In moral philosophy, specifically in respect to virtue ethics, you’ll find Plato’s Republic and its classic thought experiment, “The Ring of Gyges”.
As Socrates debates the nature of moral virtue with Glaucon, the myth of the ring is brought to bear in defence of Claucon’s argument that we do what’s moral only to protect ourselves from any social and legal consequences. If these were taken away from us, then pretty soon we would begin to break the societal moral standards for the sake of our own interests.
Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia. After an earthquake, a cave was revealed in a mountainside where he was feeding his flock. Entering the cave, he discovered that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse containing a corpse, larger than that of a man, who wore a golden ring, which he took for himself. He discovered that the ring gave him the power to become invisible by adjusting it. He then arranged to be chosen as one of the messengers who reported to the king as to the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he used his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murdered the king, and became king of Lydia himself.
Although Socrates (or Plato using Socrates as cipher for his own thoughts) famously offers a less depressing alternative view, in that there is more at play in satisfying the higher and more benevolent pleasures versus the base pleasures of our desires, and indeed through his tripartite theory of the soul, man has rationality and spirit, as well as desire through which he acts upon, it nevertheless brought into my mind one thing. One phenomenon.
To a certain extent you can become Gyges on Twitter. It removes your identity, and offers anonymity. A twist of the ring and you can become invisible.
Does this (partial at least) invisibility encourage less ethical behaviour? The concept of internet “Trolls” certainly points in that direction. As a result of social media we have this addition to our lexicon.
I’m reminds me of an amusing story that appeared on Jeremy Vine’s BBC Radio 2 talk show about 3 or 4 years ago:
A Twitter “Troll” started sending 140 character episodes of abuse at a boxer who had recently lost a fight. At first mocking his defeat, the abuse went on to become nasty, even going so far as to threaten the boxer’s family. The harassed and insulted boxer became very angry and anxious no doubt, and retweeted all this abuse to his own connections, pleading for them to help him identify the perpetrator of these abusive tweets. His connections obliged, as the boxer happened, by chance, to know someone who knew the perpetrators handle. He identified him, and the boxer then used the internet to work out where the troll actually lived!
In his act of revenge, the boxer tweeted the troll street view pictures of where he (the boxer) was located as he gradually descended upon the troll’s physical location. The troll’s prior bravado instantly evaporated! He apologised. He begged. He pleaded. He apologised again. He asked for forgiveness. He cried.
What happened next was pretty amazing. When the boxer met the troll on his doorstep in person, following the initial exchange, things became civil. The boxer accepted the apology, forgave the troll, and went so far as to quite like the guy. For the trolls part he explained that he somehow lost a sense of what he was doing, became bored, and for some reason not even considered the harm he was causing. He believed he’d acted completely out of character, not even really recognising his own actions.
Both characters in this story retold it on the Radio, and took questions on the exchange and subsequent encounter with reality from listeners.
Another thought experiment related to moral dilemmas, that the Ring of Gyges reminded me of, is commonly referred to as the “Trolley Problem”, and it goes like this:
There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?
Most people when asked this question elect option 2, killing the 1 person as opposed to the 5 tied up on the track.
However, when the same problem is posed a different way:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
A far fewer number would elect to proceed here from the same set as those who would have chosen option 2 above.
But why, when the results are the same?
Because you are removed from the machinery. You are making the physical contact yourself. It is more visceral. Your agency is more direct, and therefore you naturally feel a far greater degree of responsibility.
Assume then that the internet is the machinery. Technology offers layers and layers of anonymity removing you as the operator from the results of your actions.
Technology allows you to bomb strategic locations in faraway lands from the comfort of a desk in the same conditions under which you’d play a computer game. Only unseen by you, its a real Reaper drone, real missiles, real villagers, and real limbs.
Technology allows you to generate and perpetuate fake news and conspiracy theories, empowering many with a degree of influence they would otherwise never have in the real world.
Technology allows you to throw insults and threats at strangers, groups, or communities without any real threat of punishment or social stigma.
Of course most people act responsibly and ethically, and many that don’t are suffering from psychological issues that cause them to act in these less than ethical ways.
Back to Plato, these people are responding immediately to their desires and the rational component is not acting properly as the controlling mechanism.
I think in many respects Twitter is the digital equivalent to the Ring of Gyges. I’m not sure we can seduce the queen, kill the king, and take his throne…. But it’s certainly possible to achieve unethical results without suffering the social or legal consequences of the analog world.
Maybe we should always visualise the whites of that boxers eyes before committing those thoughts to that keyboard. Assume that whatever you commit to the ether can be said aloud and within striking distance of the recipient. Assume that when twisting the ring of Gyges, that a vengeful karma demon may see you.
After all, trust in an invisibility ring didn’t work out too well for Isildur!