How can we act virtuously and ethically in the modern, digital world? Or, perhaps the question should read: Can we act virtuously and ethically in the modern, digital world? So massive and oscillatory are the myriad digital domains within which human (and nonhuman) action and thought take place, so exponential is the growth and complexity of the interwebs, so transient and fleeting is any sense of objective good in the modern cyber-republic that any attempt to offer a heuristic, let alone praxis, for navigating and negotiating ethical action in today's digital world(s) face(s) a formidable task. In Rhetoric, Technology and the Virtues, authors Jared S. Colton and Steve Holmes (2018) begin the work of retrofitting classical thought to redress a hitherto unknown applicability to the pendulating, multimodal rhetorical situations inherent to the networked hyperspace we increasingly inhabit. They ask, "how and in what way should digital rhetoricians consider forms of networked collaboration… and other digital practices to be ethical goods?" (p. 3). In managing the multiple ethical motives inherent to the complex, digital rhetorical situations of today, Colton and Holmes suggest the neglected ethical paradigm of Aristotelian virtue ethics offers valuable methods for brokering ethical, virtuous action in the networked age.
As virtue ethics is foregrounded in the dispositions we develop through our daily practices, and as those practices are increasingly enmeshed in and shaped by digitalia, virtue ethics—the argument goes—offers a particularly malleable and relevant set of tools to help us "to understand how we can distinguish ethical from unethical actions within networked spaces without having to impose the types of universal standards of morality that decades of rhetorical scholarship and critical theory have decried" (p. 6). However, before the argument explicitly for virtue ethics can be presented in full force, the authors first trace the collection of reasons behind its neglect. And it is postmodernism's destabilizing defiance of universal rationality ("Ethics is dead") that has made liminal ethical thinking. Yet, through postmodernity's habitual examination of systems of meaning with an eye toward social justice, it has indirectly offered and augured approaches "obviously motivated by ethical concerns" even if delimited by its own critique (p. 7). Because postmodern theorists frequently elide alternative theorizations of ethical values, chalking them up to overly contingent ideologies and the impossibility of neutral or objective interpretation, the authors call upon Bruno Latour to reframe the "habits of thought" which fomenting a systemic ethical change would require, and in doing so accentuate how more and more digital scholars and rhetors are implicitly speaking of, about, and in the language of habits and virtues.
Aristotle's hexis, literally "to have or possess," is an orientation, comportment, or disposition which "guides decision making across multiple contingent rhetorical situations" (p. 12). For Aristotle, the hexis "produces virtuous action to guide wisdom," and thus for Colton and Holmes, the hexeis are a productive supplement to guiding ethical action in digital rhetoric (p. 12). And these authors' efforts are not the first to highlight virtue ethics' modern applicability; citing Shannon Vallor (2010), they are able to show her valuation of virtue ethics as "the best and perhaps the only solution to this quandary [of ethical decision making] in dynamic systems" through its ability to "transcend the concrete conditions of human flourishing" while also pointing to "sound ethical choices within such contexts, choices that reflect shared normative principles of broader significance and application" (Vallor, 2010, p. 160, quoted by Colton & Holmes, 2018, p. 12). For Vallor, virtue ethics offers a valuable supplementary framework for negotiating thought and action in digital rhetorical systems. Yet, short is the list of modern digital rhetoricians who have argued for the enduring relevance of classical rhetoric for the digital era. Colton and Holmes's rebuttal rests on the fact that virtue ethics, neglected as it may be, provides a method of differentiating ethical from unethical digital rhetoric practices that are centered in dispositions and habits which do not rely on the static systems of universal rationality criticized by a generation of postmodern and poststructuralist thought (p. 14). By viewing justice as the cultivation of ethical hexeis, digital rhetors can reclaim a place for virtue ethics that overcomes the limitations of postmodern relativism by "grounding digital rhetoric ethics in users' habits and practices" (p. 19).