3 key things to help us use the internet virtuously.
Guest post by Rachael Johnson
Just how much is enough? It’s a question we ask every day as we put milk in our coffee, when we water the plants, or when we’re figuring out a tip at a restaurant. Too little, and the coffee is too bitter, the plants die, and the waiter is insulted. Too much, and the coffee becomes just a glass of milk, the plants still die, and you’re broke. Does this sound a little like Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Good, because the “golden” mean that Goldilocks was after helps us to understand virtue, and in this day and age, we particularly need virtue when we use the internet.
Aristotle, the philosopher who would later heavily influence St. Thomas Aquinas, identified extremes (too hot, too cold) with vice and the golden mean between them as virtue. Fortunately for us, he arrived at certain principles in his Nicomachean Ethics that can help us discern the vice and virtue in any situation, so we don’t have to go around trying random bowls of porridge until we stumble upon the right one. Specifically, I think looking at Aristotle’s guidelines for the following are key to using the internet in a virtuous way: temperance, friendliness, and truthfulness.
Chances are, you know someone who is always looking at their phone as well as someone who is nearly impossible to reach because they don’t have a phone. Neither extreme seems favorable in modern society. Aristotle gives us the following flexible measure for what is temperate or intemperate: “Someone is intemperate because he feels more pain than is right at failing to get pleasant things…” and “someone is temperate because he does not feel pain at the absence of what is pleasant, or at refraining from it.”1 In this case, “pleasant things” would be recreational use of the internet, and nothing relating to work or necessity (you’re off the hook, professional youtubers!).
It is interesting to note that while Aristotle was writing specifically with gluttony and lustfulness in mind, this “pain” is definitely felt by internet users today. In fact, researchers are finding that heavy users experience withdrawal symptoms when not using, such as increased blood pressure and anxiety.2 The temperate person, on the other hand, wouldn’t feel pain at not having internet access. Can someone go on a weekend retreat without a smartphone? Is it a compulsion to check said smartphone after an hour-long lecture? These are questions worth asking.
The temperate person may desire that which is pleasant (funny cat videos, writing emails to friends) as long as “it is no obstacle to health and fitness, does not deviate from the fine, and does not exceed his means.”3 Sharing a chuckle with a friend over a funny meme? That’s probably okay. Wearing diapers so you don’t have to leave your game to use the restroom? That’s an obstacle to your health and definitely deviates from the fine. Thus, temperate internet use looks like the following: the freedom to use or not use without pain of withdrawal, the ability to enjoy it to an appropriate degree, and having enough time to properly take care of one’s obligations as well as mental and physical health.
If it’s been established what temperate use looks like, then it is time to examine how the internet should be used. Here is where friendliness comes in. Its importance lies in the fact that, though there is great anonymity, online interactions are still human interactions and so the dignity of the human person must be upheld. Respecting this dignity does not mean automatically agreeing with everything someone says or types, nor does it mean causing no pain at all costs. Aristotle describes this as “ingratiating.”4 At the other extreme is not caring if pain is caused and instigating fights, or “being quarrelsome.”5
This latter extreme is clearly present online in the forms of cyber bullying, trolling, or simply a level of rudeness that wouldn’t be tolerated face to face. This phenomenon has been named “online disinhibition.” According to psychologist John Suller in an interview with WIRED magazine, some key factors that may contribute to this decidedly “un”friendliness are: invisibility, lack of consequences, and dissociative imagination (“this is not the real world, these are not real people”).6 We must remember, online or otherwise, other people should always be treated as real people with inherent dignity.
A volatile combination is then created between people who care too much about not causing offense and those who take delight in tearing down. The ideal way to diffuse this powder keg of behaviors is by being a virtuous netizen who practices the golden mean. Aristotle writes that such a person “will aim to avoid causing pain or to share pleasure, but will always refer to the fine and the beneficial.”7 Also, this person will, “take each thing in the right way because that is his character, not because he is a friend or an enemy. He will behave this way to new and old acquaintances, to familiar companions and strangers without distinction,…”8 Through such an attitude, the internet becomes fertile soil in which dialogue can grow and bear fruit, rather than a battlefield of opinions. However, it is also necessary that there is agreement over what that fruit is: truth.
Truthfulness is another virtue that’s found wanting on the world wide web. For one, the typical discussion quickly devolves into fallacies or ad hominem attacks (personal insults). Even something as innocent as a rainbow cake recipe can become a platform for misinformation and ad hominem attacks.9 Yet, without truthfulness, employing friendliness and temperance are without an end. Even if we should value the truth above friendships, there’s no reason why we can’t be united with our friends–and other virtuous people–in pursuing truth.
The extremes regarding this next virtue are not merely what is false or true, but in how the information is employed and to what ends. Do you “boast” about a favored candidate because you want your side to win, or are you trying to correct someone else’s misconceptions about said candidate? Do you use facts only to humiliate someone with a different opinion? Do you bend the truth because the person you’re talking to won’t be persuaded otherwise?
Even in small matters, the truth is important, and the truthful person is “truthful both in what he says and in how lives, when nothing about justice is at stake, simply because that is his state of character.”10 It should also be noted that truth in this case does not simply mean disjointed facts, but facts that reveal the larger picture. For instance, what good is it if scientists determine the exact moment the heart of a fetus starts beating, if scientists remain lost on whether or not it’s human life worthy of protection? Therefore, it is necessary to pair truthfulness with the limits of what’s beneficial (temperance) while upholding the dignity of the human person (friendliness) in order to find an ethical conclusion.
The internet really is a remarkable tool for its ability to share information and is certainly a tool for the new evangelization. In order to get the most benefit from it, it is best for the virtuous user to start with temperance, so they are of sound body and mind, with friendliness, so they recognize and uphold the dignity of other human beings, and with truthfulness, so that one’s reason can be informed by what is true and one’s actions will promote what is true. In this way, the internet doesn’t have to be a platform for vice, but it can instead be a legitimate way to engage others and share information.
1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 47
2 Reed, Phil, Michela Romano, Federica Re, Alessandra Roaro, Lisa A. Osborne, Caterina Viganò, and Roberto Truzoli. “Differential physiological changes following internet exposure in higher and lower problematic internet users.” Plos One 12, no. 5 (2017). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0178480.
3 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 48.
4 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 62
6 Martin, Alan. “Online disinhibition and the psychology of trolling.” WIRED. October 04, 2017. Accessed October 24, 2017. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/online-aggression.
7 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 63
8 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 62
9 Burneko, Albert. “Rainbow-Cake Recipe Inspires Comment Apocalypse.” The Concourse. June 18, 2014. Accessed October 24, 2017. https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/rainbow-cake-recipe-inspires-comment-apocalypse-1592575661.
10 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 64