“The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my mind.” (E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops)
How do social media affect interpersonal relationships? Adopting a Strawsonian framework, I argue that social media make us more likely to adopt the objective attitude towards persons. Technologically mediated communication tends to inhibit interpersonal emotions and other reactive attitudes. This is due to a relative lack of the social cues that typically enable us to read minds and react to them. Adopting the objective attitude can be harmful for two reasons. First, it tends to undermine the basis of interpersonal relationships. In particular, I argue that friendship is a relationship between persons that requires the participant stance. Second, it is a morally risky attitude that makes us more likely to treat persons in problematic, thing-like ways. Some philosophers have rightly urged that social media are compatible with virtuous, Aristotelian friendship. Notwithstanding, I argue that the harms associated with the objective attitude are more pressing than they might appear if we restrict our focus to relatively virtuous people with the social competence to flourish in morally risky online environments.
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Cocking’s and Matthews’ paper was written prior to the rise of social media and focuses on text-based communication through email and chat rooms. McFall, another sceptic about the possibility of authentic virtual friendships, extends his analysis to Skype (2012). Fröding and Peterson (2012) also argue that social media make a certain form of highly valuable friendship impossible due to the limited and distorted nature of the available information concerning the other’s character. Their target is a faithfully Aristotelian model of virtue friendship principally involving shared engagement in theoria, i.e., active study or contemplation.
For example, Kaliarnta (2016) objects that the dominant Aristotelian framework fails to allow for the variety of forms that valuable virtual friendships can take. Moreover, we might note that the question “are virtual friends possible?” invites a conceptual analysis of friendship in order to reveal criteria of authenticity. This feature of the debate might be challenged too. Given the classical theory of concepts, it makes sense to start by identifying necessary conditions for friendship and then ask whether purely virtual friendships meet those conditions. However, for a wide range of concepts, there are empirical (and distinctively philosophical) reasons to reject the classical theory in favour of a prototype theory (Laurence and Margolis 1999). In fact, a prototypical account of the concept < friendship > would align well with aspects of Aristotle’s own discussion: “Hence we must presumably say that … there are more species of friendship than one. On this view, the friendship of good people insofar as they are good is friendship primarily and fully, but the other friendships [of pleasure and utility] are friendships by similarity.” (NE 1157a30-32). Perhaps virtual friendships can be similar enough to the prototype that they still count “by similarity”.
We find expressions of commitment to this value throughout the Western canon: “Of the things which wisdom provides for the blessedness of one’s whole life, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship.” (Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, XXVII). “Presumably it is also absurd to make the blessed [eudaimōn] person solitary. For no one would choose to have all [other] goods and yet be alone, since a human being is a political [animal], tending by nature to live together with others” (NE 1169b17-20). “Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to obey and serve one man: Let the sun rise and set at his command: The sea and rivers roll as he pleases, and the earth furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him: He will still be miserable, till you give him some one person at least, with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.” (Hume, Treatise, Bk. II, Pt. 2, Sect. V, p. 363). See further Jeske (2019, Ch. 4) on the question of “what good are friends?”.
I set aside questions concerning the possibility of non-reciprocal friendship between persons and, say, social robots or non-human animals that are not persons.
Or, perhaps better, mere objects or things, so as not to exclude the possibility that some objects are not mere objects, but also possess non-instrumental value. I have in mind objects such as ecosystems and artworks. We might also wonder whether the categories of persons and things are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. In particular, there is reason to think that non-human animals may constitute a third distinct and morally significant category. See Kasperbauer (2017) for more on the ideas of animals as a dehumanized contrast class.
See, e.g., Luo (2011). Among other differences, we attribute mental states to persons, treat persons as subjects not objects, speak to them not just about them, and name them. We continue to be fascinated by fuzzy, penumbral cases such as ghosts, fairies, animals, vehicles, cartoon animals and creatures, shamanic transformations, vampires, zombies, marionettes, children’s transitional objects, social robots, corpses, computers and smartphones.
Conscious experience and agency are widely thought to be sources of moral standing. This is reflected in consequentialist and deontological ethics. It is also reflected in folk morality (Sytsma and Machery 2012).
Wolf also reads Strawson’s distinction in this way. She describes the participant attitudes as “attitudes one has towards individuals only in so far as one regards these individuals as persons” (1981). Again, Flanagan describes them as “attitudes through which we express our common humanity, recognizing them as persons, and according them the positive and negative reactions that come from seeing and treating them as persons.” (2017).
Some psychopaths exemplify this phenomenon. Their condition is partly a matter of an inability to inhabit the participant stance. This is also true of people with autism. See Kennett (2017) for more on psychopathy and autism within a Strawsonian framework.
I do not claim that this is the only explanation. Plausibly, two further reasons are the commercial nature of most social media and its addictive quality.
There is evidence that excessive internet use is associated with an impaired ability to interpret facial expressions and an impaired ability to respond differently to faces and objects (Engelberg and Sjöberg 2004; He et al. 2011). We should note, as ever, that association is not necessarily causation. For instance, it may be relevant that excessive internet use is also associated with autistic traits (Finkenauer et al. 2012). It seems likely that individuals with autistic traits are attracted by online environments that lack hard-to-interpret social cues.
This problem is partly mitigated by nonverbals such as emojis, images, filters and Snapchat stickers, which go some way towards conveying information normally available in-person (Elder 2018).
While Strawson did not mention empathy among the reactive attitudes, it seems reasonable to include it. See further Kennett (2017).
A recent set of studies conclude that text-based communication can lead to dehumanization and that, by contrast, voice can have a humanizing effect (Schroeder et al. 2017).
Personality traits that are known to affect online behaviour include sensation seeking, locus of control extroversion, openness, neuroticism, need for closure, need for cognition and attachment (see (Amichai-Hamburger and Vinitzky 2010; Amichai-Hamburger and Hayat 2013). Notice also that the extent to which we find the objective attitude desirable depends on our personality and our situation. For example, the more we are tired, stressed, uncertain or vulnerable, the more desirable it may seem. In fact, there is the possibility of a vicious circle. If social media make us more tired, stressed, uncertain and vulnerable, then social media make us more likely to desire their objectifying affordances.
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Turp, MJ. Social media, interpersonal relations and the objective attitude. Ethics Inf Technol 22, 269–279 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-020-09538-y
- Social media
- Reactive attitudes
- P. F. Strawson