The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: An Introduction
November 4, 2014
Although the advent of new technology has probably posed new challenges for almost every generation, no one can deny that the pace of change has increased exponentially in recent decades, inflicting ever more severe growing pains on Christians seeking to live faithfully in a rapidly-changing world. Many of my generation experienced firsthand the awkward rendezvous of the tightly-policed world of conservative evangelicalism with the internet, and my parents' generation may recall with a groan their attempts to enforce "standards" amid the torrents of digital worldliness pouring into their homes. Confronted with these challenges, the answer for many evangelicals was a fundamentalist legalism or a laissez-faire libertinism, or perhaps an unstable back-and-forth between the two.
As a result, most of those in my generation find ourselves afloat on a turbulent sea of new technology not only with little sense of how to operate the sails and rudder, but with a reflexive suspicion of anything like an instruction manual. Those who dare to decry the evils of smartphones or Facebook are quickly branded as Luddites; while those who tell us that "there is nothing new under the sun" and seek to regulate our digital lives with familiar moral platitudes ("use Facebook, just don't be narcissistic about it"; "surf the web, just keep your eyes pure") seem to offer little real guidance amidst such fundamental and disorienting novelty.
Our predicament, however, reflects a more deep-seated cultural uncertainty as to how to think about technology and the ways it shapes us. We tend to assume that the ever-new technologies we are crafting from year to year are simply an extension of the tool-making process that has always been a part of human culture. We need to get things done, and we'd like to get them done more efficiently, and so we make tools for the task. We remain the masters, freely choosing our purposes as before; the only difference is that we can accomplish these purposes faster. Of course, we have not been able to escape the nagging worry that we have moved beyond the Tool Age, and our creations may be at risk of mastering us. Films like The Terminator and The Matrix attest to this worry, but at the same time enable us to domesticate it as merely the stuff of science-fiction, of little pressing consequence.
More than thirty years ago, the great Canadian philosopher George Grant devoted an essay toward analyzing the defensive remark of a computer scientist that summed up this instrumentalist attitude: "The computer does not impose on us the ways in which it should be used." From this standpoint, ethics is interested only in the particular purposes of human users of technology, not in evaluating the technologies themselves.
Grant, however, patiently deconstructs the naïvete of this remark. For one thing, it is silly to pretend that any technology is a blank slate for us to use as we would like; that is, at any rate, in tension with the very notion of technology as a tool. For tools are designed to fulfill certain functions, and while they may do these very well, they may do others quite poorly. Moreover, while we may not be bound to use them at all, we will certainly be tempted to, and all the more so the more efficient they are. Thus, by redirecting us to pursue tasks which the technology does well, and away from others which it does not do, a new technology can impose on us not merely how it should be used, but how we order all manner of aspects of our lives; just think of the automobile, for instance.
But the computer might seem at first glance unique in this respect; a computer can do almost anything we want it to, right? Well, only at first glance. Even with the dramatic advance of computer technology in the past three decades, there are still any number of ways in which a computer cannot, and presumably never will be used; it cannot feed you or transport you, for instance. But even within its domain, there are certain things it does quite well, like standardization and quantitative measurement, and others that it does quite poorly, like personalization and qualitative assessment; and this can have profound consequences when it is adopted by institutions, such as schools or hospitals. More importantly, its very versatility makes it far more subject to the law of unintended consequences--more like the automobile than the plough. The adoption of the computer has imposed upon us all manner of new ways of living and communicating that we might never have imagined.
But what has all this to do with ethics? we might still ask. Sure, I now communicate differently with my friends and coworkers than I might have done, but what concerns ethics is only whether I lie to my friends or tell them the truth, whether I speak spitefully or lovingly to them. In this constricted moral vision, we Protestants have some particular blind spots to redress. Of course, I do not want to play the whole "blame it all on Luther" trick, which has long been a favorite parlor game of pseudo-sophisticated historians and theologians (even the redoubtable N.T. Wright can be found making this move when discussing just this issue in Virtue Reborn, pp. 51-53); whatever Luther's own mistakes, many of the leading Reformers and their disciples had a remarkably robust moral theology, and in any case, Catholics have their own versions of these Protestant mistakes.
Still, there are at least two ways in which Protestant emphases have sometimes conspired to keep us sloshing back and forth between legalism and libertinism. First, the Lutheran framework of Law and Gospel, while quite helpful in its place, can trap us into thinking that law is the only category for thinking about the moral life - thou shalts and thou shalt nots - with a corresponding focus on particular good or evil actions. If we don't like the thought of law (and many of us, especially nowadays, do not), we accordingly camp out on the Gospel side of the dialectic, emphasizing the good news that Christ has set us free and given us new hearts. From this standpoint, ethics is above all about having the right heart, and everything else will take care of itself. As John Calvin put it, "Let love be our guide, and all will be well," or as Immanuel Kant famously put it in a bastardized form of this doctrine, "the only thing good without qualification is a good will." Second, the Reformed, although being rather more optimistic about the moral law than the Lutherans, sometimes created their own unstable dialectic by an overreaching conception of sola Scriptura: if biblical law alone was the source of the moral law, then one's legalism or lack thereof depended only on one's hermeneutic. Those who wished to could find a Bible verse for almost everything, tripping up consciences in a web of restrictions, whereas the more liberally inclined saw these same passages as mere examples, or commands binding on a particular time and place.
The Protestant tendency to camp out on either the good will of a new heart or else on the particular good actions of obedience to the moral law has sometimes left out a crucial middle ground, the well-developed medieval conception of virtue, which many leading Reformers were careful to retain.
Now "virtue ethics" is certainly not the cure-all that some overenthusiastic devotees of Alasdair MacIntyre may have imagined, but the notion of virtue is clearly an indispensable part of our moral toolkit. Thomas Aquinas (following Aristotle) defined a virtue as an "operative habit" whereby we achieve a "certain perfection of a power." The notion is pretty straightforward. All animals have certain habits, whether instinctive or trained by their parents, which enable them to perfect certain natural powers, to excel at the sorts of things they were particularly made to do. Moral habits, habits of the rational will, are the same, except that they require conscious cultivation and, to a greater or lesser extent, divine grace: they are learned patterns of behavior which enable us to excel at being the kind of creatures God made us to be, to act excellently toward ourselves, our neighbors, and God. A virtuous person may still sin, and a vicious person may still make a right choice, but in both cases it will be harder to go against habit than with it.
The language of virtue - and its opposite, vice - enables us to talk about making concrete morally-wise decisions even when there may be no intrinsically wrong action, no obvious violation of the moral law, to condemn. It also helps us to make sense of the moral law not as so many seemingly-arbitrary prohibitions, but as an intelligible whole. There are some things, like murder perhaps, that we may easily enough label as per se wrong, without resorting to the language of virtue and vice; there are others, like drunkenness, for which such language is considerably more useful in pinpointing their wrongness, and others still, like playing too many video games, for which such language is indispensable if we wish to form moral judgments.
This attention to habit, then - to the ways in which virtuous or vicious habits shape our moral dispositions and thus our actions, and thus to the moral importance of consciously disciplining our habits - gives us a route into thinking ethically about technology in a way that avoids complacent moralism and reactionary legalism. We need neither imagine that technology is just another neutral tool that can be readily mastered by the same age-old moral principles, nor that it is a new demonic force that must be vigorously fenced in. And we can get past the imagination that media technology is merely a conduit for moral or immoral content. Rather, we can recognize simultaneously that it is a powerful force for shaping our habits, in bad ways and good, and that this shaping takes place against a backdrop of a human nature for which "there is nothing new under the sun."
Accordingly, the virtues that have enabled Christians to resist temptations through the ages can be cultivated, in order to counteract the vicious habits we may be unwittingly developing. The point, then, is that while it is clearly false to say that Facebook or Pinterest or smartphones are wicked, it is equally false to say, "Lighten up, there's nothing wrong with them; it's only what you do with them." Rather, the wise Christian will recognize that they can and will have unique propensities to shape our habits and desires in vicious ways, but also that this is a call for alertness, vigilance, and virtue, not a call to flee technology, which can after all be fantastically useful.
In the series which follows, I will be using the classic medieval tradition of the "seven deadly sins" (which are misnamed - in fact, they should be the seven deadly vices) to help us think through challenges posed by the sea of digital technologies in which we are immersed - challenges that are both new and yet old, preying as they do upon the twisted desires that have beset us since Adam.
Next week, then, we will consider Lust, followed by Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, and Pride.
Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com
 George Grant, 'Thinking about Technology', in Technology and Justice (Concord, ON: Anansi, 1986)
 Those who have been brought up to think of 'virtue' as an irredeemably Catholic notion, a kind of meritorious righteousness developed by our own willpower, might be surprised to discover invocations of the language of virtue by such leading Protestant reformers as Philipp Melanchton, Martin Bucer, and Heinrich Bullinger. Perhaps the most thoroughgoing 16th century adaptation of the concept, within the framework of a Protestant theology of justification by faith alone, can be found in Peter Martyr Vermigli's remarkable Commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, ed. Emidio Campi and Joseph C. McClelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2006)