Skip links

Seeking Moral Vision in a Digital Age

In suburban America, we like our bumper stickers, yard signs, and graphic t-shirts. In the online world, we love our memes. But what happens when slogans become the basis for our conversations and influencers become the authority on which the conclusions of our moral debate rest?

When I was in graduate school studying bioethics, I learned that moral dialogue is an art. The frameworks that guide this dialogue rely not just on medicine and law but also on philosophy and literature. Social media, however, are not a framework or a form for guiding robust dialogue. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok mold content to create visual stimulation without engaging the moral vision necessary to handle those claims on our attention. When content conforms to these standards, it functions to stir and provoke, exploiting our emotions rather than ordering them. Righteous anger expressed on Twitter loses its incisiveness without the control of logic. Storytelling on Facebook or Instagram becomes weakened by platitudes without the uncompromising search for the truth of literature or poetry.

In the 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessNeil Postman looks at how the media disrupts meaningful discourse. He holds that the entertainment factor necessary to making media consumable reduces the quality of our public discourse. While he uses the example of television, much of what he says could be applied to what we see in social media today. He writes:

Television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing; . . . television’s conversations promote incoherence and triviality; . . . the phrase “serious television” is a contradiction in terms; and . . . television speaks in only one persistent voice—the voice of entertainment.

Social media can be used as a tool that directs our attention to what matters. But these platforms become idols when they consume our attention and influence our social and political reactions. Expressing our reactions through social media can create the illusion of knowledge and wisdom without any seeking or any real pursuit of truth. But we can resist their consumptive demands by practicing prudence. As an intellectual and moral virtue, prudence guides us to know and pursue the good, moving us toward moral dialogue and elevating the moral beauty we seek in our social lives.

Headline-driven content infiltrates topics of conversation and dehumanizes our moral dialogue. It’s possible to be an awe-filled seeker of truth and use social media with prudence; however, social media are mediated by a tech industry that aims to capture our attention and keep us scrolling, not call us into a life of virtue. Conversely, a culture of readers—of literature, specifically—will look to stories and prose, truth and beauty, rather than clickbait and celebrities for the moral wisdom that forms our will.

Reading and the Moral Form of Literature

Literary language, in particular, is language that still reflects the meaning, nuance, and complexity of our experiences and the moral vision that arises from those experiences. While social media can lead us to form connections, they lack the literary techniques that illuminate the mystery of our human bonds and tether those bonds to reality. For those connections to become deep relationships, we need to embrace the reading life as a practice in clarifying our moral vision.

Reading, particularly reading literature, elevates the human experience and perceives the moral weight of experience. In Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls the novel “a morally controversial form, expressing in its very shape and style, in its mode of interaction with its readers, a normative sense of life.” Literature strengthens our moral vision by engaging us as receptive readers rather than through interrogation as interlocutors, as social media are wont to do.

Reading literature teaches us how to engage in substantive moral dialogue because it expresses ideas through the concrete world itself. Flannery O’Connor reminds us in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose“The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.” Abstractions sever ideas from experience. Fiction, however, magnifies experience and calls us to notice reality before we begin trying to advance an opinion or a message. Reading enables us to develop the attention, critical and creative thinking, and good judgment that direct how we understand images and content on social media. Readers become better social media users when they can judge content based on its truth rather than its entertainment value.

Read more at The Public Discourse 

Share with Friends: