Flourishing on facebook: virtue friendship & new social media
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- Vallor, S. Ethics Inf Technol (2012) 14: 185. doi:10.1007/s10676-010-9262-2
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The widespread and growing use of new social media, especially social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, invites sustained ethical reflection on emerging forms of online friendship. Social scientists and psychologists are gathering a wealth of empirical data on these trends, yet philosophical analysis of their ethical implications remains comparatively impoverished. In particular, there have been few attempts to explore how traditional ethical theories might be brought to bear upon these developments, or what insights they might offer, if any. In attempting to address this lacuna in applied ethical research, this paper investigates the ethical significance of online friendship by means of an Aristotelian theory of the good life, which holds that human flourishing is chiefly realized through ‘complete’ friendships of virtue. Here, four key dimensions of ‘virtue friendship’ are examined in relation to online social media: reciprocity, empathy, self-knowledge and the shared life. Online social media support and strengthen friendship in ways that mirror these four dimensions, particularly when used to supplement rather than substitute for face-to-face interactions. However, deeper reflection on the meaning of the shared life (suzên) for Aristotle raises important and troubling questions about the capacity of online social media to support complete friendships of virtue in the contemporary world, along with significant concerns about the enduring relevance of this Aristotelian ideal for the good life in the 21st century.
KeywordsNew social mediaVirtue friendshipAristotleReciprocityEmpathyThe shared life
Philosophy, ethics and new social media
In recent years, the Internet has become increasingly and more centrally involved in the social life of human beings around the globe. Thanks in large part to the recent emergence of popular social networking technologies such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn and many others, online friendship has spread in its reach from relatively homogenous early-adopter populations dominated by technophiles and affluent youth, to remarkably heterogenous networks serving senior citizens, busy parents, and marginalized groups of nearly every description. As the wave of online socializing spreads, scholars from a variety of disciplines are attempting to analyze, understand and predict the social and ethical consequences of these emerging changes in the way we communicate, cooperate and maintain friendships with other human beings.
Thus far, the largest portion of this scholarship has been devoted to the collection and analysis of empirical data that can allow us to track emerging patterns of online social activity. However, underlying these important descriptive efforts is a fundamentally normative question: what do these trends mean for the long-term health, happiness and general well-being of individuals and communities? Currently, this question is expressed in the attempts by sociologists, ethnographers, psychologists and others to discover reliable and significant correlations, positive or negative, between online social activity and existing empirical measures of variables thought relevant to human flourishing, such as ‘life satisfaction’, ‘self-esteem’, ‘civic engagement’ or ‘social capital’. (Valenzuela et al. 2009; Smith et al. 2009; Subrahmanyam et al. 2008; Ellison et al. 2007; Subrahmanyam and Lin 2007; Valkenburg et al. 2006; Wellman et al. 2001) Though the conclusions emerging from this first wave of studies are hardly unequivocal, they provide rich guidance for future inquiry, and in many cases challenge our untutored assumptions about new social media.
What motivates these empirical studies, however, remains an ethical concern; a question about the potential impact of online socializing on the good life for human beings. Yet philosophers, who claim the field of ethics as part of their discipline, have yet to demonstrate the strong interest in these phenomena evident among their colleagues in the social sciences.1 This is remarkable given the potential of these new technologies to significantly affect the manner in which many humans pursue the good life. Furthermore, what philosophical and ethical discourse exists trails well behind the available empirical data, and struggles to keep pace with shifting forms of online life. For example, seminal works in the philosophy of information technology primarily address electronic mediums such as email and instant messaging that studies show are being rapidly eclipsed by other online tools, such as Facebook.2 One might ask why applied ethicists should concern themselves with technologies like Facebook, the likely effects of which might seem trivial in comparison with the life-and-death implications of other contemporary moral issues that command the lion’s share of philosophers’ attention, such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and genetic engineering. Yet arguably, pervasive technologies that modify our most basic modes of social interaction and bonding have the potential to influence our moral lives and character more deeply than many of the ethical dilemmas that currently preoccupy us. Digital natives who might never confront a choice involving reproductive technology or end-of-life issues are nevertheless likely to have their work, family and civic relations with others shaped by new social media from an early age.
While the incremental, aggregated, subtle and fluid nature of these changes may diminish the comparative visibility of their ethical impact, a plausible argument can be made that changes of this sort are precisely those of greatest importance for ethicists to examine: first, due to their widespread adoption by adults and youth, new social technologies are likely to have an enduring impact on our moral lives and affect a far greater number of persons and institutions; second, their pervasive use in multiple social domains (work, school, family, friendships, civic life) entails a greater potential to shape our habitual practices, and hence our moral character; third, their subtlety and incremental nature entails that any ethically deleterious consequences may go unnoticed by the agents and stakeholders affected; and fourth, the resulting impact on our institutions, practices and character may be among the most complex and challenging to remedy, modify or reverse should the need to do so become apparent.
My aim here is to explore the ethical significance of these trends as they relate to friendship, which I take to be (for reasons articulated later) an essential component of a good life. Yet we must pay attention to the specific ways in which new social media are actually being used to facilitate friendship, while remaining cognizant of the shifting and multifaceted meaning of the term ‘friendship’ itself. The first wave of empirical studies suggests that contrary to early speculation in the media, they are used primarily for maintaining or strengthening existing friendships rather than seeking new friends, and that there is typically a substantial degree of overlap between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ friend networks. (Subrahmanyam et al. 2008; Hampton et al. 2009) My analysis, then, focuses primarily on the question of how and to what extent online tools such as Facebook can support or strengthen existing friendships, acknowledging that the majority of such friendships also have some past or present offline manifestation. Furthermore, while Facebook is known for challenging conventional connotations of ‘friendship’ by lumping all of ones’ social connections, including remote acquaintances, into one uniform ‘friend’ category, my philosophical interest will be restricted here primarily to those friendships which can have a significant and enduring impact on the moral quality of one’s life, especially by means of influencing one’s moral character.
One obstacle to a robust philosophical conversation on the ethics of new social media, and online friendship in particular, is the question of which is the appropriate ethical theory to apply to these technologies. Some have argued that none of the classical theories in ethics are well-suited to the analysis of information technology; others disagree.3 I have argued elsewhere (2010) that Aristotelian virtue ethics provides an ethical framework which, while not exclusive to other classical frameworks, may be uniquely adaptable to the analysis of information technology and new social media in particular. It is even more suited to our focal concern on online friendship in this issue, given the integral, even central, role of friendship in Aristotle’s account of the good life. Furthermore, virtue ethics offers the conceptual flexibility needed to adjust conceptions of virtue and the prudential judgments they support to the concrete realities of particular cultural settings and practices, a consideration that Aristotle recognized as essential in all domains of human interaction (1984, NE 1094b15-20),4 but an even more important consideration here given the remarkable plasticity of information technology, that is, the way in which a single device or medium tends to be adapted by different users and institutions to very different kinds of activities.5
Virtue ethics also has the ability to account for the long-term and cumulative impact of particular practices on our character, an important ethical consequence often missed by utilitarian or deontological frameworks that tend to focus narrowly on the permissibility or desirability of individual actions. Unfortunately, it is these latter frameworks that tend to contextualize existing empirical studies of new media. As I have noted elsewhere (2010), such studies can encourage a narrowly utilitarian calculus that draws conclusions about the impact of new social media on users’ well-being simply from measures of their enjoyment of psychosocial goods such as feelings of ‘life satisfaction’, ‘self-esteem’ or ‘social capital’, overlooking the fact that the enjoyment of such goods could, in some contexts, be coupled with injury to one’s character, or even that improvements to one’s character could be the result of engaging in activities which (at least temporarily) result in a net loss of one or more of these goods.
For we must notice that ‘psychosocial goods’ and ‘virtues’ are categorially distinct types of good: the first is a category of psychological and social benefits enjoyed or consumed by an individual, while the other refers to an individual’s reliable dispositions to choose and act well.6 Now, Aristotle would classify ‘psychosocial goods’ among those goods without which our chances of living well are greatly diminished, if not extinguished. For example, without sufficiently rich resources of information, assistance and emotional support as represented by the term ‘social capital’, it would be virtually impossible for human beings to pursue and successfully perform the sorts of activities that constitute eudaimonia or ‘living well’; these resources are core components of the ‘good fortune’ or ‘wealth’ that constitute eudaimonia’s material conditions. Thus in Aristotle’s account the enjoyment and support of cohorts is a form of prosperity along with riches and noble birth, and living well requires some degree of such prosperity. (NE 1099b). Hence social goods do have ethical significance, and the impact of technology upon our enjoyment of them is an important area of study.
Yet Aristotle is explicit that while a good life requires a degree of material and social prosperity, such goods are not sufficient for a good life; they are required in addition to virtue. (NE 1099b7) A person rich in social prosperity might nonetheless be prone to self-indulgent, prodigal and cowardly acts, while a virtuous person can withstand far greater losses of social prosperity, and bear them better, than can the vicious. (NE 1101a) Thus Aristotle tells us that it can never be the goods of fortune, but only the presence or absence of virtue, that determines the quality of a life. (1100b10). With Aristotle, we ought to resist any utilitarian assumption that a life rich in social goods in and of itself, independent of the virtuous activity such goods can enable, is a good life (1099a6), or even that particular increases in our enjoyment of such goods are always or necessarily tied to our greater flourishing.
One way of resisting this utilitarian conclusion is for philosophers to begin to demonstrate how virtue ethics might be usefully applied to emerging social media to generate new and important insights about the good life in the 21st century. The core of such a demonstration would require careful reflection on how various uses of new social media could impact the development of specific virtues or vices. We might, for example, consider whether specific new media practices are likely to hinder or promote the development of ethical traits such as honesty, patience, generosity, empathy, reciprocity, and so on. This initial reflection could serve as a ground for developing better empirical methods to study the actual impact of such practices on the virtues, as an essential complement to emerging data about their correlations with various psychosocial goods.
Yet such a demonstration must presuppose an understanding of how these particular virtues are manifested together in a coherent life that can be judged as good. The thesis of the unity of the virtues is one of the more controversial aspects of Aristotle’s account. However, it is rooted not in an arbitrary perfectionism, but in his understanding that the virtues, while separable in the abstract, are in their concrete manifestation expressions of one life lived wisely and well. (NE 1145a1) Without that ground, the individual virtues lose their ultimate ethical meaning as expressions of a good life. And since, for Aristotle, the good life is inherently social (NE 1155a5), he chooses to employ the concept of friendship (philia) as the soil in which the virtues together take root, receive their nourishment, and grow. Thus it is with friendship that our inquiry must begin.
Some methodological considerations
In this paper, then, rather than looking at individual virtues, I ask how we might understand the potential impact of new social media on the collective nurturing of virtues in friendship. This task of application poses a few immediate challenges. First, Aristotle used the term ‘friendship’ in multiple ways, but it is widely acknowledged that his use is often at odds with the modern sense of this term. By our standards, Aristotelian friendship can seem uncomfortably elitist and conditional. Aristotle’s communitarian outlook on friendship is also an uneasy fit with the individualistic bent of liberal democracies in which civic bonds are maintained primarily through duty and self-interest rather than a sense of mutual goodwill and common purpose.7 Finally, some argue that any grounding concept of the ‘good life’ or ‘human flourishing’ is destabilized by the culturally transformative power of new media and other technologies. For how can philosophers assess the ethical significance of technological change if our conceptions of the good life are continually being reshaped by these very technologies?8 These objections collectively problematize any attempt to apply Aristotle’s account of friendship to the contemporary contexts in which online socializing takes place.
However, such concerns can be greatly mitigated (though perhaps not entirely resolved) if we recognize that while the details of Aristotle’s ethics are grounded in numerous contingencies particular to his time and place, its core integrity and applicability rests, not upon these, but upon a fundamental conception of humans as social animals who require the development of particular moral, cognitive and perceptual dispositions in order to be appropriately responsive to, and flourish in, their social context (whatever its given historical and cultural form). Thus in the analysis that follows, I do not hesitate to modify Aristotle’s account as needed to identify those dispositions required to form and maintain friendships and flourish in the contemporary social context we are given. However, I do raise questions at the end of this analysis about the extent to which our contemporary social arrangements are in fact well-oriented toward human flourishing; I presuppose that our nature is not infinitely malleable in this regard, and that it is possible for particular historical or cultural conceptions of ‘living well’ to be comparatively ineffectual in realizing the aim of human flourishing.9 Thus even if technology is changing our conceptions of friendship and the good life, such changes are not outside the bounds of critical inquiry.
The following analysis of online friendship and virtue extracts four essential and interlinked themes in Aristotle’s account of friendship, themes that have two functions: collectively, they provide a cohesive ethical scaffolding for Aristotle’s own diverse descriptions of friendship, and individually, they supply important points of resonance with modern forms of friendship that will allow the relevance of his account for new social media to be more clearly manifest to us. These themes are: reciprocity, empathy, self-knowledge, and the shared life.
Friendship and new social media
Reciprocity: a primitive biological impulse that functions as the seed of human sociality, is the unifying feature of all forms of friendship and which, with proper moral and cognitive/perceptual habituation, matures into a social virtue.
Aristotle defines man as a ‘political animal’: that is, an animal that is naturally suited to social life. (P 1253a3) His claim has immediate contemporary resonance; the fact of the human animal’s basic sociality enjoys a broad scientific consensus. As Aristotle noted, this basic sociality must be properly nurtured and habituated in order to reach the full expression of what we might call ‘normal’ or ‘mature’ sociality in thought and behavior. It is also vulnerable to numerous organic pathologies, from autism to schizophrenia. Yet it remains the case that under normal conditions, the human person is fundamentally oriented to others, an orientation rooted in perceptual-behavioral patterns to which we are disposed even as newborns. In early infancy we see its first expressions in acts of facial, vocal and postural mimicry of other human persons; a bonding reciprocity being sought, expressed and enjoyed by the infant in its first social union with others.
Reciprocity, then, can serve as a unifying concept encompassing human sociality in all forms, from its natural infancy to its mature, habituated expression. Reciprocity (antipeponthos) is at the core of Aristotle’s understanding of friendship, both in its intimate and civic forms (NE 1155b34); human persons, he believes, are naturally predisposed to social give and take (NE 1155a). Yet this is not merely to say of reciprocity that we find pleasure, solace and security in its rituals. Reciprocity is certainly a means to enjoying psychosocial goods of this sort; but it also serves as the scaffolding for success in our actions with others, both private and public. For Aristotle it is the organizing principle that governs social action of all kinds; his lengthy accounts of the various hierarchies of the family and the polis are fundamentally concerned with establishing what constitutes a proper give and take within specific kinds of relationships, who owes what to whom, and how to maintain a fundamental equilibrium such that the benefits of particular human relationships always flow both ways.10
Whatever their substantive errors, his notorious accounts of unequal friendships and marriage, so inhospitable to modern views of equality, are in fact meditations on reciprocity and how to ensure that human bonds are not destroyed by one member of a pair’s inability to give benefits as well as receive them. For Aristotle, reciprocal sharing of good is the glue of all friendship (NE 1156a5-10); from the mutual give and take of pleasure involved in the most contingent sort; to the exchange of utility that governs the second type (including civic friendships); and finally, to the third and most perfect type he calls ‘complete’ (teleia) friendship (NE 1156b7), where the exchange is not merely one of transient goods but of enduring respect, love, knowledge and virtue.11
This third, ‘complete’ level of reciprocity constitutes not merely a natural impulse, but a mature and habituated virtue. It is this ethical maturation of reciprocity to which Aristotle is referring when he claims that between friends, there is no need of justice (NE 1155a26); for justice is a preventative and remedy for breakdowns and gaps in reciprocity; between complete friends, then, justice is a cure without a disease. Lawrence Becker (1986) has argued persuasively that reciprocity is indeed among the most fundamental virtues, one that has (a) presumptive priority over lesser virtues, (b) is operative in all social transactions (hence even more inclusive as a virtue than justice) and (c) and is essential to creating and sustaining the primary goods that allow human lives to flourish. (146–150) This further entails, according to Becker, an ethical obligation on our part to maintain social structures that perpetuate reciprocity as a virtue, and to modify social structures that damage it. (ibid., 163) This claim, if true, has many educational, economic and political implications; among them, given our concern here, is the necessity of attending to any effects that new social media may have on the typical development and expression of human reciprocity.
New social media and reciprocity
Arguably, one of the distinguishing features of new social media built upon the Web 2.0 standard, and one of the reasons for their strong appeal, is their ability to facilitate reciprocal exchanges of a socially gratifying sort—and to a degree that surpasses the opportunities for reciprocity found in many prior online forums for self-expression, such as individually created webpages. On Facebook, for example, reciprocity comes in many forms: the initial exchange involving a ‘friend request’ and the corresponding acceptance of this invitation, the giving and receiving of comments or simple indications of ‘liking’ in response to friends’ posts, the ability to share photos and videos and electronically ‘tag’ the friends who appear in them, and in the opportunity to use third-party applications to engage in a wide range of other reciprocal activities, from having a virtual food fight with a friend to giving personalized virtual gifts.
When a person of average sociality joins Facebook, then, she typically finds herself quickly engaged in giving and receiving things more often, to a far greater number of people, than she would had she not joined. On days when a regular user doesn’t check Facebook, these opportunities are postponed or missed, and this is likely to be a significant part of the ‘Facebook anxiety’ often reported by users temporarily cut off from the service.12 It is not, then, simply the number of friends showing on their page that gives most regular Facebook users a sense of increased social value and connection. It is the actual increase in reciprocal activity that gives that numerical mark its sense of reality, anchored in the pleasurable natural reaction we typically have to the social experience of reciprocity.
How are we to understand, then, the types of reciprocity that new social media make available to us, and how they might relate to the various types of friendship we enjoy on and offline? We can start by considering Aristotle’s tripartite classification of friendships, which can be understood as a taxonomy based upon the primary kind of good or goods being reciprocated in the relationship: pleasure, utility or virtue. On Facebook, most exchanges are primarily those of pleasure: the unexpected pleasure of a good joke shared with us, the aesthetic pleasure of seeing our sister’s vacation photos, or the simple pleasure of affirmation and relief we find when 42 people ‘like’ the 140 characters of pure, searing wit that we have laboriously crafted into a status update. There are also common exchanges of utility: mostly on commercially-oriented new media such as LinkedIn, but also on sites like MySpace, where bands might share useful information on venues, booking agents or recording equipment, or Facebook, where new college freshmen get up-to-the minute information on the best professors, most desirable housing, and the closest dive bar to campus even before they arrive.
The ubiquity of reciprocal exchange on new social media may help to explain why scholars who simplistically dismiss these media as destructive to social ties have not gained solid support from the available empirical evidence.13 Their assumptions typically parallel the “time displacement hypothesis” first articulated by Robert Putnam (2000) with respect to television: if we are spending more time online engaged in new social media, then we must be spending less time in face to face interaction with others, where strong social ties are most effectively fostered. The reality, as shown by a number of studies, is that most users of social media report the contrary: that new social media either do not diminish their face-to-face interactions, or they actually increase opportunities for such interaction. (Wellman et al. 2001; Ellison et al. 2007; Rainie et al. 2006; Ito et al. 2008) One frequent interpretation of these results has been that new social media may be taking time away from less social activities such as television watching and reading rather than interfering with face-to-face socializing. This interpretation is likely right to some extent; but if so, why it is the case remains a question. It is possible that by facilitating an atmosphere for the regular reciprocal exchange of social goods, online social networks may be strengthening the desire of users to continue that pattern offline.
It is, of course, a trickier question whether new social media can offer good opportunities for the mutual fostering of virtue; as Aristotle recognized, ‘complete’ friendships of virtue are intrinsically rarer than those of pleasure and utility (NE 1156b25), and evidence of reciprocal bonding on the level of virtue would, prima facie, be expected to be rarer online as well.14 Keeping this in mind, let us consult the available evidence. At first glance, it certainly seems that new social media can help us to inspire our friends (and be inspired by them) to perform noble actions. Among the many popular uses of Facebook is the posting of news items or video clips with a civic or political aim. (Smith et al. 2009) Such postings may invite moral outrage or a specific effort on the part of one’s friends to right some wrong, or take civic action in defense of a worthy cause. Postings on the rapid melting of polar ice, the violent suppression of Iranian dissidents, the censoring of the Internet by China and so on are often accompanied by an urgent, impassioned plea for action by the poster; these likely represent sincere attempts to use these new media tools to break through the hard shell of apathy and fatalism that currently inhibits virtuous collective responses to such important issues.
Yet we must not mistake these broad calls to civic responsibility for the kind of moral inspiration Aristotle spoke of with respect to complete friendship. These public expressions, though directed toward one’s ‘friends’, do not discriminate with respect to the virtue of those friends, or the degree to which they are able and willing to act directly in concert with the poster, nor do they presume any prior shared commitment between friend and poster to live up to a particular standard or embody a particular kind of excellence. As such, they function largely as shots into the moral darkness; the poster may hope that some find their target, and may even have in mind certain friends they expect to be particularly open and responsive to such exhortation; but typically the poster will have no reliable expectation that her post will lead to jointly coordinated moral efforts between she and her friends. These expressions would be recognized by Aristotle as more expressive of a kind of civic friendship within a political community; but not the sort of reciprocity we would expect between complete friends, in which efforts to seek justice are pursued as a common endeavor. (NE 1167b9) Here Aristotle does not mean an endeavor that is made common through the combined efforts of anonymous individuals united by the sheer coincidence of their virtuous aims; he means an effort taken together, coordinated in unison and as ‘one mind’ (homonoein) (NE 1167b6), and continued jointly and enduringly until the virtuous aim is achieved.
There are certainly tools online that might facilitate such joint efforts. For example, local groups of dissidents in numerous oppressive regimes have used new social media to coordinate, in real time, collective protests and acts of civil disobedience calling for the censure and reform of unjust policies and the institutions or individuals responsible for them. Yet even these groups (whose members may not be uniformly virtuous or single-minded even if their declared aim is) seem to fall short of embodying the kind of intimate friendship of virtue that Aristotle speaks of as ‘complete’. This is ethically significant given that for Aristotle, such friendships are the highest social good one can attain, and without which one’s enjoyment of the good life is severely impoverished.
However, what about complete friendships of virtue established offline but now tested by distance or work, family and other obligations? It seems that Facebook and other social media might be critical tools for saving such friendships from decay. Indeed, many report that the most valuable component of social networking sites is the ability to reconnect with old friends that had been lost to just such life changes. (Anderson and Rainie 2010) Ledbetter et al. (2007) found that the best predictors of enduring closeness between friends facing such challenges were the duration of closeness in the friendship’s origin and their ‘manifest similarity’, as measured by the ability to understand “how each other thinks and communicates.” (349). Social networking tools might provide separated friends of virtue with a continued means of access to one another’s cognitions, preserving this reciprocal understanding and in turn, the ability to act virtuously as ‘one mind’.
Empathy: an emotive/perceptual capacity that, like reciprocity, develops in most humans from a basic biological impulse, expresses itself fully in the highest forms of friendship, and, when properly cultivated and expressed, constitutes a virtue.
Empathy can be understood as the emotive/perceptual capacity to feel with another sentient being, to co-experience, in a significant way, the joys and sufferings of another. There are numerous physiological, sociological and psychological theories concerning the nature of empathy and the conditions of its development, the details of which need not concern us here. We need only grant that this capacity is present, to varying degrees, in mature human persons with ‘normal’ levels of social and emotional development. Like reciprocity, empathy is at the core of Aristotle’s account of friendship. Yet pace the definition I have given above, Aristotle did not classify empathy as one of the virtues, even in its mature forms. Indeed, it appears that he lacks any concept of empathy as a stable quality or disposition of a person. Yet as I will show, Aristotle’s account explicitly recognizes empathy as a phenomenon, a capacity for ‘feeling with’ others, and he identifies its expression as an essential characteristic of friendship. As a passion, however, Aristotle sees empathy as a spontaneous phenomenon irrupting naturally rather than through choice. (NE 1106a4) Virtues, on the other hand, are states of character responsive to practical reason, that is, states arising from deliberative choice and amenable to rational direction, adjustment and cultivation of expression.
Indeed, empathy is distinct from the unnamed social virtue that Aristotle describes as resembling friendship. As Aristotle notes, that virtue operates independently of my actual feelings for another, requiring only that I be disposed to conduct myself in an appropriately pleasing way in my contacts with others (NE 1126b25). In contrast, empathy is a natural feeling affecting not only rational beings but other animals (EE 1240a36), and as such cannot be independent of the passions. Yet curiously, Aristotle makes empathy one of the distinctive marks of friendships of virtue: for in such friendships, he says, one “grieves and rejoices with (sunalgounta kai sunchaironta) his friend,” (NE 1166a8) while this is impossible among those lacking in virtue who, due to the absence of a soul worthy of love, cannot even “rejoice or grieve with themselves”, much less with a friend. (NE 1166b18). How does it happen, then, that for Aristotle human mothers and even birds can empathize, but a bad man cannot? For he is explicit that only two persons bonded by a mutual recognition of what is genuinely worthy of love in the other’s character can experience full empathy.15 Thus Aristotle’s strong association between empathy and virtue is both clear and, at the same time, puzzling.
Furthermore, not only is empathy apparently confined, at least in its full expression, to the virtuous, but it is also a necessary presence in friendships of virtue. For Aristotle takes pains to note that mere mutual goodwill, in the absence of genuine intensity of feeling, is insufficient for the complete expression of friendship. (NE 1166b34). The distinction here is interesting; Aristotle says that with those for whom we have goodwill, we wish them well but “we would not do anything with them” (NE 1167a2) “nor take trouble for them” (NE 1167a10). Hence empathy seems to be more than a passive emotion; it is that on the basis of which we would choose to engage in shared activity with a friend. Now, this does not entail that empathy itself is chosen. But we must ask, is Aristotle right to assume that empathy, as a passion, is never directed by choice and cultivated by reason?
This seems implausible if we consult our ordinary experiences of empathy. For most of us know that empathy is, in fact, a feeling that must be deliberately nurtured. For most humans, empathy is a quivering flame that is always vulnerable to being extinguished by apathy or cynicism, or our desire to shield ourselves from suffering. For to allow the experience of empathy is to open oneself up to the joys, but also the pains of others, and many of us choose, often regrettably, to turn away from this experience—either by avoiding circumstances that might bring it on, or altering our thoughts (“putting up a wall”) to create emotional distance, perhaps while maintaining an exterior façade of empathetic behavior. If we make the deliberate choice to open ourselves to empathy and accept the pain that may come, we must remind ourselves at crucial moments not to shrink away and retreat, but to allow the feelings to emerge as they will, to be determined not by us but by the friend with whom we suffer. With repetition of this choice, such reminders become less and less necessary, and we become more accustomed to, even welcoming of, the emotional weight. Empathy, then, must be exquisitely and quite consciously cultivated if it is to endure and thrive rather than wither on the vine.
Alasdair MacIntyre makes a similar point with respect to the virtue Aquinas characterized as pity (misericordia). MacIntyre reminds us that “our affections and sympathies are generally, if not always, to a significant degree in our control, at least in the longer run.” (1999, 116) This is to say, of course, that they can be deliberately cultivated as virtues. According to MacIntyre, not only is misericordia a virtue, it is one of the “virtues of acknowledged dependence” most crucial to our flourishing as human animals, one that Aristotle mistakenly devalues from his illusory standpoint of masculine invulnerability and privilege. (ibid., 7, 164) However, misericordia as defined by Aquinas and MacIntyre is narrower than empathy as I, and Aristotle, define it: while misericordia is “grief or sorrow over someone else’s distress…just insofar as one understands the other’s distress as one’s own” (ibid., 125), empathy includes, in addition, the disposition to rejoice in the joy of another. (NE 1166a8)
This is not a trivial difference. For a selective disposition to share another’s pain, but not their joy, suffers from two defects: first, it comes too near that psychological state that is responsible for the modern, negative connotation of ‘pity’; and second, sharing the joys of another is essential for the notion of a ‘good life’ to have a truly social meaning. For to live happily with others is not merely to have joys side-by-side, but in common, so that I need not count up, in comparison with my fellows, an absolutely equal share of personal successes and gratifications before I am able to recognize that I have lived well with them. While the inability to share in the suffering of others is indeed a grave moral disability and a barrier to close, nurturing bonds, those who cannot share in the joys of others are equally cut off from real happiness, and face a lifetime of envy, anxiety and dissatisfaction.
Had Aristotle realized this, he would have recognized empathy as one of the cardinal virtues essential to the highest forms of the good life. For without the proper cultivation of an empathetic disposition, we will fail to be complete friends, and thus fail to flourish in the ways that such friendships alone allow. We must, then, make a distinction that Aristotle did not: between empathy as a natural, uncultivated and unchosen passion, and empathy as a moral virtue; one which presupposes the natural capacity to feel with another but requires deliberative choice and habituation to be properly directed and reliably expressed. This distinction has the further advantage of explaining how it is that a bird can empathize (i.e., in the first sense), while a bad person cannot (in the second sense).
Empathy and new social media
How, then, can social networking technology facilitate the development and expression of empathy as a virtue? First, it must be noted that expressions of empathy are a widespread practice on non-commercial social networks; on any given day, at least one of one’s friends or relatives on Facebook or Twitter is likely to disclose a hangover, a bad day at work, a promotion, a serious illness, the achievement of a personal goal, the birth or the death of a loved one. Such revelations are typically followed by a flood of posts from friends offering expressions of sorrow, joy, regret, congratulations, encouragement, or offers of help and consolation. Depending on the nature of the event, these may range from a quick ‘hang in there’ to more literally empathetic confessions of having been moved to tears with grief, or spontaneous leaps of joy. Some of these confessions, of course, may not be genuine, that is, accompanied by actual feelings of empathy; but it seems miserly to assume that none are. Furthermore, the perpetuation of the above practices suggests that users who receive these replies find some gratification or comfort in them; and the practice does seem to be one that grounds the site’s abstract display of connections and renders them as concrete, ‘real’ social bonds. Indeed users of such sites typically bristle at the implication of non-users that Facebook friends are not ‘real’ friends; and the capacity of the technology to facilitate regular empathetic exchanges is a likely reason. If Aristotle is right and empathy is a typical mark of friendship, then users who give and receive genuine expressions of empathy are at least somewhat justified in their perception that friendship can prosper online.
Yet the role of embodiment in empathy must be considered as well. Joy and pain are not purely cognitive states; they are conditions that affect our breathing, our musculature, our digestive functions, our skin temperature, and so on. We contract our bodies in grief and pain, and expand them outward in joy. To feel with another, then, is to undergo a physical change with them. How is empathy affected, then, when two people are not physically present to one another? A careful study of this question is a task for another time, but we have prima facie reasons to think the effect is not null.16 As I note in (2010), many of us know from experience how words can fail to console, and that the best comfort to a grieving friend is often a quiet physical embrace. When a friend literally feels us grieving with them in such an act, one communicates a degree of empathy that no mediated condolence could. And though we might, on selfish grounds, prefer a spatial buffer between ourselves and our friend’s pain, by relinquishing that buffer we allow an experience that, if repeated, eventually deepens one’s character as a friend, as well as one’s capacity for moral perception.17
Of course, acknowledging the physical dimension of empathy does not entail that reciprocal expressions of empathy online are worthless or ethically insignificant. Even text-based expressions of empathy are better than none, and video chat, for example, can amplify the physically expressive dimension of online exchanges. They can also serve as a stopgap, allowing me to offer immediate condolences or congratulations that can be enriched later when a physical meeting is possible. However, these require a commitment or virtuous disposition to make the extra effort. One widely publicized study (O’Brien et al. 2010) showing a significant decline in empathy among young people raises the question of whether such efforts may become increasingly rare; while not attributable to new social media, any real decline would be expected to inhibit strongly empathetic uses of new social media. So we must ask, can new social media encourage us to take greater emotional risks in this way? Or do they instead allow us to continue the gratifying rituals of empathy with diminished visceral impact; so that we may continue to believe we are ‘there’ for our friends, yet without having to see them doubled over in grief, nauseous from worry, or unsteady on their feet from shock, all the while feeling tinges of the corresponding pains in our own bodies? This is a difficult question, but an important one: for Aristotle may be wrong that we can only empathize with our partners in virtue, but he is certainly right that our moral character is perfected by our ability (and, I must add, our will) to relate to the suffering other as “another self” (allos autos) (NE 1166a32).
Self-Knowledge: a cognitive/perceptual achievement that is essential to the good life, to proper relations with others, and which can only be reliably attained through the exercise of friendship, particularly ‘complete’ friendship.
Self-knowledge is a lifelong process of cognitive and perceptual development in which I come to have increasingly more accurate, holistic and effective representations of my being in relation to the world. Here it is important to note that self-knowledge is not simply a process of interior scrutiny, whereby I build up an image of a self-contained being that I am: made up of a certain kind of body, mind and/or soul. Self-knowledge is not, for Aristotle, a matter of ‘going inside’ to observe some private, autonomous and unique inner core of the personality, as we often portray it in the modern West. Instead, self-knowledge in the Aristotelian sense is a matter of understanding properly where I fit in the world, what my proper role in it is, and the capacities I have (or lack) for actively flourishing in those roles. Because I am a social being by nature (NE 1169b18), I must come to understand myself as such; and the process of doing so is, at its core, a social process. This can help us to understand why Aristotle would claim that I can only genuinely attain self-knowledge through the mediation of another, specifically, a complete friend of virtue.
Aristotle asserts that a good life will necessarily include contemplation of that goodness (NE 1166a25, 1170b4), and in human persons of virtue, such goodness will be found in their thoughts and actions. Yet, the Magna Moralia asserts that there is something absurd about the suggestion that a god or a virtuous man will spend his life contemplating himself, for “if a human being surveys himself, we censure him as stupid.” (anaisthêtôi) (MM 1213a5) This cannot, however, be due to the fact that self-regard is usually associated with selfishness or narcissism; for Aristotle takes pains in the Nicomachean Ethics to point out that self-regard, when it is directed toward securing one’s nobility and virtue, is neither selfish nor blameworthy. (NE 1168b28) How, then, are we to understand this tension? Given the disputed authorship of the Magna Moralia, we could, of course, simply choose to ignore the apparent conflict. However, this is not necessary if one sees that the self-regarding man is rightly censured, not for selfishness, but for ‘stupidity’, because his exclusively self-regarding thought is not an activity reflective of his true nature as a social animal. Furthermore, since “we are not able to see what we are for ourselves” (MM 1213a16) as thoroughly or accurately as we are able to see what others are, it is difficult to attain self-knowledge (to gnônai hauton) (MM 1213a14).18 Since we can contemplate our friends’ activities better than our own (NE 1169b35), we require a virtuous friend who can serve as a mirror of the goodness in our character and our actions (MM1213a21), e.g., a “second self” (NE 1169b7). Thus, even the “self-sufficing man will require friendship in order to know himself” (MM 1213a26), for the noble actions of a virtuous friend with whom I share my life are, in an important way, also my own. (NE 1170a4)
In short, then, an essential part of the good life is the ability to recognize what is good and noble about the life I share with others, and this is to achieve a kind of self-understanding, for I am fundamentally this life. And for such self-knowledge I require the assistance of one or more virtuous friends who can mirror the goodness and nobility of thought and action that we achieve together, allowing me to better contemplate it. It is essential to see here that this ‘mirroring’ is not simply a case of showing me, through my friends, a close likeness of my own virtues, virtues that are not truly my own but only very similar to those which I have; rather, the virtues of my friends’ thoughts and actions which I contemplate are those which my actions have helped to engender and sustain, just as my friends have helped to engender and sustain my virtues. As such, the goodness of a life is not something contained within the individual who lives it, but something nurtured and manifested between individuals, as a product of thinking and acting rightly together. Thus as Nancy Sherman notes, it is our friends who “help us to reveal our consciences to ourselves.” (1993, 298) Hence the virtues I see in my true friends are, in a very genuine sense, also my own, and to recognize them is also to recognize myself.
Self-knowledge and new social media
What, then, of new social media? What power do they have, if any, to facilitate self-knowledge through action in concert with others? Here we must confront a growing challenge in our account. We noted earlier that reciprocity is a feature shared by all types of friendship, even the most transient, and that it is routinely displayed at all levels of online social life. Though empathy is less ubiquitous than reciprocity in its genuine expression, and we had serious concerns about the importance of embodiment in the richest kinds of empathy, empathetic exchange seems to be a significant, highly-valued feature of many online friendships.19 However, friendships facilitating self-knowledge in Aristotle’s sense bear more stringent requirements; for they demand that my friend function as a second self who mirrors my virtues and noble achievements. Furthermore, this mirroring must not be a matter of coincidence, but the result of living well together, of sharing good thoughts and actions. Is such mirroring facilitated by new social media?
People socialize online for a variety of reasons; some seek easier access to a diversity of experience and perspectives, but many do seek a version of a ‘second self’; they populate their pages with likes and dislikes, political and religious affiliations, interests and hobbies, and scrutinize the profiles and status updates of new online contacts for signs of common ground upon which to build a deeper connection. Persons marginalized by or isolated within their local communities, such as gay youth, the disabled, ethnic or religious minorities, and those with rare or unpopular interests are particularly prone to use new social media to seek ‘other selves’, with whom they can build a sense of a shared life that is otherwise unavailable to them. And through such connections, many do express a kind of self-discovery, at least the discovery that they are not alone, that others in the world mirror their hopes, fears, and passions.20 The emotional and psychological value of this kind of discovery must not be underestimated. That said, this is a very different sort of self-knowledge than that of which Aristotle speaks.
First, the mirroring in the former cases is of cultural, biological or personality traits that do not necessarily entail the sharing of common virtues; though this sharing may develop, there is no essential ethical element to these sorts of bonds. Second, new social media tend to facilitate many-to-one, or many-to-many kinds of mirroring rather than a one-to-one mirroring of integral selves; for the average person, Facebook and the like function as a splintered mirror, representing in various categories or lists all my diverse likes, dislikes, interests and traits scattered among a host of friends, all of whom may be individually far more unlike me than not. By itself, this cannot provide, and may even resist, the meaningful integration of a self-image and one’s virtues that Aristotle would claim true self-knowledge demands.21
We must, however, consider whether new social media have unique advantages that may offset such liabilities. Adam Briggle (2008) argues that the mediation of distance, along with the deliberateness than online communication affords, can actually encourage, rather than obstruct, the honest self-disclosure and mutual examination of character distinctive of true friendship. Yet even when relationships built online deepen to the point that common virtues can be mutually recognized, they are typically virtues that have developed independently and not in concert. This poses an obstacle to generating self-knowledge from such relationships; for if there are virtues I come to appreciate in my online friend, yet I have played no role in their development or maintenance and have no direct knowledge of the social contexts in which they have been manifested over the course of a life, then such virtues cannot really serve as a means of understanding myself, for despite their qualitative similarity to virtues I may also have, these virtues have, quite literally, nothing to do with me.
Of course, while some users, especially those locally isolated or marginalized, look to new social media as a way to build intimate friendships, we have already noted that most employ these tools primarily to support and strengthen the friendships they already have. In what ways can new social media facilitate self-knowledge among such friends? Recall that long-term maintenance of close ties between friends was found to be strongly associated with ‘manifest similarity’, i.e., the ability to successfully mirror the cognitions of one’s friend (Ledbetter et al. 2007). The authors of that study suggest that to facilitate this ability, friends “may wish to invest time discussing how each other makes sense of the world.” (350). Do new social media give friends the opportunity to make such an investment? Certainly. Through private message exchanges, through reading and commenting on a friend’s blog, such discussions can take place in an intimate but asynchronous environment largely liberated from the constraints of place and time. Yet will future generations actually use these features for this purpose? A recent Pew study found that among teens, the trend is moving away from use of these features. (Lenhart et al. 2010) Among teens who used social networking sites in 2009, there were substantial declines from 2006 in sending private messages to friends, and writing or commenting on friends’ blogs. (20) The activities that remained popular among teens were the posting of comments on pictures or status updates. Unfortunately, given the publicity, typical brevity and often fairly generic character of such comments, this type of online activity seems less likely to support sustained, intimate and thoughtful exchanges about how we make sense of the world than those online activities evidently in decline.
Hence we encounter a potentially significant barrier to online friendships of the richest sort; it seems that to enjoy the kind of self-knowledge that such friendships bring, they must be friendships sustained by the exploration of shared cognitions about a shared life, and for various reasons, the trends in new social media seem to skew away from such explorations. Now, this should not surprise us if we share with Aristotle the view that such friendships are rare in any case; but the above considerations require us to ask whether new social media will make them even rarer. Will new social media primarily offer ways to ‘share’ one’s life without taking on the difficult and risky work of shared understanding and action, leading us to unwittingly sacrifice our best avenues for self-knowledge and the good life in the process? For one of the most celebrated values of new social media is the way in which they reduce the “opportunity costs” of friendship. (Anderson and Rainie 2010) The value of such a cost reduction, especially for those of us so burdened by the demands of modern life that social contact beyond work and immediate family threatens to become a luxury, is undeniable. But what if it is also true that ‘you get what you pay for’? How will the convenience and ubiquity of these media impact the chances that young people will invest themselves in the communicative habits that support the most rewarding forms of friendship?
The Shared Life: A social achievement that embodies the highest forms of friendship and community, and which grounds the concept of eudaimonia or ‘human flourishing’.
Aristotle asserts that for friends of any sort, from the most superficial to the most complete, “the most desirable thing is living together” (hairetôtatonesti to suzên) (NE 1171b32), for “whatever existence means for each class of men, whatever it is for whose sake they value life, in that they wish to occupy themselves with their friends” (NE 1172a2). The importance of living together is grounded in Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia or living well as a lifetime of excellent activity. (NE 1098a15-20) The good life, then, requires that our friendships, especially the finest sort, be sources of concerted and sustained action. As he notes, even our relaxation and amusements are not pursued as ends in themselves, but as instruments for the improvement of activity (NE 1176b36), for the rational and distinctively human element of our being is active in its essence (NE 1098a5). And since “our well-being is relational” (kath’ heteron) (EE 1245b18), the shared life (suzên) (EE1245b8) of excellence is the social achievement that alone renders eudaimonia concrete for us; without it, the concept of ‘flourishing’ remains empty of content.22 Here, then, arises our final, most fundamental and perhaps most difficult question to answer: what will the rise of new social media mean for the shared life of excellence?
New social media and the shared life
Initially, the possibilities for sharing lives online look relatively impoverished if we grasp the distinction between sharing lives and sharing about lives; the former involves performing together the activities that make up a life, the latter involves communicating to one another information concerning our lives, without implying shared activity. Many new social media, especially friendship-oriented sites like Facebook, function primarily as vehicles for the latter; full of quick ‘status updates’ about our thoughts and actions, photos of family vacations, and reports of how we fared on various personality tests or online quizzes. Such sites also serve heavily for the sharing of amusements, whether they be links to YouTube clips of pets playing musical instruments or video satires from The Onion. Due to their more practical orientation, sites such as LinkedIn offer greater facilitation of common activity, yet these are exclusive to commercial or professional connections that primarily represent friendships of utility, and the narrow range of activities pursued in connection with such sites is unlikely to facilitate the richer associations of a shared life of virtue.
But most users value new social media more for their utility in relationship maintenance than for forging new, virtual relationships (Subrahmanyam et al. 2008); even if such sites provide few direct avenues for shared activity, they may still indirectly serve the aims of friendship and the good life by providing the kinds of informational and emotional reciprocity that maintain the will to live together with our friends, and to continue to pursue excellence in concert with them. Furthermore, we can take heart in the innovative uses to which new social media have been put in the interests of civic friendship, such as the widely reported influence of new social media, especially among youth, on grass-roots organization and fundraising in the 2008 U.S. presidential election (Smith et al. 2009), or the demonstrated ability of new social media to help communities quickly coordinate contributions and direct local efforts in cases of natural disaster. We must also note the use of new social media by citizens in Moldova, Iran, Britain and the United States to locally organize and resist authoritarian efforts to control information, detain protestors or inhibit their collective actions. While none of these examples imply that new social media will become a dominant mode of pursuing shared lives, much less lives of excellence, they show that there are creative ways to employ such tools in support of concerted action toward shared goals, as well as a substantial reservoir of users with the desire to do so. In short, then, new social media can strengthen and support friendships of virtue, and thereby facilitate the good life for human persons, in two fundamental ways: first by enabling reciprocal and continuous exchanges of information, amusement, encouragement and empathy with a lower opportunity-cost than face-to-face exchanges, preserving especially those friendships of virtue which may over time be threatened by geographical distance or other significant life changes. Such easy exchanges, while not by themselves sufficient to constitute a ‘shared life’ of virtue, can, as D.E. Wittkower (forthcoming) says, allow our friends to retain a “sense of the texture of our day-to-day lives” without which the conception of a ‘shared life’ would be a meaningless formalism.
Secondly, for those motivated to make a deeper investment in friendship, new social media can in principle be used to explore one another’s most fundamental values, beliefs, hopes and commitments, strengthening the friendship bond and enabling the self-knowledge that is critical to living a virtuous life with others. If initial forays into civic uses of new social media (Smith et al. 2009) continue to mature, such sites may even help us to coordinate and carry out those joint projects of friendship through which our virtues are cultivated.
These positive conclusions, however, bring with them serious caveats. While some scholars believe that new social media provide “scalable avenues toward more robust forms of communication and sharing” (Wittkower, forthcoming) than the relatively shallow and punctual exchanges for which the sites are better known, we have seen that the emerging empirical data does not yet support the optimistic conclusion that such avenues will be well-traveled. Complete friendships of virtue are, by their very nature, rare treasures, so it is not surprising that most uses of online social media are aimed at facilitating friendships of pleasure and utility. But friendships of virtue have always arisen out of these more common forms, when through the pursuit of shared projects and commitments a deeper and more costly investment in the good life with another is made. If studies continue to show that young users of social media are increasingly moving away from the practices that lead friends into making such an investment,23 then we must inquire further into the cause of such trends.
That said, we must also recognize that new social media do not exist in a vacuum, nor do they alone determine the uses to which they will be put; such media exist in a larger social context. The cultural and economic realities of modern life in the regions of the world where these media have emerged are not themselves entirely conducive to friendships of virtue, or to shared lives, nor were they so before the emergence of these new media. In this context, whatever potential exists for new social media to help us forge shared lives of virtue may largely remain untapped.
Human flourishing is a social achievement that entails habitually and skillfully engaging with others in rational enquiry with respect to our beliefs, desires, commitments, and life projects, and manifests the core Aristotelian virtue of phronesis through which the other virtues are intelligently expressed. (NE 1145a) Yet, given the dominant cultural values and economic priorities of technologically-driven societies, it is unclear whether new social media will ever be widely used to promote such enquiry. Facebook users of a philosophical bent are likely to find that, in comparison to photos, video links and ‘bad day’ updates, posts intended to initiate thoughtful critical discussion of such matters are typically met with a few brief and hurried replies, snarky humor, or deafening silence.
Yet it would be a mistake to lay blame for this at Facebook’s feet; the problem is merely a technological reification of a tendency already pervasive in our culture, a culture in which discussions of one’s religion, politics, scientific beliefs or moral commitments are increasingly marginalized from public spaces—pushed out of our workplace, our dinner table, our holiday parties and our weekend picnics, lest serious questions or contentious issues mar our congenial, lighthearted exchanges. As a consequence, visible public discussion of such matters is now dominated by those largely indifferent to the preferences of others, the ‘cranks’ or ‘nutjobs’ who fill the comment sections on news websites with hostile or uninformed rants, ‘that guy’ who ruins every dinner party by bringing up gay marriage or climate change, or the ‘idiot relative’ whose tiresome political posts we’ve quietly ‘hidden’ on our Facebook NewsFeed so as to make his views invisible while avoiding the injury of a conspicuous ‘defriending’. Thus we must be aware that whatever defects new social media may suffer, they are likely more often mirrors of existing cultural sources of moral apathy, and abdication of critical inquiry, than they are causes.
That said, this mirroring by new social media of existing defects in the moral structure of contemporary life may amplify the damage to our capacities as independent practical reasoners. More specifically, it can distort our understanding of what it takes to maintain our most important friendships, and hence our perception of whether, and to what extent, new social media are helping us to do this. For example, research suggests that workers in America, where technology is a major driver of work and lifestyle habits, are working ever longer hours to maintain their discretionary income, getting less sleep, and feeling more stressed, leading to significant declines in health and well-being. (Families and Work Institute 2009 report; Schor 1992) The kinds of social and economic changes needed to reverse these declines (attenuated workdays, lower consumption, etc.) would meet with great resistance from those who benefit economically (or believe they do) from these trends. Nor are many workers prepared to radically re-evaluate their lifestyles. But at least anecdotally, such high-earning, high-stress workers are among the most dedicated, even compulsive users of new social media, especially Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Could this be because they are drawn to the quick and easily accessible social rewards of new social media as a way to temporarily mitigate their stress, anxiety and alienation? And if our work lives steal more and more of our time and energy for activity with family and friends, will new social media more readily be used to maintain rich and satisfying shared lives with others, or as ‘fast-food’ substitutes for them?
For the notion of friendship ‘maintenance’ is ambiguous—I might speak of ‘maintaining’ my garden, when by this I mean throwing some water on it just often enough to keep it limping along, or I might refer to my sustained and careful efforts to nourish and tend to it lovingly, to ensure that every part of it not only lives, but thrives. We know that new social media are being heavily used for friendship maintenance. We now require more nuanced empirical methods to determine what kind of maintenance we are really doing. Do these media provide new technological avenues for reclaiming the good life with others, or do they more often supply pleasurable and constantly available distractions that suppress our emotional responses to its loss? Are new social media helping us forge reciprocity, empathy, mutual understanding and collective moral aims with friends from whom we would otherwise have been separated by geographical barriers? Or are these media superficially papering over the modern fracturing of culture that makes a ‘shared life’ not only rare, but virtually impossible? In the age of Facebook, do we even recognize Aristotle’s friendships of virtue as an ideal anymore?
These questions must be taken seriously, and answered, before we will be entitled to render a reliable and comprehensive judgment about the ethical impact of new social media. However, the considerations articulated here present a strong prima facie case that key structural deficiencies of such media, combined with the dominant values and priorities of the cultural contexts in which they are currently embedded, pose significant obstacles to the use of such technologies to maintain friendships of virtue. This argument must be taken, however, not as an attempt to render a decisive verdict, but as an invitation to ethicists begin the hard work of inquiring more deeply into the question. The challenge in the meantime is to demand new social media that encourage individuals to work toward shared lives of virtue in a world more mobile, diverse and interconnected than Aristotle could ever have imagined, without disguising or distracting us from those defective social arrangements which imperil and impoverish the good life with others.
While philosophers began reflecting upon the ethical significance of the Internet more than a decade ago, the first wave of insights from thinkers such as Borgmann (1999) and Dreyfus (2001) was met by the broader community of philosophers in the field of applied ethics with a degree of engagement that can be described as weak at best. Today, rigorous ethical analyses of information technologies, and especially new social media, are vanishingly few and confined mostly to specialty or interdisciplinary journals.
Text references for Aristotle in the body of this paper are distinguished by the abbreviation NE for the Nicomachean Ethics, EE for the Eudemian Ethics, MM for the Magna Moralia, and P for the Politics. My translations generally follow the Revised Oxford translation in Aristotle (1984).
Psychosocial goods actually divide into two subcategories: goods such as ‘social capital’ belong to what Aristotle termed ‘external goods’, while ‘life satisfaction’ and ‘self-esteem’ are mental states accompanied by pleasurable feeling, or passions (NE 1105b23); yet both types of good are highly contingent upon external factors, are inappropriate objects of moral praise, and are carefully distinguished by Aristotle from dispositions of character such as virtues. (NE 1098b20, 1105b20-30) The virtues, while highly dependent upon external factors for their initial generation (NE 1103a20), are defined as stable, ingrained and praiseworthy traits far more resistant to external contingency (NE 1105a33).
This is the objection of those who would argue that existing ethical norms, as context-dependent outgrowths of cultural practices, cannot coherently be employed as standards to judge emerging cultural practices that will, presumably, issue their own new ethical norms. Unlike deontologists or utilitarians holding to context-independent conceptions of moral obligation, we virtue ethicists are particularly boxed in here, since the embeddedness of ethical norms in concrete praxis cannot simply be denied.
This presupposition clearly rests on an essentially naturalistic theory of human flourishing, one which cannot be adequately presented or defended here but is heavily indebted, along with several other aspects of my argument, to the naturalistic virtue ethics developed by MacIntyre (1999).
MacIntyre (1999) helpfully points out that this cannot be interpreted as “strict” reciprocity, for many human contexts of giving and receiving are notably asymmetrical (100); nevertheless, I argue that reciprocal flow remains normative at the level of the social network which constitutes a given community, and asymmetries in giving and receiving are ethically justified by their ability to perpetuate this flow and direct it toward genuine human needs.
It is important to note here that Aristotle defines friendship in terms of reciprocity that is mutually recognized (NE 1156a5); it cannot be a matter of a blind coincidence of mutual goodwill, but must be grasped by both parties as such.
This phenomenon was a frequently reported experience of subjects in a 2010 study, “A Day Without Media” conducted by Moeller et al. of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda. The study asked students at the University of Maryland to give up all media for 24 hours and blog about their experiences.
See Valenzuela et al. (2009) for a helpful review of the evidence and the scholarly disputes surrounding this issue.
Here we confront a new methodological difficulty: what would evidence of such exchange look like? How would we verify its presence? Exchanges of pleasure are, in a sense, transparent; when a user reports gaining pleasure from an online interaction, she could be lying, but we are unlikely to think she is mistaken. We would also be surprised to hear a user say that she didn’t know if she got pleasure from Facebook exchanges. Exchanges of utility might be slightly more difficult to verify, but not greatly so. For Aristotle, however, the highest form of reciprocity is the one in which what is given, and received, is virtue; two persons help each other to become better, more excellent in their thoughts and actions. (NE 1155a15) Verification of such exchanges is likely to demand a more probing inquiry.
See NE 1167a5-20, where Aristotle describes as a precondition of friendship the finding in each other of some excellence or worth to admire, which under certain conditions evolves from mere goodwill into the rare love and empathy between two people that typifies virtue friendship (NE 1171a5-15).
Some current theories in neuroscience hypothesize mirror neurons as critical to empathy; in primates such neurons are known to be activated by sensory perceptions of bodily motions of other primates. See for example Preston and de Waal (2001).
For a rich discussion of affective and bodily dimensions of virtue, especially empathy, see Cates (1997).
For an interesting discussion of the tensions between the Magna Moralia and the Nicomachean Ethics on this point, see Cooper (1999, 281–285).
I leave open here the question of whether Aristotle is correct that empathy, in the cultivated form we defined above as a virtue, can only be felt among complete friends of virtue. If so, then friendships facilitating empathy will face the same requirements as those facilitating self-knowledge. However, there are significant reasons to question Aristotle’s assumption.
MacIntyre (1999) claims that a primary function of mirrored self-knowledge is the ability of friends to help each other “imagine the range of alternative possible futures…futures that it would be realistic for them to attempt to make their own.” (94). Yet in order to properly identify this range, I must have an integrated perception of my unique set of capacities, talents, interests and limitations, along with the specific and unique social context in which I must develop these. Certainly, a large and extremely diverse set of friends can expand my sense of life’s possibilities—but not necessarily in a way that helps me identify from those possibilities that are realistic for me, here and now. Only those with whom I share my life, in the more robust and concrete sense described below, can help me to frame these abstract possibilities in terms of what can be realized in my situation.
See Sherman (1989)’s excellent analysis of the centrality of the shared life for Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia (128–136).
In addition to Lenhart et al. (2010) and O’Brien et al. (2010), there are troubling indications along these lines in Hampton et al. (2009), which suggests that in contrast with mobile phone and general Internet use, use of social networking services is associated with a 30% drop in the likelihood that users will know at least some of their neighbors. (The study was controlled for demographic differences such as age). There could be many reasons for this result, but it is worth noting that friendship with neighbors typically exposes one to the potential for obligations of assistance and support beyond one’s control; I can typically ignore a Facebook distress call with far lower cost than ignoring a knock at my door.