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LIVING WITH ONLINE TECHNOLOGIES

Philosophising about Digital Well-Being

Improving Digital Well-Being

Strategies for societies and individuals

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on my research

TECHNOLOGIES OF THE SELF

How will they transform the digital world?

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on my research

Ethics of Self-Cultivation

Technologies and practices 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 Matthew James Dennis, 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 be better designed for human flourishing. Prior to this I was an Early-Career Innovation Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Warwick.

The aim of my research project is to offer a comprehensive theory of digital well-being, identifying new ways to live well with online technologies and showing how to improve current initiatives in this area.

This website gives an overview of my publications, research methodology, and plans for future work. Most of my recent articles are open access, but please reach out if you have any questions or would like me to send you a PDF.

News and Upcoming

NEW! Book chapter on self-care apps, September 2020.

The first results of my Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship have finally been published. It's on the ethical risks and rewards of self-care apps. M. J. Dennis (2020). It's in a volume called The Ethics of Digital Well-Being: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach, edited by Christopher Burr & Luciano Floridi. The chapter is called ‘Cultivating Digital Well-Being and the Rise of Self-Care Apps.’ Please let me know if you'd like a PDF.

Available here: www.springer.com/gp/book/9783030505844
NEW! Book publication with Routledge, September 2020.

My first monograph, Cultivating Our Passionate Attachments, will be coming out in September 2020. This book offers an original theory of how we can cultivate our passionate attachments, responding to three of my favourite philosophers, Harry Frankfurt, Bernard Williams, and Susan Wolf. Thanks to everyone who helped make this possible and the team our Routledge for all your hard work. Very happy to see this in print!

Available here: www.routledge.com/Cultivating-Our-Passionate-Attachments/Dennis/p/book/9780367529635

Books and Edited Volumes

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).

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 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.
"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.
"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.

Opinion Articles

Cultivating Character and the Promise of Online Technologies
Insight Series, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue, University of Birmingham, UK.

Over the last decade, techniques of self-directed character change have undergone a revolution, one that promises to fundamentally rewrite the way we understand the cultivation of character. This revolution has been supercharged by rapid advances in digital technology, as well as increasing public attention regarding the benefits of tracking, monitoring, documenting, and shaping the self. Part of the difficulty in following the march of this zeitgeist is that it is so ubiquitous and diffuse. It infuses our perceptions and values of healthcare, education, business, leisure, in addition to fuelling our seemingly insatiable appetite for the ‘self-care’ industry. The idea that our characters can – indeed should – be actively cultivated is now so integral to the 21st century experience that it would be hard to understand a host of contemporary human practices without this assumption. In this paper, I explore how technology can help us change or improve who we are through digital regimens of self-cultivation.

https://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/media/news/article/5628/New-Insight-Series-Paper-Cultivating-Character-and-the-Promise-of-Online-Technologies-
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