Responsibility, blogs, and situationism

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This post continues where the last one left off. I was saying that responsibility as character, control, and conversation can be enhanced or undermined by blogging, depending on the situation. Whether responsibility is enhanced depends on (1) whether the use of the blog is conducive to character-formation, is control-enhancing, and/or is part of a productive conversation, as well as (2) whether the responses to the blog are helpful or harmful. Of course, bloggers cannot control the tenor of the comments they receive, but this is neither here nor there: responsible agency is largely a matter of luck, as Aristotle noted when he attributed moral character largely to contingent features such as good friendship, wealth, and beauty (see Nussbaum’s article on moral luck [1986]). The point of this discussion was that blogs can contribute to responsible agency if used responsibly.

Here, I want to consider another aspect of this question. Why are blogs so popular? Philosophers and public figures might use blogs to enhance their public profile, but this does not explain why blogs are massively and enduringly popular amongst the general population. Of course, blogs serve some of the same purposes as social networking sites – social purposes. But the fact that blogs can enhance responsible agency in the ways that I have described is suggestive. Specifically, it suggests that blogs can serve the purpose of bolstering moral agency, and this may partially explain their widespread appeal. What reason to do we have to think that people are using them for this purpose? I cannot offer a rigorous philosophical argument for this theory, but I can tell a story on which this is the case.

Why would people seek an alternate (online) venue to shore up their agency? Because their agency is in peril. Is our agency in peril? There is a very general reason to suppose that our agency is always in peril, and it is that character and control – the main metrics of responsible agency that we are considering – are remarkably shallow and weak. This is the conclusion suggested by situaitonist psychology (or ‘social psychology,’ as it is now generally called, though I think that ‘situationist psychology’ is more apt) as well as experiments in cognitive science that reveal the scope of the unconscious mind. On the first score, situationist experiments show that there is no such thing as robust, situation-invariant character (see Doris 2008). Here are some examples of this research, but you have probably already encountered most of them. Milgram induced 64% of subjects to ‘shock’ a mock-learner to the hypothetical point of death. More recently, experimenters induced subjects to deliver stronger ‘shocks’ by priming them with hostility (Dijksterhuis & Bargh 2001). Philip Zimbardo induced subjects to mistreat ‘prisoners’ by placing them in a mock American prison and instructing them to imitate a harsh prison guard (1973). Much later, in Abu Ghraib, guards abused the prisoners in a similar manner, though the degree of the abuse was orders of magnitude worse (Zimbardo 2008). Those are just a few examples of the relevant literature, basically selected at random. There are countless other experiments in this vein. They collectively show that behaviour can be elicited by seemingly insignificant situational variables. Character is narrower than we tend to think.

What about control? A battery of experiments similarly show that we have less reflective control over our mental lives than we tend to think. Examples include experiments on confabulation, rationalization, and implicit bias. Here is just one specific example (though I could give dozens). Experimenters send out identical resumes to employers, except that some of the resumes had White-sounding names and some had Black-sounding names. Employers responded to twice as many resumes with White-sounding names, and there was no difference amongst those who had advertised an employment equity policy (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2003). While it is possible that all of these employers were explicit racists carrying out a racist agenda, I doubt that this is the right explanation. Rather, the employers were most likely acting on implicit bias, going against their explicit evaluative judgments.

These experiments show that we have narrower character and weaker reflective control than we might like to think. (I for one like to think that I would not select a job candidate on bigoted grounds, but the experiments make me question my own moral capacities). These are unsettling results. Although the fragility of our moral agency is not transparent to us, we likely have some inkling of it. We may have noticed ourselves going against our better judgment on some occasion, and wondered if this reveals a deeper lack of evaluative congruence or reflective control. And if we have read these experiments, it corroborates this worry. If we do have some inkling of the fragility of agency, we may be inclined to try to reinforce our moral agency by any means available. That is, we may be predisposed to utilize available tools to prevent the kinds of agential breakdowns that we witness in these studies.

Blogs are a convenient tool for doing this, if the last post is correct. If blogs can reinforce character and control – provided that we use them right – they are an apt resource for buffering agency against hostile eliciting conditions and morally dangerous situations. We can use blogs, for example, to publicly declare our allegiance to positive values, to reinforce our narrative identity by articulating and consolidating our values, or to reflect on our inchoate values and beliefs, deciding whether they warrant endorsement or disavowal. As Vargas notes in his award-winning book (2014), “narratives, scripts, or cultural frameworks… can have consequences for our capacities” (246). By constructing a public narrative through a blog – in particular, the journal-esque type of blog that the average blogger constructs – we create a narrative that helps us stay on script, even in morally dangerous situations. If we have publicly declared our commitment to monogamous marriage, we are more likely to resist the advances of an attractive colleague while our spouse is out of town (see Doris 1998); and by the same token, if we have publicly declared our commitment to polyamory, we are less likely to be pressured into an unhappy marriage against our better judgment. No matter what our commitments, blogs provide a venue for reflecting on, consolidating, and proclaiming them, which can help us to abide by them.

One last point, to be consistent with the previous post. Responsibility as a conversational practice is also facilitated by blogging, in the ways we have seen. Blogs provide a venue for conversing with other people, including people from remote parts of the planet. By communicating with diverse interlocutors in virtual space, we may encounter considerations that help foster moral agency. For example, I might be persuaded to give to an important foreign charity that I had never heard of. Conversation can also bring to light frailties and flaws that may not have been available to introspection, or to the ‘searchlight’ of the mind, as George Sher calls it (2010). For example, Jones may not have noticed that his jokes were impolitic until Serife pointed it out to him. Conversation can bolster agency by bringing multiple perspectives into communication. Blogs facilitate this process on a global scale. Hopefully, this blog will contribute to this process by highlighting our situational sensitivities and inciting people to reflect on and discuss them.

This has been a very general account of why blogs appeal to the public: because we are fragile agents, and blogs can fortify our resolve and thus our agency. This may partially explain why blogs are so popular. In the next section, I want to propose a second, related reason.

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