Abstract Introduction Ch. 2—Toward a Virtue Ethics in Digital Rhetoric Ch. 3—The Practice of Equality as a Virtue Ch. 4—Care in Remix and Digital Sampling Ch. 5—Generosity in Social Media Technology Ch. 6—A Virtue of Patience in Environmental Networks Ch. 7—Future Applications of Hexeis in Networked Societies Key Takeaways References About the Author

Rhetoric, Technology, and the Virtues by Jared S. Colton and Steve Holmes

Reviewed by Jonathan Marine

a temple at the ancient agora of Athens
"Ancient Greece" by Adam Polselli (2007) is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Toward a Virtue Ethics in Digital Rhetoric


In the second chapter, "Toward a Virtue Ethic in Digital Rhetoric," Jared Colton and Steve Holmes begin parceling out the broad theoretical scope and scale of their vision by seeking to leverage Aristotelian virtue ethics as a supplementary framework for navigating and negotiating ethical issues in digital rhetoric. And they use this chapter to flesh out the historical origins of the hexeis and differentiate it from, and within, other postmodern thought. The authors start by contending that virtue ethics didn't fall out of favor so much as it was "never explicitly taken up by rhetoricians" (p. 21). Tracing Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, they differentiate virtue ethics from consequentialism and utilitarianism and deontology while reminding the reader that a virtue ethic framework shouldn't assume "technological progress equates to moral progress" (p. 21), before providing an inventive, original overview of Aristotelian hexeis which is in and of itself a massive contribution to the field's understanding of how virtue ethics merit consideration in the transient, technological context of modernia.


The key point here is that Aristotle's hexeis are in the service of eudaimonia—human flourishing and well-being, or more commonly happiness. That is, Aristotle, who in a departure from Plato did not conceive of ethical virtues as epistemic knowledge, contended that the hexeis "emerge from the body and the social/material environment rather than purely through reason or knowledge" (p. 32). Therefore, ethics is not mere theory for Aristotle, but "embodied action in support of eudaimonia" (p. 32). Colton and Holmes make a very intriguing claim when they suggest that the "aim of eudaimonia is accomplished both in the ethical practice itself and in the end achieved by that practice" in that hexis is not something we learn merely through rational thought and reasoning; rather, it is a practice, or habit, that comes through practice, by being made habitual (p. 32). Even more striking is how the authors are able to show that the elasticitiy of Aristotle's virtue ethics—looking "for only so much precision as nature permits" (p. 34, quoting Aristotle)—uniquely positions virtue ethics to guide modern rhetors through the ever-oscillating contexts of digitalia; virtue ethics produce, to Colton and Holmes's minds, "not universal but emergent normative values" well-suited for the digital rhetorical landscape (p. 36).

Returning to the mischaracterized neglect of virtue ethics in contemporary scholarship, they contend that many postmodern theorists (Ballif, 1998; Fleckenstein, 2005; Warnick, 2001; Welch, 1999) have, in arguing for neoclassical approaches to digital rhetoric, nonetheless disregarded or dismissed the relevance of Aristotelian ethics. This exigence, neglecting the applicability of Aristotelian hexis to digital rhetoric, while perhaps understandable in the broader context of postmodern thought, takes on particular import in technical communication, usability, and design. While the oft-repeated criticism that virtue ethics is not itself systematic enough to guide ethical actions may have merit, Colton and Holmes argue that virtue ethics can nonetheless "demystif[y] the kinds of comportments, habits, or dispositions such scholarship is calling for" (p. 48). The key point the authors seek to make here is that virtue ethics supplement modern scholarship and theory related to digital rhetoric and virtuous or ethical action in a flexible enough manner to account for the increasingly complex demands of our modern, digital world.