Abstract for Foucault’s Care of Self: An Ethical Approach to Technology in the Global Age

(This abstract was accepted by the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum for the 2015 Conference which will be taking place in Greenville, South Carolina, October 8-10, 2015. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

There is no question that technology has become one of the most powerful forces shaping our world. According to mobile-cellular subscriptions, the number of cell phones has now reached over 6.8 billion with the world population being a little over 7 billion. With the gap between the number of cell phones and the number of people rapidly closing, it is evident that at least some form of technology has reached almost every person on this planet. How do we respond to this global invasion of technology? Is there an ethical framework by which we can properly understand and regulate technology?

Drawing mostly on Michel Foucault’s later works, this paper argues that Foucault’s care of self offers us an ethical approach to technology in the global age. First, through his historical investigation, Foucault reveals that the ancient notion of care of self has been eclipsed in the modern age with a reduced notion of knowledge of self. As a result, when we look at modern technology, we find that most modern technology is no longer concerned with a holistic care for self, but only with an obsession for knowledge, especially self-knowledge. And yet, Foucault also claims that technologies can have the power to contribute to a proper care of self. Thus, I believe that his analysis of care of self reveals the shortcomings in modern technology, but also challenges us to discover technologies which do promote a holistic care of self.

Potential Problems in Augustine’s Conversion Narrative, Part 1

As many readers have expressed, the experience of reading Augustine’s Confessions is irrefutably powerful, but also brings with it several confusing, at first conflicting, accounts of conversion. In a series of two posts, I will be addressing two questions which often arise upon reading The Confessions. In this post, we will encounter the first question: how can Augustine be simultaneously certain of the Christian faith, but unwilling to adhere to it?

The Question

This question stems from a passage in Book VIII where Augustine records:

My desire (cupiebam) was not to be more certain (certior) of you but to be more stable (stabilior) in you. But in my temporal life everything was in a state of uncertainty (nutabant omnia),[1]and my heart (cor) needed to be purified from the old leaven. I was attracted to the way, the Savior himself, but was still reluctant to go along its narrow paths.[2]

At this point in his journey, Augustine’s quest for certainty has been satisfied due to his readings of the Platonist books and the compelling expositions of Scripture and Christian doctrine from Bishop Ambrose. Although he acknowledges the truth of Christianity, he is not secure in his faith because the things of this life cause his heart to waver and remain impure; he is still on his quest for stability.[3] The use of the comparative adjective, stabilior, coming from the verb, stare, meaning “to stand, stay or remain,” gives us a clue on what kind of stability Augustine desires. To be more stable, then, is, as Robert O’Connell puts it, “to take a ‘stand’ and maintain it.”[4] Like a man attempting to find a firm foothold in the strong current of a river or in the oncoming tides of an ocean, Augustine’s feet keep shifting away from the faith as he is being pulled and pushed by the waters of his other desires. With his certainty of Christianity, he has the tools necessary to stand strong, to plant his feet firmly in the river, but, for some reason, he remains divided and cannot access them.

His conflicted nature is clearly seen when he recalls in Book VII:

But there was a firm place (stabiliter) in my heart (corde) for the faith within the Catholic Church, in your Christ, our Lord and Savior. In many respects this faith was still unformed and hesitant about the norm of doctrine. Yet my mind (animus) did not abandon it, but daily drank in more and more.[5]

His heart is not completely devoid of stability (thus, the adverb of stabilis: stabiliter, is used) as he has some kind of stable or firm place for this unformed faith. But this stability is not enough to push his heart toward embracing doctrine and enduring purification. His mind, on the other hand, is gulping down truth in increasing quantities. We are led to ask then: if he were truly convinced that Christ is the only true source for goodness and truth, would not his whole being, heart and mind, reach out to take hold of such goodness? Why do his feet keep slipping?

Tackling the Question with the Help of Bernard Lonergan

Lonergan writes of three different types of conversion in his Method in Theology. I believe that his differentiation between conversions will help us address this question. First, we will briefly look at his three types and then see how they relate to Augustine’s conversion narrative.

Lonergan’s three types of conversion are intellectual, moral and religious. Intellectual conversion is a “radical clarification and, consequently, the elimination of an exceedingly stubborn and misleading myth concerning reality, objectivity and human knowledge.”[6] This myth, which Lonergan repeatedly counters throughout his writings, is that knowing is solely looking at the world and the real is only what it out there right now. Upon rejecting this myth, our minds are turned and converted to the proper way of grasping the world, a world that is mediated by meaning.

Moral conversion “changes the criterion of one’s decisions and choices from satisfaction to values.”[7] This is where we decide on what standards we will employ to determine whether an act is good or bad.

Religious conversion is “being grasped by ultimate concern,” “a other-worldly falling in love,” and “a total and permanent self-surrender without conditions, qualifications, reservations.”[8] We are taken with what is most important because we have fallen in love with Someone outside of this world, the Creator of the universe. This love compels us to surrender our whole being to Him without limits.

Using Lonergan’s description, we can now differentiate between Augustine’s conversions: intellectual, moral and religious. First, we recognize that Augustine has experienced the beginnings of an intellectual conversion through reading Platonists and listening to Ambrose. He turns from his false beliefs in materialism to embrace a world, both visible and invisible, mediated by meaning. As a result of this intellectual turn, he is able to claim certainty in the Christian faith. Thus, even before the garden experience, his mind starts to engage in the truth of God, “ . . . my mind (animus) did not abandon [my faith in Christ], but daily drank in more and more,” but his heart, though it has enough stability to have unformed faith, is still reluctant to give up the sinful pleasures and plunge completely in God.[9]

Augustine’s intellectual conversion brings about rumblings of a moral conversion as well. He realizes that his moral decisions need to be made according to the values of the Christian faith and not according to his own sensual desires. Even though he has chosen his standard and has made his decision, he does not act upon it. He prays, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet,” fearing that God may cure him too quickly of his sexual disease.[10]

Through experiencing and understanding the world, Augustine begins both his intellectual conversion, where he is able to judge reality more appropriately, and a moral conversion, where he can decide on what is good. And yet, he cannot find the stability because it must come from the highest conversion, the religious conversion. For, as Lonergan comments, “Deciding is one thing, doing is another.”[11] Without a religious conversion, Augustine does not have the power to implement his other two conversions. A religious conversion provides the “power of love to enable” a person to do what he or she knows is right.[12] Though Augustine has met with both intellectual and moral conversions and has become convicted of the truth of Christianity, he needs the power of God’s love to obtain the stability for which he longs.

An experience, such as a conversion, can never by fully systematized (as we will discuss in the next post). But, upon referring to Lonergan’s description of conversion, we have been provided helpful vocabulary in order to engage in Augustine’s conflicted state. Through this engagement, we can more clearly identify the elements which push him toward certainty and the elements which hold him back from stability.

In the next post, we will address a second complexing issue: when did Augustine actually put his faith in Christ?

  1. [1] Chadwick’s translation of omnia nutabant as “everything was in a state of uncertainty” can be misleading. It is important to note that this “certainty” does not refer to the certainty (certior) mentioned in the previous sentence. Literally, we could translate it as “all things were wavering,” referring not to the need for certainty, but the need for stability. Augustine is not contradicting himself; though his mind is certain, his heart is wavering and unstable.
  2. [2] Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), VIII.i (1), p. 133.
  3. [3] Robert O’Connell uses the helpful terms: “quest for certainty” and “quest for stability/gift of stability” in differentiating Augustine’s journey. See his Images of Conversion in St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” (New York: Fordham University Press, 1996).
  4. [4] O’Connell, Images of Conversion in St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” 192.
  5. [5] Augustine, The Confessions, VII.v (7), p. 116.
  6. [6] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 238.
  7. [7] Ibid., 240.
  8. [8] Ibid.
  9. [9] Augustine, The Confessions, VII.v (7), p. 116.
  10. [10] Ibid., VIII.vii (17), p. 145.
  11. [11] Lonergan, Method in Theology, 240.
  12. [12] Ibid., 242.

Marcel’s Metaphysics of Hospitality

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Toward the end of his Mystery of Being, Volume 1, Gabriel Marcel speaks of the mysterious presence that one person has to another. This presence goes beyond mere ability to reason, perform or accomplish, but simply communicates to us a sense of value or worth. He gives an example of a sleeping child, someone who is completely vulnerable and unprotected and yet we deeply feel its valuable presence. The fact that the child is “utterly at our mercy” is what gives this presence a sense of sacredness.

From the point of view of physical activity, or at least in so far as the notion of physical activity is defined in relation to the possible grasping of things, the sleeping child is completely unprotected and appears to be utterly in our power; from that point of view, it is permissible for us to do what we like with the child. But from the point of view of mystery, we might say that it is just because this being is completely unprotected, that it is utterly at our mercy, that it is also invulnerable or sacred. And there can be no doubt at all that the strongest and most irrefutable mark of sheer barbarism that we could imagine would consist in the refusal to recognize this mysterious invulnerability. This sacredness of the unprotected lies also at the roots of what we might call a metaphysics of hospitality.[1]

Though it is difficult to clearly define the mysterious presence of another human, it is intrinsic to every human interaction. Almost all of us can attest to this sense of presence in our everyday experiences with others. In fact, to disregard the sacredness of the unprotected, as Marcel says, is the most barbaric act we can possibly do. We no longer recognize the mystery of the human and seek to categorize such a being only according to what it can do or perform. The perpetrators of the Holocaust did exactly this: they no longer recognized the presence of another human, relegating them to unheard of treatments, tortures and experiments. The worst crimes in history come from this lack of recognition and this refusal to honor the sacredness of the weak.

We must ask ourselves: Who are the weak today that are being stripped of their dignity? Who are the vulnerable that are being relegated to mere objects for our own gain?

Because we often ignore the mysterious presence of the human and instead define a human based on its “efficiency and output,” we begin to overlook those whose efficiency and output is limited or even non-existent. With an emphasis on what the human can produce rather than its mysterious presence, a metaphysics of hospitality becomes absurd. Marcel writes, “. . . the more this attitude of reverence towards the guest, towards the wounded, towards the sick, will appear at first incomprehensible, and later absurd: and in fact, in the world around us, we know that this assertion of the absurdity of forbearance and generosity is taking very practical shapes.”[2]

Chilling examples of those who find this reverence incomprehensible are not only located in the Holocaust, but in our own cities. The defenselessness of a child, for example, is constantly being taken advantage of and as a result, there are those, like Dr. Gosnell (pictured right), who find children merely dispensable. (Dr. Gosnell is on trial for eight murders, seven babies and one woman, at his horrific medical center. To read more on what he is accused of, see the CNN article here.)

Living out a metaphysics of hospitality means honoring the mysterious presence of the humans around us. And since such presence is often ignored, it means championing the worth of those who are overlooked, the weak, the vulnerable, the defenseless. Such a championing of the weak is beautifully displayed in the recent photo of the new Pope embracing the young boy with cerebral palsy. Embracing the weak is recognizing the mysterious presence which each human, regardless of age or health, embodies.

  1. [1] Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Volume 1: Reflection and Mystery, trans. G.S. Fraser (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2001), 217.
  2. [2] Ibid.

Plato’s Democratic Character and Kierkegaard’s Aesthete

An expanded version of these thoughts was presented at the University of Dallas for the Institute of Philosophic Studies Spring Colloquium 2013.

In the city-soul narrative of Books VIII and IX of The Republic, Plato clearly directs our attention to the major weaknesses of the democratic character, illustrated by the lack of order and chaotic state of the soul. The democratic character is supposed to be second to last on the list of degenerating characters: take one wrong step and – watch out! – your soul might end up in a tyrannic state! With its low placement and its negative description, the democratic character appears to have only place to go: downwards; such a person appears to be headed straight for wickedness and irrationality. And yet, Plato also remarks about some surprisingly positive elements of this character. Why does Plato include these positive aspects? Is there hope for such a character?

A democractic character has a high regard for the democratic values of equality and freedom and attempts to govern his or her whole life in accordance with them. At first, the democratic character is like an immature son who runs after wild pleasures, but later, as he grows older, he appears to live according to some kind of moderation and even refers to his life as “sweet, free and blessed.”[1] Plato describes this “senior” democratic character as follows:

. . . he . . . lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him . . . drinking and listening to the flute . . . practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes spending his time as though he were occupied with philosophy. Often he engages in politics and, jumping up, says and does whatever chances to come to him . . . And there is neither order nor necessity in his life, but calling this life sweet, free and blessed he follows it throughout.[2]

The freedom to enjoy life, the interest in philosophy, as described here, in addition to the practice of moderation, the basic decency of the democratic soul, the unwillingness to give into hostility or lawless behavior, mentioned elsewhere in the text, are all positive aspects of the democratic character. Over 2000 years later, Kierkegaard offers us a narrative description of a similar sort of character: the reflective aesthete. By looking at Kierkegaard’s description of the aesthete, I believe that we are better able to understand why Plato is including such positive elements.

The aesthete lives according to similar principles as the democratic character. He or she is focused on the now, the immediate and is dedicated to satisfying whatever desire happens to come along. Kierkegaard describes: “ . . . the [a]esthetic in a person is that by which he spontaneously and immediately is what he is.” [3] An aesthete, however, cannot remain in the aesthetic way of life for very long without the infiltrating of the ethical. In other words, the ethical way of life will come knocking at the door. He or she has the opportunity to make a free choice to begin the journey upwards toward higher ways of life, the ethical and ultimately, the religious.

The upward climb, for Kierkegaard, begins with a free choice, but for Plato, it begins with the dialectic, the practice of dialoguing and searching for truth. With the democratic character’s openness to philosophy and the principle of moderation, he or she could realize that there is something more than the equal gratification of desires and through the practice of dialectic, begin to seek after the Good.

Thus, upon an analysis of Kierkegaard’s aesthete, an implicit orientation of the democratic character comes to light: the ability to climb upward as well. This type of character, who, at first, appears stuck in the selfish gratification of desires and privy to a disorderly soul and life, contains hope of something more. The aesthete cannot escape the offer to go higher, but whether or not a person will choose to ascend is another matter. In the same way, the democratic character, upon tasting philosophy, may crave for more and begin the search for the Good. Though many desires may entrap him or her, a democratic character has the opportunity to ascend higher, but he or she must be willing to turn completely around.

  1. [1] Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan Bloom, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books 1991), 561d.
  2. [2] Ibid., 561c-d.
  3. [3] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or in The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), II 178, p. 77.

Good Decisions Made Without Good Reasons: Connaturality According to Aquinas

Reason clearly plays an important role in making good ethical decisions. Looking back at our own personal lives, we can trace the source of our poor choices to a lack of good reasons or even to complete irrationality. We only need to review the improper actions of governments to see the horrific effects of decisions made without good reasons. And yet, we experience another phenomenon when making decisions where we make a good ethical choice, not based on reason, but on our own natural inclinations. In these situations, we might say, “It just felt right, but I’m not sure why.” Thomas Ryan, a commentator on Thomas Aquinas, accurately describes these types of experiences: “feeling, thinking, willing resonate with each other that this particular response is ‘right’.”[1]

We experience this phenomenon in two types of situations: major life decisions and quick response decisions. First, in a major life decision, we may list all of our reasons, make a pros and cons list, and talk with our family and friends, but when it comes down to it, we rely on our intuitive feeling of what seems right. For example, in choosing a spouse, though we avoid certain characteristics that we know will be harmful to a healthy marriage, we choose someone based on a ‘feeling of love’ for that person, which may be inexpressible in words. In regards to quick response decisions, we may also act, not based on carefully thought out reasons, but on our (hopefully) good intuitive sense in the moment. If we see someone about to walk in front of a moving vehicle, we will quickly shout to alert them without taking the time to contemplate the reasons for the most virtuous response in that situation.

So, what’s happening here? How are these decisions ethical? Thomas Aquinas offers his concept of connaturality to account for these experiences. Connaturality simply means a natural inclination or bent toward something. When Aquinas uses the term though, he is often referring to a natural inclination toward divine things, and ultimately, toward God. If we have a natural inclination toward the things of God, and thus to God, Himself, we will naturally choose the things of God. Aquinas discusses connaturality most explicitely in the Summa Theologica, Part Two of the Second Part, Question 45, Article 2:

Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry, but it belongs to wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost to judge aright about them on account of connaturality with them . . .
Now this sympathy or connaturality for Divine things is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Cor. 6:17: “He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit.” Consequently wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright, as stated above.[2]

The first type of wisdom mentioned here is based on reason, but Aquinas calls our attention to another type of wisdom: wisdom which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This wisdom gives us the ability to judge things based on our relationship with God and our intimacy with Him. When we come to know God, we are joined with Him and, as a result, we have access to this wisdom. Even those who do not know God explicitly can still know Him though the natural law and thus, in a similar fashion, are also able to judge based on connaturality.

Connaturality springs out of the heart, a heart full of charity (love). The more that we love God, the closer we will be to Him; the closer we are to Him, the more His judgments will be our judgments. Thus, some of our decisions are made not based on a list of reasons but according to wisdom provided by the Holy Spirit.

Naturally, this concept can easily be abused. A person can claim that he or she is acting based on ‘connaturality’, but the actions clearly only bring despair and dissatisfaction. If the person’s inclinations are bent toward a lesser good, a good that becomes an evil when made a priority, then the decisions will reflect that. Aquinas constantly calls us to seek after the highest good, the only true source of happiness, which is the eternal vision of God. If we consistently direct our hearts toward God, if we “set our minds on things above and not on earthly things”[3], then we can trust our inclinations, given by the Holy Spirit, when we are called to make ethical judgments, whether big or small.

  1. [1] Thomas Ryan, “Revisiting Affective Knowledge and Connaturality in Aquinas,” Theological Studies 66 (March 2005): 58
  2. [2] Summa Theologica, Part Two of the Second Part, Question 45, Article 2 Online
  3. [3] Colossians 3:2