Moralists have always existed. And they have always tried to impose their values. However, social networks have become an ideal breeding ground for all kinds of moralistic attitudes. Few publications escape their watchful eye and there is always a group willing to scold or condemn the actions and words of others. To judge.
In fact, while giving moral lessons on social media is a contemporary phenomenon, the motivation behind it is almost as old as man. The Greek philosopher Socrates explored this phenomenon and experienced it in his own flesh. In Apology of Socrates, written by Plato, you can see how the philosopher exposes the arrogance that is hidden behind moralistic attitudes.
Morality and knowledge, two sides of the same coin
He tells that on one occasion the oracle of Delphi affirmed that no one was wiser than Socrates. In response, Socrates, who thought he was too ignorant to be considered the wisest, talked to other people who claimed to be very wise.
He interviewed politicians, playwrights and others to discover that they held inconsistent beliefs about what the good life was and were often unable even to explain those beliefs or logically answer his probing questions.
Finally, Socrates recognized that he was indeed the wisest, but only because he was the only one who recognized how much he did not know.
This story is summed up in his aphorism: “I only know that I know nothing,” but one key detail is often overlooked: Socrates was talking about moral wisdom, not just academic knowledge. When Socrates spoke to the different “experts” and “wise men”, they not only claimed to be wise, but also especially moral.
For the sophists, wisdom and morality were connected. For that reason, Socrates discovered that those who were certain of their wisdom were also convinced of their moral authority. Just as intellectual arrogance leads people to overlook gaps in their knowledge, those who are convinced that they are faithful exponents of morality, are also less aware of their errors and tend to overlook the complexities of morality itself. In other words, their moralist attitude blinds them.
Philosopher Glenn Rawson stated that “The more experience people claim to have about the most important things in life (such as justice, virtue, and the best way to live), the less they can justify their claims. Even some people’s knowledge of art or science is clouded by their mistaken belief that they too are qualified to tell people how they should live.” In other words, many people claim the right to set themselves up as judges of the lives of others just because they have – or believe they have – certain knowledge.
Giving moral lessons implies believing oneself superior, ignoring one’s own shadows
Obviously, there are some differences between those who stand as advocates for morality on social media today and a figure who lived in ancient Greece. Much of that difference is because there is more license on the Internet to create an exaggerated impression of one’s morality because most of the people’s contacts don’t really know them well or how they live.
In practice, this “moral anonymity” gives free rein to judge others and, at the same time, aggrandize themselves. In fact, several studies have revealed that the most viral content on social networks is precisely the most “moralized” content that refers to ideas, objects or events that are usually interpreted in terms of interest or the common good. News and comments containing moral words tend to spread more on the Internet.
This phenomenon is not due solely to moral outrage but to the fact that highlighting incorrect behavior is a powerful way to maintain or improve a person’s reputation in a certain social circle and make clear their membership. Every time someone points out something immoral, he too joins a group and reaffirms his identity, even though he is not fully aware of it.
In fact, we all engage in behaviors that help distinguish the ingroup we identify with from the outgroup. This way we reinforce our belonging and show that we agree with their values. However, these behaviors become more extreme when threats arise, such as a context of high uncertainty, different opinions or big changes.
Interestingly, a study conducted at Yale University revealed that criticizing the outgroup and expressing animosity on social media is much more effective in driving committment than simply expressing support for the ingroup. The need to belong to a certain group and reinforce its identity are the main reasons that lead people to morally reproach others.
In fact, despite cultural differences, we today share a characteristic with ancient Greek figures: equating knowledge or opinions with morality, so that if someone expresses a point of view different from ours, he will immediately be condemned for behaving immorally.
People who give moral lessons believe that if someone does not stand by their beliefs or deviates too much from the norms and values shared by the group to which they belong, it is likely that he is not a good person. And that is why they believe they have the right to criticize and judge him.
For moralists, having the “right” beliefs is an important part of virtue, so pointing out the “wrong” beliefs also helps them feel particularly virtuous. This is how a “morality police” is created. This is how repression is brewing.
However, affirming that someone has acted immorally implies – intentionally or not – placing oneself above, enjoying the supposed privilege that morality offers. That is why people who give moral lessons tend to annoy us since, consciously or not, we understand that they are placing themselves on a higher level without showing the slightest empathy and, in many cases, ignoring their gray tones.
Actually, morality is a great equalizer. We are all a mixture of lights and shadows, so those who set themselves up as a moral authority are more likely to see the speck in the other’s eye, ignoring the beam in their own. For this reason, we would have to think twice – or three or four – before throwing the first stone.
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Brady, W. J., et. Al. (2017) Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; 114: 7313–7318.
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Rawson, G. (2005) Socratic Humility. In: Philosophy Now.
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