Technology grows at an exponential rate and moral law cannot evolve and accommodate its pace, leaving the ethicalness of new innovations up for debate. Throughout human history, communication was vital for technological advancement to take place. In recent decades though, the trend has reversed; technological advancements now serve as a medium for human interaction. The internet has engulfed aspects of human life, such as social networking.
MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and other sites that work to serve as social networking sites are highly accessible and are used by a copious amount of people in modern society. The problem is that online social interaction is used blindly and widely without regards to ethical theories established by philosophers of the past. When applied to these theories, this new form of social networking can be determined as either ethically viable or morally unsound. Before the advent of actual social media sites, online interaction was viewed with disdain by modern philosophers.
Philosophers such as Albert Borgmann critiqued what he called “hyperreality”, a social reality in which one can create a glorified and distorted version of him/herself. Borgmann asserts that hyperreality leaves us disappointed and defeated when we are forced to face organic reality once again. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus joins Borgann’s criticism of online interaction and adds that communication through the internet lacks the risk of communicating in person. Without risk, Dreyfus further explains, there is no commitment within online interaction and consequently, no meaning.
Both of these criticisms attack the consequences of online interaction, claiming that in essence, social interaction via internet dilutes social bonds, challenges the premise of traditional interaction, and dehumanizes society as a whole. Borgmann and Dreyfus approach the idea of online social networking as consequentialists and claim that interacting on this new medium is morally wrong because of what the consequences harbor. By highlighting consequences, Borgmann and Dreyfus, at least with this issue, adopt a Utilitarian point of view, but do not follow through with their assessment of online socializing.
The utilitarian point of view takes in account every consequence, weighs the good against the bad using a process called hedonic calculation, and applies the final product to society. Good and bad is measured in terms of pleasure or pain; if an action causes more pleasure than pain, it is deemed morally good. If an action is predicted to bring about more pain than pleasure, then the action is unethical. The driving ideology behind Utilitarianism is to dispute the “misconception that morality has nothing to do with usefulness or utility or utility or that morality is opposed to pleasure”(Mackinnon).
This means that just because something is functional and pleasurable doesn’t mean that it is immoral. Social media is a good example of this, for it is both resourceful and enjoyable. Borgmann and Dreyfus criticize the negative potential aspects of online social interaction, but their claims have little substance. Borgmann’s assertion that “hyperreality” devalues organic reality is only hypothetical. The idea that one who participates in socializing online loses appreciation for person to person interaction cannot be viably proven and is therefore potentially fictitious.
Even if Borgmann’s theory is right, one can equally argue that the use of a “hyperreality” highlights the difference between digital communication and organic communication, leading to an ascended form of appreciation for traditional, in person interaction. Dreyfus’ criticism of the lack of risk and commitment that internet interaction allows stems from the anonymity that the internet can provide. When identity is obscured through the veil of online socialization, accountability is lost.
Users in online forums can say whatever they wish to say and they’re output is never fully attached to their identity, thus eliminating risk and commitment to opinions. That might be true in a broad sense, but social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, sites that dominate modern social culture, solve Dreyfus’ problem by attaching users’ identity to what is posted. Granted, online identities are created and are completely controlled by participating users who may be completely different in reality compared to who is presented online. In that sense, one may still hide in ambiguity when using the internet as a means for socialization.
But isn’t every identity, organic or digital, created and built? A person who creates a false persona online can just as easily adopt a fake personality in public. So how is online social interaction any less than real life socialization, in regards to faulty identity? And with accountability established with online identification through Facebook and Twitter, risk and commitment is actually increased. With organic socialization, there is always a chance of an accidental outburst that doesn’t reflect one’s true perspective and doesn’t characterize identity.
Online socializers present themselves however they wish to be perceived with greater extent than how they could do so in person. On social media sites, everything is deliberate; every post is completely controlled by the user. That means that since complete control can exist in an online realm, accountability is increased, putting Dreyfus’ concerns to rest. On the opposite side of the criticism stands the practicality and usefulness that social media can have. Socializing online is the evolved form of interacting with other humans.
These digital outlets serve the people as a means to connect with society on a scale larger than ever possible. LinkedIn expands professional personas, YouTube allows people to see what others see, Twitter spreads our words quicker and farther across our social domains, Facebook connects us with “friends” from all across the world. Each of these social media sites have their own distinct agenda, but as a whole they promote social cohesiveness, connection, that could not be otherwise achieved. But social media is not only beneficial to its participants, it offers benefits to those outside society as well.
Sites like Twitter act as a social database and can be used to measure society’s attitudes and beliefs, reactions to current events, and public opinion. These sites are also a new frontier for businesses looking to connect with their consumers, expand based on demand, and provide a product better suited for the public. Current events or broad information spreads as quickly as possible and is easily accessible. If Kant’s reasoning test was applied to social media, if everyone were to participate with good intention, everyone would benefit from the knowledge and cohesiveness and harmony would be established, information wise.
Borgmann and Dreyfus criticize potential negative consequences of social media, but do not focus on the potential and practical positive possibilities that social media carries. When both negative and positive factors are weighed against each other, it becomes evident that social media is simply part of the evolution that traditional interaction has undergone. While online socialization has not replaced traditional interaction, it has established itself as a peripheral tool in a networking society. Social media is also becoming more and more accessible as technology further advances.
Now, users do not need a computer to access online social networks, they can simply use their mobile phones. This has aroused new contemporary concerns of human detachment. People can be so wrapped up in online networking that they will ignore their immediate surroundings. While this is a viable concern, it can be solved through temperance. Aristotle’s view on virtue is based on moderation. Too much or too little of something results in vices, moderation and temperance results in virtue. Blaming social media is like blaming food if someone is obese. The food is not the problem, it is a necessity, but gluttony is.
Social media isn’t what is immoral, it is exuberance that acts as a vice. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, hesitation to socialize would be the opposing vice, meaning that those who are completely opposed to socialization, even when the tides are turning in the favor of online socialization, are just as immoral as those who are constantly absorbed by social media. There is nothing wrong with challenging the advent of online sites that promote socialization. They are new and unfamiliar, and as with all things unfamiliar, have the potential to be threatening.
Philosophers who oppose online interaction are justified in that right, but their weariness can end. When applied to ethics, when held under the light of the theories formed by history’s most renowned philosophers, social media is proven to be ethically sound. Albert Borgmann, Hubert Dreyfus, and other contemporary philosophers must acknowledge that Immanuel Kant, Utilitarian leaders like John Stuart Mill, and even Aristotle would view social media as a transcended, critical accessory to human interaction that is morally safe and sound.
Works Cited Borgmann, A. , 1984, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics, Theory And Contemporary Issues. 7th . Boston: Wadsworth Pub Co, 2012. Print. Vallor, Shannon, “Social Networking and Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. ), forthcoming URL = <http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/win2012/entries/ethics-social-networking/>.