If Socrates Were Only on Twitter...

The morality of dragging.

Posted Jul 31, 2018

Recently a few prominent writers (reporters and columnists) have announced their disapproval of twitter. It is the twitter criticisms these writers and their friends get which really rankle. Twitter, of course, makes criticism easy. Too easy, thinks The New York Time’s Maggie Haberman, who explains that the criticisms she gets are not made in "good faith."

An editor at the same paper has just spoken about the need for a return to a “pre-2018” ethics, back to a time when people were “less certain” of their moral judgments. Her reasoning is that she sees a great crisis in our new lack of “proportionality” and “reason” given the manner in which people on twitter express concern (her examples involve expressed concern for women and minorities).

Other critics of twitter critics have suggested that to make a moral critique is to be unproductive, causing in the criticized the very outrages (racism, misogyny, closed-mindedness) to which the “twitter mob” is said to so angrily object.

Against such worries, I want to briefly defend two ideas:

a) That the public should make moral criticism.

b) That the public should do this as harshly or as humorously as they ever have.

And I want to do this on the basis of it being very unhealthy to think writers should not have to undergo criticism or that they have some handle on ethics that the rest of us are missing. (About the really terrible or threatening tweets, I probably do not disagree with anyone.) 

But that the public should not even be making moral criticism is something that has been suggested by a columnist at The Atlantic. He accuses those who “drag” writers on twitter (in this case, a writer who argued that women should be publicly hung for having abortions) with a “failure of tolerance.” This is a virtue he argues that he has, but which has grown “unfashionable.” We are told we have “lost the words or the stomach” to defend the virtue.

I think this columnist is being deliberately misleading when he brings in, of all things, virtue ethics to defend his complaint. Readers will get the impression that there has been a consensus about tolerance among virtue ethicists, when if there were one, it would be that tolerance is decidedly not a virtue (see the Catholic Church on this!). It was certainly not part of the original Greek conception

Instead, consider this tribute to a philosopher others admired for bravery:

He was going into a theater, meeting face to face with those who were coming out, and being asked why. “This, he said is what I practice doing all my life.”

What is the message?

It is that we are not truly capable of good unless we plan on going against the stream. It is that a writer with a significant message should not anticipate that "the mob" is going to understand or agree. And it is that one option for prominent columnists being criticized on twitter is that bravery is necessary when you have the floor and the attention of us all.

And then the columnists might say that their concern is really that people on twitter lose some of their virtue when they mock me or make a joke about some nonsensical point they’ve just seen written.

That is not how it works, according to traditional virtue ethics. To make moral distinctions and rehearse our judgments, in public even, is the only way to go if we are to become astute moral reasoners. Our teasing of others for mistakes are new standards we ourselves must follow, lest we become hypocrites.

And when people are making mistakes on moral issues, the idea, in virtue ethics, has been that they need to be roused out of these mistakes with as much verbal force (only that!) as we can muster. Margaret Graver in her wonderful book Stoicism and Emotion explains that the ancient philosopher Philodemus argued that we will not give us mistaken moral beliefs until someone “bites” into our heart with criticism!

Plutarch compliments Socrates for doing this with Alicibides. Rather than flattering him in an effort to get him to see the error of his ways, Socrates “rebuked” him, drawing what Plutarch describes as an “honest tear from him,” turning his heart.

Epictetus, the great Stoic, also used a confrontational style in his approach to the general public. Grover informs us that Epictetus’s manner of speaking is “forthright, even abrasive, and his treatment of the self-satisfied is often sarcastic to the point of ridicule.”

Yet could it be that, in a modern context, such tactics do not work? Do we need to take the columnists' recommended approach in order to meet some objective about number of minds changed?

Well, those who make these kinds of claims have no evidence on their side (nor do they identify our actual objectives, I do not think). And we have some evidence that public criticism (at least from a perceived high-status peer) reduces the kind of behavior you might expect a “twitter mob” to get after you for. (Enjoy this video explanation of the researcher's findings.) 

And yet to assume that we can only do what results in the best possible outcomes is to merely reject the virtue ethics tradition. For that matter to just assume that it is unvirtuous to make a joke at someone’s expense is to merely reject the virtue ethics tradition. We need jokes to draw our attention to the mundane details necessary to morality. As mild-mannered a thinker as Adam Smith held great stock in the ridicule of public figures. Satire of their views is how we best communicated and could come to even recognize complicated moral truths.

Imagine twitter's usefulness!

In sum, we can't fall for the idea that we are not actually responsible for pointing out what is wrong or even what seems wrong to us. There are too many good arguments to the effect that this is literally why we are here.