Can Networks be Virtuous?

This is about ethics. Ethics tells us what we ought to do. It is based on the distinction between what we really do, the “is” and what we should do, the “ought.” If everybody did what they should, then we wouldn’t need ethics. But let’s face it, people don’t do what they ought to do. Why not? Has ethics failed? Are people inherently immoral? And if so, what good does it do to keep telling them that they should do otherwise? Despite enormous efforts for centuries, ethics seems to be a futile enterprise divorced from reality. One answer to the apparent futility of ethics is to say that people do not do what they ought to do, but what they are. If people do the right thing, that’s not because of ethics, or because of being told what they ought to do. It’s because that is simply what they are. There is no “ought.” There is only what “is.” In other words, you shall know them by their actions – and not by their proclaimed or hidden motives. But what are people? What should we be reading from their actions?

If actions are considered good, then we can assume that they come from a good character. Character is a quality of a moral actor. It makes the actor into who he or she is. Whether this is DNA or socialization or – most probably – both, is beside the point since both condition who we are. Good actions come from a good character and bad actions from a bad character. What makes up a good character is called “virtue” (Greek arete) and what makes up a bad character is called “vice.” People act according to their virtues and vices and not according to what ethics – or their parents, teachers, neighbors, etc. – tell them they ought to do. Interestingly, this is what ethics were originally about. The word “ethics” comes from Greek ethos, i.e. “the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology” (Wikipedia), and which for Aristotle (Book II of Nichomachean Ethics) were more like a habit of life or even – if one goes further back in Greek thinking – a habitat, or a balanced ecosystem. In a balanced ecosystem every thing and every organism does what it ought to do and thus flourishes (eudaimonia). Ethos characterized how people were and how they lived together in a community. This is what “ethnography” studies. This is what distinguishes so-called “virtue ethics” from duty ethics like the Ten Commandments or Kant’s categorical imperative and from utilitarian ethics based on calculating the greatest good for the greatest number. Virtue ethics, if it is an ethics at all, describes what we are as a community living within a certain culture and environment. It is not about universal rules or norms whether coming from God, Reason, or economic calculations. Even so, people are praised and blamed for their virtues and vices implying that what people are is a product of what their choices and therefore they can be blamed for choosing wrongly and praised for choosing rightly. If they choose wrongly, then this is often understood as a choice for self-good as opposed to social-good. This is the second distinction upon which ethics is based, the distinction between self and others, individual and society. Ethics returns through the backdoor of the free, autonomous, rational subject who could have – and should have – chosen virtue over vice.

According to Plato and Aristotle virtues were the qualities that humans should choose in order to become fully human. But not only humans had virtues. Everything that exists has a purpose, a telos, for which it exists. An ax, for example, had to have the virtues of sharpness and strength in order to become what an ax should be. In the same sense, a human had to have the virtues of wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage (see Platon’s Republic) in order to become what a human should be. These are the qualities that a “man” needed to fulfill his duties in the polis. This view of virtue supposes that the possibilities of what things and humans can become are known and fixed. But as history shows, other times and other cultures have different virtues. The Christian world added faith, hope, and charity, because these were the qualities needed to obey God’s Word. The secular humanist world changed the list of virtues to freedom, self-determination, equality, and autonomy, since these were the qualities needed to throw off the bonds of tradition and “use your own understanding” (Sapere aude – Kant). In the postmodern world, virtue has become the freedom to arbitrarily choose who one is and what rules one should follow. This is not merely for peoples and nations, but goes down to small groups and even individuals. The original idea of ethos as the given character of a community no longer informs what ethics are about. Anyone can be anything they choose to be. This implies that values, norms, and rules are arbitrary and completely contingent, which amounts to nihilism. As Wittgenstein pointed out when arguing against the possibility of a private language, when whatever I say is right is right there is no such thing as right and wrong, no rule or norm at all, since the meaning of a rule is to be exactly not whatever I say it is. After the death of God, as Nietzsche said, anything is possible. Postmodernity seems to end in chaos, that is, the equal probability of all choices.

There has been so much talk in ethics about praise and blame, right and wrong, good and bad, that it seems impossible to get away from the gap between “is” and “ought” and the central role of the free “individual” opposed to “society.” What could ethics mean when both distinctions no longer take center stage. What if humans do not exist as individuals, but as participants in a world determined by many others, both human and nonhuman? It is a mythos of Modernity that the individual subject decides about its own possibilities and therefore determines its own values and norms. In fact, the individual is conditioned by others, both human and nonhuman, and exists as open to possibilities of becoming other than it at any time supposes itself to be. As Heidegger showed, this is what it means for humans to exist in the “world” (In-der-Welt-sein). Instead of speaking of “world” as Heidegger does, we can call this complex association of many different actors all linked together and conditioning each other the “network.” In distinction to Heidegger’s “world,” and more like the balanced ecosystem of the original Greek ethos, the “network” is egalitarian in that all actors, both human and nonhuman, have a voice, agency, programs of action, and can as well as should “mediate,” that is, enter into negotiations with other actors in order to come to an always instable and revisable agreement – or “balance” – about who we are and what we are doing. In the network, there is no distinction between individual and society, because every individual is the network and every network is an actor. And there is no distinction between “is” and “ought” because participating in the network is what makes actors into who they are. The “ought” is the “is.” Without the two distinctions that ethics is based upon we come very near to what ethos originally meant and move very far away from modern ethical norms, rules, and values. If there are virtues in the original sense of ethos, then they are network virtues or network norms.

The idea of the network implies that the question about who we are is not a question we can and should answer ourselves. From the perspective of the network, “autonomy” and “self-determination” are oxymorons, or self-contradictions. The self is precisely that which receives its being from and with others. As Heidegger put, Dasein exists as a question for itself, as open to unforeseen possibilities that it itself does not itself determine. Dasein exists as “thrown” (Geworfenheit)  into a world it did not create, a world which sets the limits of its possibilities as well as opens them up as possibilities. Not only do we not know what we are and what things can become, we must acknowledge that we can not autonomously answer this question. How then can it be answered? All actors in the network have something to say not only about who they are, but about who everyone and everything else is, since they all exist only in and out of the network of relations that constitute them. The fact that the world is endlessly open to new and unforeseen possibilities need therefore not imply that virtue rests upon an arbitrary act of the will and is therefore meaningless. On the contrary, ethos designates the network and virtues are the norms that govern activities of networking. Not only can networks be virtuous, they have to be, since they exist by means of effective networking. Of course, they don’t have to exist. There is no necessity of being. Being can very well not be. Therefore, the virtues of networking are normative. One can do it badly or not at all and simply disappear. But if one wants to do it well, and who does not want to be good, then one should follow the network norms that make networks virtuous. If we want to know what network norms are, we should look and see how networks do networking. We would not thereby discover an “ought” independent of an “is,” but those qualities that make networks good networks. If there is an “ethics” in the global network society, then it is a description of network norms.