Virtue and the Digital Commons

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By Julian Fox.

This is also a commentary on Commons-based Peer production and Virtue, by Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum.


Virtue has fallen on hard times, some would say, and they don't necessarily want to point pessimistically to a social or political world further mired in vice! They are simply asserting that as words wax and wane over time, 'virtue' has currently waned, sprung loose from its classical bindings, been set adrift in a postmodern sea of atomistic meanings.

So it is a little surprising to find, in the space of a year or so, two items, one a scholarly article in The Journal of Political Philosophy (1) the other a motivational book published through (2), asserting the importance of virtue in the digital environment. The article, published in 2006, argues that participation in commons-based peer production fosters important moral and political virtues today. The book, published mid-2007, argues that we need a framework to help us through one of the world-changing revolutions of our time, the digital revolution, and that a virtuous framework (or a framework of virtues) revisited might be a good way to go.

As I am the author of the book, but was unaware of the existence of the article at the time I was writing, it may be interesting to bring the two together and comment on their similarities or dissimilarities or better, any possible connections that can advance our common thinking and acting, since virtue in anyone's language, is at least about those two things.

Frankly, one is unlikely to find, at least at face value, two more dissimilar items bearing a title with just one common word – virtue! One is an article, the other a book. One is avowedly scholarly, the other does not pretend to be so, though it does not repudiate scholarship by any means. In fact, while the article is written by people with a background in political philosophy, the book is written by one with an academic background in linguistics and a member of what is called 'consecrated life' in Catholic circles, though more popularly known as 'Religious Orders'. Probably both of us, if I may lump the two scholars together as a single 'person' for the sake of the argument, share one thing in common – we were writing to a relatively restricted audience, such as those who choose to pick up The Journal of Political Philosophy and read that article, or those who choose to wander through Lulu's lists and pounce on an intriguing title like 'Digital Virtues'. And both of us may in the end turn away more people than we attract – those who are not prepared to sit down and battle with some solid stuff on political and social behaviour on the one hand, and those who wonder what the heck a 'consecrated person' could possibly have to say about the digital world, on the other.

Of course, it would be better if people do not turn away from either, since both have a contribution to make to a deeper understanding of today's globalised digital culture, and in particular it would be good for the authors to engage one another, from their varying standpoints, as 'men and women who [can] seek for the good together' (3).

Despite the obvious differences, then, in the nature and character of the two works, I for one would like to highlight some of the similarities and the points where we can learn from each other.

As a linguist by training, I begin by noting the movement in meaning of 'virtue' from its Greek and Latin underpinnings, to today where it has wandered off the path of 'excellence' or 'manliness' to mean something to do with a woman's chastity or even (as in 'virtual') something that means 'almost' or 'not quite' as in the statement, “He's virtually lost the plot!” And, of course, there is the other application of 'virtual' today in a term such as 'virtual reality'.

The authors of the article set themselves firmly in the field of virtue ethics – virtuous behaviour, particularly of a moral and socio-political kind. There is little we would disagree on here, actually. I have a quite different purpose in mind in that I am dealing broadly with digital habits and seeking to evaluate them in virtue terms, while Benkler and Nissenbaum have focused specifically on commons-based peer production, which they evaluate as fostering important moral and political virtues.

They are a little hesitant to align themselves with any specific theory or doctrine to do with virtues and declare themselves 'agnostic on the foundations of virtue'. I, on the other hand, am writing for a substantial group of people (in my own Religious Congregation there are some 16,000 men and a similar number of women – so just imagine the worldwide membership of 'consecrated life', given that they say one of the things the Pope doesn't know is how many Congregations of Religious women there are!), people who have already made a permanent commitment along the following lines: “I commit myself to work firmly with my brothers (and sisters) and to do good wherever I am sent”. I do not have great need to dissociate myself from somewhat classical (Western) understandings of virtue. What I am really interested in, again the linguist coming to the fore, is creating a discourse that takes account of shifts in meaning, new situations and which may be helpful to members of institutes of consecrated life. I also happen to firmly believe that since we are a significant number of people in the world, frequently engaged in altruistic activity in a range of well-recognised professions like education, health, social service, what we do in the digital world, the way we engage with a media-created culture and so forth, is especially important.

In fact, I believe that Fox, Benkler and Nissenbaum agree substantially on three things: we are exploring a social context in which to act (in the case of the latter two, a specific context of commons-based peer production of which, say, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is a good example), a set of social practices (in my case I am interested in a whole range of habitual and therefore largely unquestioned practices) and a platform for virtuous practice. And while Benkler and Nissenbaum have broadened out their understanding of virtue well beyond the Western to (rightly) include other long-standing traditions like the Chinese, they come around to 'staying as close as possible to an intuitively plausible sense of virtue' and they 'assume the existence and character of those [virtues] that have enjoyed broad recognition'. I am not really all that interested in a particular catalogue or number of virtues either, though I have eight, and could well add a ninth, using terminology that my readers would have little problem with – 'digital diakonia' or service. None of us are much interested in sticking with the classical labels for our virtues, though some of mine are possibly a little more immediately recognised as such – prudence, fidelity being two of these.

Fox, Benkler and Nissenbaum agree that 'the basic unit of moral evaluation for virtue ethics is the person (or soul or character)'. I am especially happy to see them describe virtues as 'not simple dispositions to act in narrowly specified ways'. Honesty is more than just telling the truth or not telling lies, but is 'a complex pattern of beliefs, desires, emotions, preferences, sensitivities, opinions...'. And so I believe that detachment, discernment, persistence, to name three of my 'digital' virtues are more than just a straightforward set of behaviours, though I do insist that they will translate into some quite specific behaviours.

Benkler and Nissenbaum attempt to cluster a range of virtuous behaviours which they consider to be inherent to commons-based peer production. Hence they list a cluster which contains such virtues as autonomy, independence, liberation. This cluster, for me, comes under 'detachment'. I am writing for people who already have a good understanding of a 'little virtue' called religious detachment. I want them to apply that to the real world of digital culture. Benkler and Nissenbaum exemplify their cluster as 'independence from wide-ranging commercial entities influencing our actions'. My own way of putting it is that I use 'detachment' as 'a reaction to a situation where we have, I believe, become too dependent on certain things, those things being a particular brand of software, or ways of doing things with software'. Incidentally, in that chapter I take up 'the commons' which is at the core of the other article. I also propose a view of software that goes well beyond the simply commercial or instrumental. I believe that software is 'the unexplored hypertext to Christian faith' or the 'missing link in the Church's language'. Software is a cultural artifact, far more significant than most of us believe.

A second cluster of virtues, which Benkler and Nissenbaum label as 'creativity', 'productivity', 'industry', are implicit in much of what I say, though perhaps I cover some elements of their cluster under 'friendship' where I urge more collaboration. Anyway, their central point here is active participation, not being just passive browsers. Pitching in, which is not a virtue if it happens once, but could be if it is persistent.

They have two other clusters which they claim are more other-directed, less self-referential. Labels such as 'benevolence', 'charity', altruism' occur here, and especially if they are (fourth cluster) geared to a commons, the public, mission, a social contribution. Understandably we are on more common ground here. In the matter of free and open source software they believe that the literature is ambiguous on the role that the fourth cluster of virtues plays. But they do say that studies of the 'gift culture' (or gift economy as it is sometimes put) should allow for the fact that human beings may produce something of value and give it away freely for substantially good motives (generosity, kindness, benevolence). It does not have to be interpreted as self-serving, like improving one's reputation. When I speak of 'digital fidelity', I am concerned about something that probably fits within this cluster. If the Church (I speak especially of the Catholic Church) is into any kind of 'business' at all, it is the veritable mountain of documentation that is its business. But now that inevitably so much of this documentation is turning digital, and the more recent material is born that way, what do we believe we will be handing on to future generations? Not a great deal of thought has been given to proper conservation of this digital material.

There is one virtue that I believe could be valuable for Benkler and Nissenbaum to consider – and I would welcome their thinking on this. It is what I call 'digital governance' and I am coming at it from my own experience of authority structures in 'religious life'. But it sits within the general area of their fourth cluster, I feel, and raises a heap of questions to do with education, formation, digital asset management, inclusion, in a digital culture which is far more democratic, even subversive of authority, than earlier cultures were. It goes back to the implications of technology for personal and social existence which we are both interested in. Technology, remember, is not just tools. It is art, practical wisdom, embodies certain values, and these do influence the way we live and are governed.

Finally, I like the way that Benkler and Nissenbaum say, towards the end, that they are not out to 'warn of dire threat of harm', but rather to hint that there might be a threat of omission, a missing out on good possibilities. I explained at the beginning of my book that I chose the title 'Digital Virtues' precisely because I didn't want to join those who are somewhat negative towards digital culture. I prefer a positive approach. I am a great believer in the 'commons', in peer production, but at the same time would like to generously critique our contemporary digital culture. In my book I draw on Blaise Pascal's phrase 'esprit de finesse', to suggest how we might do this: a term which describes the user, whose excellence lies in a real mindfulness, an attendance on what is often most elusive, the most appropriate ethical use of the machines, the software, the procedures we are by now well accustomed to in the digital world.


- 1. Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum, 'Commons-based Peer production and Virtue' in The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 14, Number 4, 2006, pp. 394-491

- 2. Julian Fox, Digital Virtues, ID:1021109 2007 [1]

- 3. Quoted from A. Macintyre, After Virtue, p 543 in Benkler and Nissenbaum p. 408


Julian Fox, a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco (a Catholic teaching Order working in some 130 countries around the world) is currently working in the Order's communications department based in Rome. His academic interests and expertise are in the area of linguistics, but due to his work in communications over the years he has gained considerable practical knowledge in digital matters and is a firm believer in the value of open source.