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Flourishing on facebook: virtue friendship & new social media

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 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.

  2. For evidence of this shift, see pp. 2–3 of The Nielsen Company’s (2009) online report.

  3. For a careful review of this debate and a compelling argument for the adequacy of existing frameworks, see Tavani (2005). See also Brey (2007).

  4. 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).

  5. See Feenberg (1999) on this point.

  6. 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).

  7. See Stern-Gillet (1995, 160–161) on this point.

  8. 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.

  9. 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).

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. See Valenzuela et al. (2009) for a helpful review of the evidence and the scholarly disputes surrounding this issue.

  14. 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.

  15. 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).

  16. 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).

  17. For a rich discussion of affective and bodily dimensions of virtue, especially empathy, see Cates (1997).

  18. For an interesting discussion of the tensions between the Magna Moralia and the Nicomachean Ethics on this point, see Cooper (1999, 281–285).

  19. 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.

  20. For studies of this phenomenon, see Barnes (2001, 181–188) and Beaudoin and Tao (2007).

  21. 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.

  22. See Sherman (1989)’s excellent analysis of the centrality of the shared life for Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia (128–136).

  23. 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.

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Vallor, S. Flourishing on facebook: virtue friendship & new social media. Ethics Inf Technol 14, 185–199 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-010-9262-2

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Keywords

  • New social media
  • Virtue friendship
  • Aristotle
  • Reciprocity
  • Empathy
  • The shared life