Philosophising about Digital Well-Being

Reimagining Digital Well-Being

21st Century Approaches to Human Flourishing

on my research


Transforming our lives, society, & the environment

on my research

Ethics of Self-Cultivation

Understanding self-directed character change

on my research


Using x-phi to understand digital fame & influence

on my research

Matthew J. Dennis is an ESDiT Research Fellow (Philosophy & Ethics, TU/e), researching the ethics of emerging technologies. He was previously a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow (Values, Technology & Innovation, TU Delft, 2019–21) and an Early-Career Innovation Fellow (Institute of Advanced Studies, 2018–19).

His research focuses on how we can live well with online technologies (recommender systems, virtual assistants, self-care apps), as well as how digital well-being is affected by gender, income, and intercultural factors. He's published 15 research papers, including articles in Journal of Value Inquiry, Ethics & Information Technology, Science & Engineering Ethics, Journal of Moral Education, Journal of Social Epistemology, Journal of Mind & Society, and book chapters by Bloomsbury, Routledge, and Springer. A revised version of his doctoral thesis appeared in Routledge’s Ethics and Moral Theory Series in 2020.

He received a Joint Monash-Warwick PhD (highest honours) in 2019, and has an MA (Warwick) and BA (Sussex) in philosophy. He lives and works in the Netherlands.

See here for further details.

News and Upcoming

NEWS: Winner of the TU/e Postdoctoral Paper Prize

Two publications on the ethics of digital well-being and how tech companies can improve their approach to this topic:

(1) "Towards a Theory of Digital Well-Being" (2021) appeared in Science & Engineering Ethics. This article won first prize for the TU/e Postdoctoral Paper Award in June 2021.

(2) "Digital Well-Being Under Pandemic Conditions" (2021) was published by Ethics & Information Technology.

NEWS: Special issue of Ethics & Information Technology (2021)

Co-edited special issue of Ethics & Information Technology on the ethics of COVID-19 technologies (with Jeroen van den Hoven and Georgy Ishmaev). This is the first research output of the 4TU.Ethics & Delft Design for Values Working Group on COVID-19 (April 2020 to July 2021).

Editors' introduction here. Working Group website here.

Books and Edited Volumes

MONOGRAPH: Cultivating Our Passionate Attachments
M. J. Dennis (author), Routledge (2020), pp. 1–191.

Does a flourishing life involve pursuing passionate attachments? Can we choose what these passionate attachments will be? What criteria distinguish positive passionate attachments from negative ones? This book develops a philosophical theory of how we can cultivate our passionate attachments, drawing on the resources of contemporary analytic philosophy and ancient ethics. I argue that our passionate attachments are some of the most powerful (and distinctively human) motivations in our practical lives. I also show why we have reason to view passionate attachments as susceptible to growth, change, and self-directed manipulation. Understanding how the passionate attachments can be self-cultivated offers new ways to improve our lives, both in theory and in practice. This book aims to show how ethical insights regarding the passionate attachments inform the practical task of cultivating the self.

Available from Routledge and Amazon (hardback).
CO-EDITED VOLUME: Ethics and Self-Cultivation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
M. J. Dennis and S. Werkhoven (eds.), Routledge (2018), pp. 1–234.

Is self-directed character change possible? How important is it from an ethical viewpoint? The aim of Ethics and Self-Cultivation is to establish and explore a new "cultivation of the self" strand within contemporary moral philosophy. The multiple authors of this volume offer a new approach to the eudaimonic tradition, showing how the self-cultivation is essential for important aspects of the flourishing life. The first section of essays looks at how ancient thinkers of self-cultivation influenced modern thinkers on this topic. 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. Preface by Prof. Michael Slote. Epilogue by Prof. Quassim Cassam.

Available from Routledge and Amazon (hardback and paperback).

Peer-Reviewed Articles

ARTICLE: "Towards a Theory of Digital Well-Being."
M. J. Dennis (2021). Science & Engineering Ethics. Springer Nature. Vol. 27 (32).

** Winner of the Eindhoven University of Technology Postdoctoral Paper Prize **

Global lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have offered many people first-hand experience of how their daily online activities threaten their digital well-being. This article begins by critically evaluating the current approaches to digital well-being offered by ethicists of technology, NGOs, and social media corporations. My aim is to explain why digital well-being needs to be reimagined within a new conceptual paradigm. After this, I lay the foundations for such an alternative approach, one that shows how current digital well-being initiatives can be designed in more insightful ways. This new conceptual framework aims to transform how philosophers of technology think about this topic, as well as offering social media corporations practical ways to design their technologies in ways that will improve the digital well-being of users.

Open access article available here.
ARTICLE: "Digital Well-Being Under Pandemic Conditions."
M. J. Dennis (2021). Ethics & Information Technology. Springer Nature. Online first.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the domains of work, education, medicine, and leisure. It has also precipitated a spike in concern regarding our digital well-being. Prominent lobbying groups, such as the Center for Humane Technology, have responded to this concern by offering a set of ‘Digital Well-Being Guidelines during the COVID-19 Pandemic.' These guidelines seek to follow the many academic insights into digital well-being over the last decade. In this article, I evaluate (1) the Center for Humane Technology’s approach, comparing it with (2) character-based strategies and (3) approaches to redesigning online architecture. I argue that each of these approaches needs to be integrated into a complete theory to digital well-being.

Open access article available here.
ARTICLE: "Social Robots & Digital Well-Being."
M. J. Dennis (2021). Journal of Mind & Society. Online first.

Value-sensitive design theorists propose that a range of values that should inform how future social robots are designed. This article explores a new value: digital well-being, and proposes that the next generation of social robots should be designed to facilitate this value in those who use these machines. To do this, I explore how the morphology of social robots is connected to digital well-being. I argue that we need to decide whether tomorrow's social robots should be designed as embodied or disembodied. After exploring the merits of both approaches, I explore why there may be persuasive reasons why disembodied social robots could be better aligned with the value of digital well-being.

Open access article available here.
ARTICLE: "Unique Ethical Challenges: Technology & Virtue Education."
M. J. Dennis & T. Harrison (2020). Journal of Moral Education. Taylor & Francis. Vol. 50 (3), pp. 251–66.

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 character-based ethical approaches 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.
ARTICLE: "We Don’t Need Another Guru: AI Ethics & Digital Well-Being."
M. J. Dennis (2020). Conference Proceedings of Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence & Simulation of Behaviour. Taylor & Francis.

Self-care app companies have recently begun employing artificial intelligence (AI) to 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 self-care gurus. 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.

Article available here.
ARTICLE: "Technologies of Self-Cultivation: Improving Self-Care Apps."
M. J. Dennis (2020). Human Affairs: Special Issue on Philosophy and Technological Change . De Gruyter. Vol. 30, pp. 549–58.

Enthusiasm for self-care apps has tracked recent ethical interest in self-cultivation, especially for our moral development. While self-cultivation is a relatively new topic in analytic moral philosophy, continental ethicists have been interested in it far longer. These ethicists view the notion of self-cultivation as having much value for the challenges of contemporary practical life, although precisely how they envisage this has (so far) confounded commentators. This article charts the recent rise in self-care app technology, focusing on apps that claim to shape our ethical development and our passionate characters. To do this, I examine the ethical issues that arise from self-care app companies using emerging technologies to cultivate our passionate attachments. Understanding these issues, I argue, can help us design self-care apps in better ways.

Article available here.
ARTICLE: "On the Role of Philosophy in Self-Cultivation."
M. J. Dennis (2017). Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy. Vol. 28, pp. 136–55.

** Winner of Australian Society of Continental Philosophy 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.

Open access article available here.

Book Chapters

CHAPTER: "Cultivating Digital Well-Being & the Rise of Self-Care Apps."
M. J. Dennis (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.
CHAPTER: "Ethics & 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.
CHAPTER: "Reflections on 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.

Opinion Articles

OPINION: "Digital Technologies & the Power of Online Celebrities." (2021)
Eton Journal for Innovation & Research in Education, Eton College, Windsor, UK.

Digital technologies are changing many aspects of the educational environment. Given the pace of technological change, it is easy to get distracted by how emerging technologies are transforming how we educate children and young people, as well as how they are educating themselves. Smartphones inside (or outside) of the classroom, online proctoring, gamified learning activities, unlimited educational content (podcasts, videos, or virtual assistant teachers), and the ability to ask Google anything in real-time have transformed education in ways that few could even imagine a decade ago. These changes should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, it is vital to recognise that online technologies are changing the purposes of education too. This article examines the extent to which social media provides the conditions for children and young people become socially and politically active, and how online celebrities and influencers can help them do this.

Open access article available here.
OPINION: "Cultivating Character & the Promise of Online Technologies" (2019)
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.

Open access article available here.
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