According to the emerging paradigm of technomoral change, technology and morality co-shape each other. It is not only the case that morality influences the development of technologies. The reverse also holds: technologies affect moral norms and values. Tsjalling Swierstra compares the relationship of technology and morality with a special type of marriage: one that does not allow for divorce. Has the still-ongoing pandemic led to instances of technomoral change, or is it likely to lead to them in the future? One of the many effects of the pandemic is the acceleration of processes of digitalisation in many parts of the world. The widespread use of digital technologies in contexts such as work, education, and private life can be said to have socially disruptive effects. It deeply affects how people experience their relations to others, how they connect to their families, friends and colleagues, and the meaning that direct personal encounters have for them. Does the pandemic also have morally disruptive effects? By way of changing social interactions and relationships, it might indirectly affect moral agency and how the competent moral agent is conceived of. As promising as the prospect of replacing many of the traditional business meetings, international conferences, team meetings etc. with online meetings might seem with regard to solving the climate crisis, as worrisome it might be with an eye on the development and exercise of social and moral capacities.

Due to COVID-19, processes of digitalisation have speeded up enormously. This affects how we communicate, learn, teach, socialise, work, and so forth. Although parts of human communication, both in the context of work and in that of friendship and family relations, already took place online prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, this global health crisis led to a rapid increase in activities happening online, via platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, etc. Many activities that people were still used to do offline, such as meeting friends, celebrating a birthday, having a coffee break with colleagues, and so on were moved online. By now we are used to having coffee breaks, drinks, parties, family gatherings, etc. online, which means: without physical contact, without touch, without being in one room together (sharing the same physical space). Social interaction online differs significantly from offline social interaction. For instance, verbal communication plays a greater role in the former because there it is harder to communicate non-verbally, e.g. through gestures, mimicry, or eye contact. In a group meeting, it is impossible to address anyone in particular by looking at them and turning towards them. In a virtual setting, it is difficult to notice if someone is not well. Due to the poverty of online encounters with regard to non-verbal signals and clues, I suppose that it is harder to empathise with people online.

For people to be able to act morally and exercise moral capacities, interaction with other people is crucial. But not just any interaction. We can only become morally competent persons if we interact with others in ways which enable receiving signals from them regarding how they feel. If, for a longer period of time, a large portion of people’s interpersonal encounters takes place online, this is likely to affect capacities such as the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and the capacity to receive signals regarding a person’s well-being. If children have only very limited physical contact with their friends, teachers etc., this will influence their moral development. This possible scenario can be seen in two ways: as a degradation of moral agency, or as a change of what moral competence amounts to, who counts as morally competent (or virtuous), and so forth. Concerning the second option: in a world in which many or even most interpersonal encounters are virtual, different capacities and sensibilities are needed. If the pandemic were to lead to such a world, it would have indirect impact on the concept of the moral agent and related concepts such as moral competence, moral virtues, etc. In case we do not think that this form of technomoral change is desirable, we should reflect upon how to secure sufficient offline social interactions for the development and nursing of moral capacities, and/or how to design communication and web conferencing platforms and how to shape the interactions through these platforms such that new possibilities for developing and exercising social and moral capacities are generated.

I am an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Previously I have held research and teaching positions at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice, Maastricht University, Utrecht University and Eindhoven University of Technology. I hold a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. My husband and I live in Baarn, a village in the province of Utrecht, together with our two daughters Philine and Romy.