Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.
Yuval Noah Harari embodies the virtues of perspective, humility and empathy.
In Sapiens, he tells the story of how humans created subjective reality: things that objectively do not exist, but which come into being because groups of people believe in them. This allowed humans to build pyramids and empires, and invent money and the rule of law.
In Homo Deus he tells the story of how we are merging infotech and biotech: integrating computers in our bodies and delegating human tasks to computers. We are, unintentionally and unconsciously, ushering in the age of data. It is unclear what role will be left for us, people.
In passing, he debunks humanistic handholds like the soul (sorry, doesn’t exist; we’re animals, just like other animals), free will (sorry, doesn’t exist; it’s either determined or random) and consciousness (sorry, not really special; probably some by-product of thinking).
He zooms-out, to paint broad brushstrokes, spanning thousands of years, and he zooms-in, on details in daily lives and experiences. His putting of things, both large and small, into one story exemplifies the technomoral virtue of perspective, whichShannon Vallor defines as “a reliable disposition to attend to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149).
Some find Harari’s books as dystopian. Everything is only a social construct. There’s no soul, no free will, nothing special about consciousness, and Artificial Intelligence is on a collision course with us, humans. I don’t share this interpretation. I read and hear humility and empathy in his books and talks.
Harari exemplifies the virtue of humility, which Vallor defines as “a recognition of the real limits of our technosocial knowledge and ability” (2016, p. 126), in that he debunks humanity’s illusions of superiority and mastery.
Harari exemplifies empathy, which Vallor defines as a “cultivated openness to being morally moved to caring action by the emotions of other members of our technosocial world” (2016, p. 133), in his urge to treat our fellow animals less cruel.
This follows from his debunking of humanity’s superiority. He sees no good reasons to torture and kill cows, pigs and chicken, fellow animals with feelings and intelligence not similar to ours. Unsurprisingly, Harari’s diet is vegan. In addition, he uses our treatment of animals as a cautionary tale for how cruelly some future so-called superior life form may, one day, treat us …
Finally, it’s worth noting two more things about Harari’s personal life, which he explicitly relates to his professional work.
He is a committed practitioner of Vipassana meditation. He explains that this helps him to quiet the deluge of random thoughts and daydreams, and to focus on reality. Professionally, this has helped him to focus on what really matters, on the big picture–extremely handy when you write about Big History.
And Harari is gay. He explains that his experience of being gay has helped him to distinguish between man-made phantasies, like “homosexuality is evil”, and natural phenomena, like “many fellow animals behave homosexually”. And, obviously and logically, to dismiss the former and embrace the latter.
Possibly, you find that Yuval Noah Harari embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl