the process of helping people understand why they ought to care about technomoral virtue, even when they have such large, driving incentives not to.

Without that, we are simply presenting people who would sell everything about us for another dollar with the tools by which to make a more cultivated, compassionate, and interrelational world, and hoping that enough of them understand the virtue of those tools, before it is too late. Technology and the Virtues is a fantastic schematic for a set of these tools.

Contact details:


Vallor, Shannon. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[1] Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) ,6.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 19—21.

[4] Ibid., 22—26.

[5] Ibid. 28.

[6] Ibid., 28—32.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 45—47.

[11] Ibid., 54—55.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Ibid., 120.

[16] Ibid., 122—154.

[17] Ibid., 249—254.