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LIVING BETTER WITH TECHNOLOGY

Understanding Digital Well-Being

Improving Digital Well-Being

Strategies for societies and individuals

More
on my research

TECHNOLOGIES OF THE SELF

How are they changing our world?

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on my research

Ethics of Self-Cultivation

Practices and technologies of character change

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on my research

ONLINE CELEBRITY

Using x-phi to understand digital fame & influence

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on my research
Welcome! I'm a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow, based at The Department of Values, Technology & Innovation at TU Delft in the Netherlands. My work focuses on self-cultivation and character development, especially on how online technology can benefit our practical lives. Prior to this I was an Early-Career Innovation Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Warwick.

This website gives an overview of my research on digital well-being, as well as details of my work on self-cultivation and x-phi.

Please feel free to ask me any questions about my work – I love discussing it!

Most of my recent articles are open access, but let me know if you'd like me to send you a PDF.



News and Current Projects

Upcoming event is very long and describes what we are looking at 2020

European Innovation and Technology Institute. ‘The Golden Ethical Standard for Self-Care Products.’ Proposal to create an internationally-recognised trademark for self-care apps that are based on values of human well-being, especially those that reflect cultural, ethnic, and gender differences. January 2020.

Upcoming event is very long and describes what we are looking at 2020

European Innovation and Technology Institute. ‘The Golden Ethical Standard for Self-Care Products.’ Proposal to create an internationally-recognised trademark for self-care apps that are based on values of human well-being, especially those that reflect cultural, ethnic, and gender differences. January 2020.

Books and Edited Volumes

Topical Collection of Ethics and Information Technology: Technologies of the COVID-19 Crisis.
J. van den Hoven (editor-in-chief), M. J. Dennis (guest editor), G. Ishmaev (guest editor). Forthcoming.

This topical collection of Ethics and Information Technology examines how technologies can help tackle the immediate health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, how these technologies can safeguard human well-being, as well as rights and freedoms in a post-COVID world. Information technologies have a unique role to play in mitigating some of the worst ef­fects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but they also introduce new ethical dilemmas. Many of these technologies could have long-term transformative effects for our society. Ethical refection and analysis is therefore indis­pensable. Ethics and Information Technology investigates the ethical challenges of information technologies, so contributions will be prioritised that relate these challenges to the COVID-19 crisis, especially those that help us to identify ways to move beyond dilemmatic choices and argue for responsible digital innovations.

https://www.springer.com/journal/10676/updates/17977390
Becoming Who We Are Online: Digital Portraits of Self-Cultivation
M. J. Dennis (author). Manuscript to be submitted 2021.

This book offers a contribution in experimental philosophy (x-phi) to the existing literature on self-cultivation with an empirical account of the processes and practices of self-directed character development on the Internet. Each of the ten chapters of this volume offers a first-personal account of the online cultivation of the character, one which is based on interviews with a representative sample of individuals who have engaged in a protracted process of self-cultivation. The book begins with a critical introduction of x-phi that argues for the use of qualitative data in contemporary philosophical debates, as well as suggesting why it can help in the philosophical investigation of the cultivation of character online specifically. It closes with an Epilogue reflecting on the findings.

Book proposal available on request.
Cultivating Our Passionate Attachments
M. J. Dennis (author) (2020). Forthcoming with Routledge, September 2020.

This book offers an original philosophical theory of how we can cultivate our passionate attachments, a theme which remains under-researched in modern moral philosophy. While this topic was routinely addressed in ancient philosophy, it has become lost in contemporary debate, at the cost of overlooking some of the most powerful and distinctively-human motivations that govern how we lead our lives. Putting the philosophical resources of the Hellenistic tradition into dialogue with the existing literature in practical philosophy, while thinking imaginatively about contemporary forms of passionate self-cultivation, shows the importance of philosophical insight into how we can cultivate our passionate attachments.

Funded by Monash Institute of Graduate Research. Book proposal available on request.
Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
M. J. Dennis and S. Werkhoven (eds.), Routledge, 2018, pp. 1–234.

The aim of Ethics and Self-Cultivation is to establish and explore a new "cultivation of the self" strand within contemporary moral philosophy. Although the revival of virtue ethics has helped reintroduce the eudaimonic tradition into mainstream philosophical debates, it has by and large been a revival of Aristotelian ethics combined with a modern preoccupation with standards for the moral rightness of actions. The essays comprising this volume offer a fresh approach to the eudaimonic tradition: instead of conditions for rightness of actions, it focuses on conceptions of human life that are best for the one living it. The first section of essays looks at the Hellenistic schools and the way they influenced modern thinkers like Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Hadot, and Foucault in their thinking about self-cultivation. The second section offers contemporary perspectives on ethical self-cultivation by drawing on work in moral psychology, epistemology of self-knowledge, philosophy of mind, and meta-ethics.

Available here.

Peer-Reviewed Articles

"Digital Well-Being Under Pandemic Conditions."
M. J. Dennis (under review; submitted 25th May 2020).

In a matter of weeks the COVID-19 pandemic catalysed what may soon become a permanent digital transition in the domains of work, education, medicine, and leisure. This transition has also precipitated a spike in concern regarding our digital well-being. Prominent lobbying groups, such as the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), have responded to this concern in various ways. The CHT has offered a set of ‘Digital Well-Being Guidelines During the COVID-19 Pandemic.’ These guidelines offer a rule-based approach to digital well-being, one which aims to mitigate the effects of moving much of our lives online. This article interrogates the effectiveness of such rule-based approaches, and suggests that they should be complemented by a character-based approach (used by self-care apps) and a more systemic approach (used in the design of digital architecture).

Draft version of this article available on request.
"We Don’t Need Another Guru: AI Ethics and Digital Well-Being."
M. J. Dennis (under review).

AI continues to revolutionise the welfare and healthcare industries on multiple fronts. Recently, mental health and self-care app companies have begun employing rudimentary AI technology to radically improve the functionality their products. This use of AI has already transformed – often enhancing – how many users experience online self-care. By dramatically narrowing the gap between offline and online self-care techniques, apps that incorporate AI have come close to replicating much of the face-to-face and personalised input of traditional mental health practitioners and self-care gurus. App developers have spoken persuasively about the many benefits of online self-care, including how their products are liberated from cost and accessibility constraints associated with traditional practices. Nevertheless, using AI to mimic and replace human agents invokes a cluster of interconnected ethical concerns. This article surveys the benefits that various kinds of AI-enabled self-care products offer us.

Draft version of paper available on request.
"Social Robots and Digital Well-Being: How to Design Artificial Agents"
M. J. Dennis (under review at Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology).

Visions of future social robots may bear little resemblance to how these technologies will eventually feature in our lives. Understanding their future morphology is important, however, because it affects the values that we will require social robots to express and exemplify. One such value is digital well-being, a value that will increasingly determine our ability to live the good life in the 21st century. This article investigates how the design of social robots affects digital well-being, as well as how this concern should drive how we think about their future morphology.

Draft paper available on request.
"Unique Ethical Challenges: Online Technology and Virtue Education."
M. J. Dennis & T. Harrison (2020). Journal of Moral Education. Taylor & Francis. Online first.

Living well in the 21st century will present human beings with a unique set of demands and ethical challenges, many of which will require a rapid response to developments in the online space. Online activities increasingly permeate our practical lives. Although there is every indication that this activity will intensify, even experts on digital technology recognise that the precise effects of future emergent technology will be uncertain and remain unknown. We argue that education directed at the cultivation of cyber-wisdom and other cyber-virtues provides our best chance of creating a moral vocabulary that can guide us towards living well in the 21st century. The aim of this article is to offer the first outline of an educational model, founded on neo-Aristotelian theory, that illustrates how these qualities could be cultivated through moral education.

Article available here.
"Technologies of Self-Cultivation: How to Improve Stoic Self-Care Apps."
M. J. Dennis (forthcoming; accepted 27th April 2020). Human Affairs: Special Issue on Philosophical Reflection and Technological Change .

Recently practical philosophers have become increasingly interested in self-cultivation, both in our moral development and in how we shape our passionate characters. While self-cultivation is a relatively new topic in analytic philosophy, continental ethicists have been interested in it far longer. Thinkers in this tradition, notably Michel Foucault and Pierre Hadot, have claimed Hellenistic conception of self-cultivation can be applied to problems in contemporary practical life, although precisely how they envisage this has so has so far confounded commentators. This article offers one way this could be done by exploring how Hellenistic practices of self-cultivation can be combined with emergent online technologies. To do this, I examine how online technology companies have recently attempted to use app-based technology to cultivate our passionate attachments. This makes good on Foucault's and Hadot's claims about the contemporary importance of the Hellenistic tradition, although does so in a way that they could not have anticipated themselves.

Draft article available on request.
PUBLIC CONFERENCE: "Virtue and Experimental Philosophy: Understanding Character Excellences Empirically"
Jubilee Centre Conference, Oriel College, University of Oxford. January 3rd–5th, 2019.

While experimental philosophers have been good at enlisting previous empirical studies into philosophical debates, they have also speculated on the value of positive programmes that would direct, for example, psychological, social, or cultural research towards a philosophical question. My paper surveys the extent to which x-phi offers the resources to bring greater philosophical clarity to the question of the cultural relativity of virtue. I start by summarising the historical use of empirical data in practical philosophy from the anthropological texts comprising Aristotle's Parva Naturalia to the work of contemporary thinkers such as Doris and Macintyre. I claim that virtue theorists have traditionally been receptive to work in the empirical sciences throughout the history of their discipline, but that they would benefit from bringing the question of the relationship between philosophical and empirical research into much sharper resolution. After this I sketch what a positive programme of x-phi in virtue ethics could look like, focusing its potential to help answer the question of the universality of virtues specifically.

Draft article available here.
"Virtue as Empowerment"
M. J. Dennis (forthcoming). Epoché: Journal for the History of Philosophy.

Virtue ethical interpretations of Nietzsche are increasingly viewed as a promising way to understand his moral philosophy, although such interpretations disagree on which character traits he regards as virtues. Of the current approaches that address this question (textual, hermeneutical, criteria-based), only criteria-based ones propose that Nietzsche does not advocate a set of universal virtues, but that he endorses criteria that allow him to distinguish whether character traits are virtues or vices in the context of the life of a specific individual. In this article I explain how current criteria-based approaches need to be revised to explain Nietzsche's endorsement of non-acquisitive character traits (such as those involving sensitivity and receptivity). To do this I explore Nietzsche's unpublished remarks on Spinoza, which I argue better explain how he understands non-acquisitive character traits as virtues.

PDF available on request.
"Nietzschean Self-Cultivation: Connecting His Virtues to His Ethical Ideal"
M. J. Dennis (2019). Journal of Value Inquiry. Vol. 53 (1). New York: Springer Publishing, pp. 55–73.

(Downloaded over 2500 times since published online on 23rd May 2018)

Nietzsche's scattered remarks on virtue have generated a sophisticated interpretative literature, although they have yet to furnish him with a stable theory. Currently scholars are faced with two main puzzles: 1) What is his ethical ideal? 2) Which character traits does he endorse as virtues? – both of which need answering to offer a convincing account of him as a virtue-ethical thinker in the eudaimonist tradition. Currently disagreement reigns on how to solve these puzzles, I contend, because scholars have neglected Nietzsche's commitment to a relativity of virtue thesis (RV), which specifies that virtuous character traits must be calibrated according to one's psycho-physical endowment ("drives"). By fully understanding RV, unlike existent versions of it in the secondary literature, I argue that we can identify a new set of character traits that Nietzsche implicitly identifies as virtues. I call these "virtues of self-cultivation."

Article here.
"On the Role of Philosophy in Self-Cultivation"
M. J. Dennis (2018). Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy. Vol. 28, pp. 136–55.

(Winner of 2017 ASCP Postgraduate Essay Prize).

Nussbaum's critique of Foucault's work on Hellenistic self-cultivation is severe. Not only is Foucault blind to the fundamentally important philosophical dimension of Hellenistic self-cultivation, his previous work disqualifies him from understanding the central role of reason, rationality, and logical argumentation in this tradition. Although Nussbaum is correct to say that Foucault's notion of the "care of the self" includes a greater range of practices and techniques than her own narrower account of philosophical self-cultivation, in this article I will suggest that the force of her criticisms miss the mark. Fully understanding Foucault's reading of the Hellenistic tradition shows that he thinks of techniques of self-cultivation as a necessary complement to philosophy, although on their own these practices cannot be considered as constituting philosophy itself.

Download PDF here

Book Chapters

"Cultivating Digital Well-Being and the Rise of Self-Care Apps."
M. J. Dennis (in press, forthcoming 2020). The Ethics of Digital Well-Being: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach. C. Burr & L. Floridi (eds.). New York: Springer Publishing.

Increasing digital well-being is increasingly viewed as a key challenge for the tech industry, largely driven by the complaints of online users. Recently, the demands of NGOs and policy makers have further motivated major tech companies to devote practical attention to this topic. While initially their response has been to focus on limiting screentime, self-care app makers have long pursued an alternative agenda, one that assumes that certain kinds of screentime can have a role to play in actively improving our digital lives. This chapter examines whether there is a tension in the very idea of spending more time online to improve our digital well-being. First, I break down what I suggest can be usefully viewed as the character-based techniques that self-care apps currently employ to cultivate digital well-being. Second, I examine the new and pressing ethical issues that these techniques raise. Finally, I suggest that the current emphasis on reducing screentime to safeguard digital well-being could be supplemented by employing techniques from the self-care app industry.

Article available here.
"Passionate Individuation"
M. J. Dennis (2020). Nietzsche and Epicurus: Nature, Health, and Ethics, V. Acharya & R. Johnson (ed.), Bloomsbury Publishing.

Practical philosophers have paid relatively little attention to the importance of individuality in human flourishing, despite the fact that this dimension of our lives is often correlated with our capacity to understand others, as well as with self-understanding. In sharp contrast to this neglect, both Mill and Nietzsche claim that individuality should be viewed as central to the good life, although their conceptions of individuality are complex, requiring interpretative work. Nevertheless, viewing these thinkers side-by-side elucidates informative similarities in their respective views. Comparing them shows that both regard individuality as closely connected with the profile of one's passionate attachments, as well as the fact that we have the capacity to cultivate this aspect of our character. The aim of this paper is to show how the writings of Mill and Nietzsche shed light on each other in this regard, as well as exploring how their accounts of the cultivation of our passionate character can be illuminated if we appreciate the influence of Epicurus on their work.

Article available here.
"Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Introduction"
M. J. Dennis & S. Werkhoven (2018). Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Routledge, pp. 1–11.

The aim of Ethics and Self-Cultivation is to establish and explore a new "cultivation of the self" strand within contemporary moral philosophy. Although the revival of virtue ethics has helped reintroduce the eudaimonic tradition into mainstream philosophical debates, it has by and large been a revival of Aristotelian ethics combined with a modern preoccupation with standards for the moral rightness of actions. The essays comprising this volume offer a fresh approach to the eudaimonic tradition: instead of conditions for rightness of actions, it focuses on conceptions of human life that are best for the one living it. The first section of essays looks at the Hellenistic schools and the way they influenced modern thinkers like Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Hadot, and Foucault in their thinking about self-cultivation. The second section offers contemporary perspectives on ethical self-cultivation by drawing on work in moral psychology, epistemology of self-knowledge, philosophy of mind, and meta-ethics.

Available here. PDF available on request.
"Reflections on the Value of Self-Knowledge for Self-Cultivation"
Q. Cassam, M. J. Dennis, S. Werkhoven (2018). Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. M. Dennis and S. Werkhoven (eds). Routledge, pp. 222–30.

Philosophers invariably assume a conception of self-knowledge when they discuss self-cultivation, but the precise relationship between between self-knowledge and self-cultivation can be understood in different ways and often remains undertheorised. This epilogue examines how we can understand the relationship between self-knowledge and self-cultivation, making a case for what will be called a low-road explanation of the value of self-knowledge. To do this, the authors draw connections and contrasts with the chapters contained in the volume, and explore the idea that substantial self-knowledge as opposed to trivial self-knowledge deserves to be given more attention by contemporary philosophers

Available here. PDF available on request.
"ON THE ROLE OF MAXIMS"
M. J. Dennis (2016). Nietzsche's Engagements with the Kantian Legacy: Aesthetics, Anthropology, and History, M. Branco and K. Hay (eds.), Bloomsbury Publishing, pp. 251–72.

Kant and Nietzsche endorse very different philosophical anthropologies, although both are closely connected to their moral philosophies. For Kant, anthropology is separable from the universalizable maxims that dominate his moral philosophy. For Nietzsche, anthropology has a more fundamental role: it both explains the dictates of traditional morality and offers the potential for a new account of human flourishing that acknowledges our embodied nature. Viewing Kant's and Nietzsche's anthropologies side-by-side sheds light on how their differing anthropological commitments result in deep differences in their moral philosophies, as well as elucidating each thinker's philosophical motivation for enlisting anthropology for explanatory purposes.

Available here. PDF available on request.
Digital Well-Being  ▶︎