Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Moral Instict Online

My mother sent me an article she had torn out of a New York Times Magazine called "The Moral Instinct" by Steven Pinker. Firstly, I was so thrilled to receive something in the mail that wasn't a bill, so I hungrily sat down to read the article. Secondly, she sent it because she thought it applied to the line of research I'm informally conducting on moral behavior and how it applies to social networking. The article spends some time discussing what he calls the "five moral spheres" of fairness, purity, loyalty, authority, and harm. He explains that morality itself seems to be universal, but how these five spheres are weighted depends on the culture in which you live, and sometimes even in which subsection of that culture. For instance, a liberal will feel more strongly about harm and fairness and a conservative, according to Pinker, will feel strongly about all five.

So how does this apply to online interactions like IM and social networking? He gives an interesting example about 2,000 people in various countries being asked this question: If you saw a trolley about to fly off the track and you could save six people by flipping a switch on the track, but then one person on the other track would be killed, would you do it? Most folks felt that, yes, the one life justified the six saved lives. However, when the question was switched around to suggest that you'd have to throw one fat man into the way of the trolley in order to save those folks, not many people agreed that they'd do it. There was something about the "hands-on" nature versus the "flipping a switch." So, online, are we really "hands-on" or are we just "flipping a switch" when we throw out mean words or post a picture we took of friend when she wasn't at her best? When the f-2-f element is lost, does that morality change the same way it changes when we have to throw the fat man in front of the train with our own hands?

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