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Virtue Ethics: An Interview with Jared S. Colton and Steve Holmes

By Russell Willerton | STC Senior Member

This column features ethics scenarios and issues that may affect technical communicators in the many aspects of their jobs. If you have a possible solution to a scenario, your own case, or feedback in general, please contact column editor Russell Willerton at russell.willerton@gmail.com.

Authors in the field of technical communication have thought and written about ethics in their work for decades. Much of that writing and thinking has focused on what Mike Markel calls “foundational approaches” to ethics that have developed over many centuries. These foundational approaches frequently focus on principles that apply broadly (even universally). Philosopher Immanuel Kant developed the idea of a categorical imperative for ethics, in which one identifies guiding principles and always acts to uphold them. Deontological approaches involve identifying one’s obligations toward others. The utilitarian approach involves acting to increase benefits from a situation and to decrease negative effects.

The concept of virtue ethics comes from Aristotle’s treatise, Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle identifies 12 virtues of character that a citizen may embody. Intersections of virtue ethics and technical communication have not been explored much until recently. A new book, Rhetoric, Technology, and the Virtues, uses virtue ethics to provide a framework for thinking about ethics in digital and networked media. The authors are Jared S. Colton of Utah State University and Steve Holmes of Texas Tech University. I appreciate their responses to my questions about their new book.

Russel Willerton: What inspired you to write this book together?

Jared S. Colton and Steve Holmes: We have been discussing problems of ethics since we met over a decade ago. As we would chat about teaching professional writing and technical communication, we kept circling back to the fact that calls to think ethically far outstripped the development of ethical frameworks to guide ethical reasoning beyond a generalized (and important) postmodern/poststructuralist call to be inclusive of difference.

By comparison, we found implicit ethical frameworks grounded in virtue ethics or care ethics among a wide variety of past and present researchers. Our goal became to try to make frameworks more explicit in the field to that people can use them more readily. Regarding the specific issues we take up in the book, we wanted to write a book that would think about what kind of ethical people we, as humans, want to be. We live in an age where new technologies, such as social media, are changing our ethical actions and how we even think about morality. Some of that is a good thing: we’re able to communicate, share, and help people in ways we never could before. However, we’re also able to express unnecessary outrage, self-select what news we want to read and believe, and hurt people we would never have met in a lifetime before. One of the main goals of the book is to provide a language for how to talk about these kinds of things.

RW: How does the concept of virtue ethics differ from other approaches to ethics such as utilitarianism or Kant’s categorical imperative?

JSC and SH: The main way virtue ethics differs from other approaches, which are still important to consider, is that it focuses on developing flexible ethical habits that can be used in many different situations. Rather than argue that morality is determined by the end achieved for the greater number of people (the utilitarian approach) or for fixed moral principles such as “never lie” (a Kantian approach), virtue ethics focuses on the kinds of conditions—including the technologies we use—that enable or prevent us from developing ethical habits, such as patience and being just, honest, and generous.

In a famous example that we discuss in the book, Socrates says that it is a good ethical habit to return what one has borrowed from a neighbor, but that only someone who lacks wisdom would return a borrowed weapon to a madman. Regardless of the situation at hand, virtue ethics privileges the ethical disposition that guides a particular action and not the end result or the repeatability of the same end across different circumstances.

RW: What is the concept of hexis, and how can people in technical fields apply it to ethics?

JSC and SH: The simplest way to describe the concept of hexis for us is habits. As Steve describes in his first book (Procedural Habits, on the rhetoric of videogames), habits are historically described as mechanistic. They are opposed to conscious thought and attention, such as in the colloquial phrase “driving on autopilot.” But there is an alternative concept of habit as our “second nature” that fundamentally shapes how we act and think in the world.

In texts like Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, hexis is not reducible to rote habits, such as chewing with your mouth closed or always closing the gas cap when we fill up our vehicles. Hexis is better understood through its root in the verb Echein, which is often translated as “to have” but more means an “active having.” Hexis is a flexible form of pragmatic reasoning that is more like a mode of “bodily comportment” or “state.”

For the Greeks, a person’s hexis (plural) also defined that person’s character, who they were (“Are you patient?” “Are you caring?”). Importantly, a hexis becomes virtuous not when it is at its most extreme. Someone who has the virtue of honesty won’t just constantly be telling the truth, like telling some they look ugly just to “tell the truth.”

Developing virtuous habits, then, can happen only when you learn to recognize them in others—parents, teachers, leaders—and then repeatedly work on them until, for example, you’re able to be patient when patience is called for and angry when anger is needed.

RW: What is one of the case studies in your book that resonates with the field of technical communication?

JSC and SH: Our case study about how to cultivate the virtue of justice in the context of captioning social media videos (Chapter 3) is a good example. This coincides with a large number of recent publications and presentations about intersections of technical communication and social justice.

To highlight the need to be explicit about the ethical and political frameworks that we use, we draw a distinction between passive equality (redistributive justice as signaling the presence of an injustice and awaiting a state or institutional redress) and active equality (action an individual takes without waiting for a state or institutional response). Drawing on the French political theorist Jacques Ranciere, whose thinking, we argue, stems from virtue ethics in all but name, we explore how justice can be enacted in areas of de jure political inequality by deaf technical communicators and their allies.

We picked social media videos and captioning, because as of when our book was published, there were no legal requirements (or ethically deontological obligations) for captioning social media videos as there were for television shows. As a result, a perfect exigency exists for technical communicators who create social media videos to think about how they might cultivate a virtue of justice in the absence of legal or institutional permissiveness and support.

RW: Each of you teaches students who work or will work in technical communication. What is something about ethics that you hope your students will carry into their careers?

JSC: Sometimes technical communication can seem completely neutral, like “I’m just communicating something as clearly and accurately as possible.” Those things are important, but I also want my students to imagine themselves as citizens and realize that how they act and what they write in their professional and personal lives can affect other people for better or worse. I want my students to be examples to others of what an ethical technical communicator should be like.

SH: I hope that my students learn that ethics is not a proverbial “one size fits all” situation, which is perhaps best captured by our book chapter on the virtue of patience (slowness to anger). It is always easiest to respond to a new ethical problem by relying upon our settled or prior beliefs. However, the deeper one goes into different ethical frameworks, which are hardly monolithic or consistent categories to begin with, the more complex the project of ethical reasoning in any given circumstance becomes. Thus, I hope my students come to appreciate the fact that ethics is messy. Ethics requires the habitual patience to pause and think about any particular problem in the workplace from multiple ethical perspectives beyond one’s own immediate end.

Resources

Colton, Jared S., and Steve Holmes. Rhetoric, Technology, and the Virtues. Utah State University Press: Logan, UT, 2018.

Markel, Mike. “Ethics and Technical Communication: A Case for Foundational Approaches.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 40.4 (1997): 284–298.

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