Bastiaan Vanacker in the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy. All annotations in context.
In daily language, the word pragmatic is often used pejoratively, to describe someone with a lack of principles (or character) who will let the situation, rather than a firm moral compass, guide her actions. But in the philosophical sense, pragmatism refers to an orientation towards ethics that isn’t occupying itself with abstract concepts such as “truth,” “right” and “wrong” or with coming up with all-encompassing ethical theories. Instead it focuses on praxis rather than theory and sees the role of the ethicist more to “de-scribe” norms as they develop than to “pre-scribe” them.
Phillip Kitcher, in the introduction of The Ethical Project describes the project of this pragmatic naturalism as follows: “Ethics emerges as a human phenomenon, permanently unfinished. We, collectively, made it up, and have developed, refined, and distorted it, generation by generation. Ethics should be understood as a project –the ethical project– in which we have been engaged for most of our history as a species.” This a functionalist view sees ethics as a set of guidelines that make communal living possible. A successful ethical system is one that can fulfill this function.
This approach, I believe, works well for digital ethics, where we try to articulate rules that govern how we interact with each other through digital technologies. For example, when social media emerged, there was no fixed rule about when it is appropriate to tag someone in a picture and when it isn’t. So we figured out a netiquette and ethical norms as we were going along, based on experience, existing norms, insights from experts etc. There still might be areas of disagreement, but I would argue that overall we have come to an understanding of what is acceptable and what isn’t on this issue, and these norms are passed on to new users of social media.
Earlier, I have criticized Facebook for not anticipating the ethical problems with Facebook live and for its general approach of trying things out without much ethical forethought. But wouldn’t a pragmatist argue that because they are charting into new territory, digital innovators are more likely to make ethical mistakes giving the lack of existing normative framework? This pragmatic defense only has limited power though, as there are general guiding ethical norms and principles in place already. It is of course true that (some of) these norms might be subject to change in the digital environment and that sometimes our existing frameworks are ill-equipped to deal with new moral dilemmas. However, this does not excuse some of the more egregious ethical lapses we have seen recently, which were violations of well-known and accepted moral guidelines.
This makes me have larger questions about the role of digital storytelling as we use digital texts and tools to share parts of our lives. When are we infringing on the rights and privileges of others, and when are we expressing ourselves through digital means?
Blair’s posts are a remarkable feat of digital storytelling. She spun the all-in-all rather trivial behavior of two strangers into the social media equivalent of a rom-com and initially the story was heralded as the summer feel-good story we were in desperate in need of. (There also was some speculation that this was all a hoax, which is possible but seems implausible at this point.) But soon questions emerged about the ethics of this modern-day fairy tale, especially when it became clear that the female subject of the story did not welcome the attention and had her social profiles deleted after internet sleuths had figured out her identity. On July 12, she put out astatement through her lawyer in which she claimed to have been “doxxed, shamed, insulted and harassed” and that voyeurs had come looking for her. By that point, the couple responsible for the tweets was slammed online as well.
A future upcoming blog post might unpack this a bit as we think about pragmatism, norm-setting, and digital storytelling using the narratives of others.