Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in the Digital Age

Some positive aspects of digital media

I recently read Howard Gardner's Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed, and while I have several philosophical quibbles with some of what he says, I found many of his suggestions about education in the digital era to be thought-provoking and helpful.

According to Gardner, beauty is a property of our experiences of objects, and does not exist in the objects themselves. I tend to think that there are some objective standards of beauty, but setting aside this philosophical debate, Gardner makes some helpful suggestions related to beauty and education. The digital media enable young people to explore a wide variety of art forms from many different cultural traditions. This can help expand their view about what might be beautiful, and prevent them from simply going along with whatever the crowd approves of at any given time. We should also help kids develop a personal portfolio of artistic preferences, of beautiful experiences and objects. They can simply keep track of these in their minds, but also in more tangible form in digital files. This enables them to create and store their own works, and store the works of family, friends and professionals which they can then revisit when they choose to experience beauty again.

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Concerning goodness, we need to help prepare children for their roles as digital workers and digital citizens. This is not merely parents or other adults supervising the online activity of children, but in fact participating with them in these activities as well. Gardner makes the Aristotelian point that good habits must be established while children are relatively young, because at adolescence it will be too late or even counterproductive if parents and others are heavy-handed about the online activity of teens. One way to help prepare children and teens for life in the digital era is to discuss ethically challenging situations that might occur, either in person or digitally, as critical thinking and discussion are good first steps towards being responsible. Such dialogue can reveal your own moral perspective, and open up opportunities to change or modify it as reason and critical thought requires. I think this is right. Discussion and dialogue are good first steps, but they are not sufficient for acting in responsible ways. Our beliefs, emotions, and habits are relevant here as well.

Finally, Gardner notes that online interactions can help us see that our beliefs about the truth might not be The Truth. There are many emerging truth-claims in the digital landscape of blogs, websites, and other digital media. What is needed is the ability to sift through these claims, and then determine what can be accepted, what needs more evidence, and what might need more thought before reaching a conclusion. As he puts it, “Truth…is not a question of bias or gut instinct; it consists of carefully-arrived-at conclusions on the basis of cool and consistent review of the evidence” (p. 152).

We are aware of the potential pitfalls of the digital media, but Gardner’s book points us in a more positive direction. The digital media can help us cultivate a sense of beauty, aid us in learning how to treat others well both here and across the globe, and assist us in the slow and steady march towards truth.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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