What happens to virtue in an age of social media?

In the old days, we used to be able to travel and meet in person to discuss interesting and important issues in theology and ministry. During that time, I hosted several Festivals of Theology, at which we heard seven or eight fascinating presentations on a range of subjects. This is a revised version of Alastair Robert’s presentation on virtue ethics in a virtual age and offers a brilliant insight into the dynamics of social media and their impact on discipleship.

I am reposting it now because of recent debates about the use of social media, because stresses on social media appear to have become more intense during the Covid lockdown, and because of the proposal by some that ‘virtual’ church can be the equivalent of meeting in person. Alastair’s observations about the presentation of the self on social media offer important insights into all these questions.

The Promise of Virtue Ethics

Over recent decades, partly through the influence of theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, there has been a renewed appreciation for the concept of virtue in Protestant ethics. Not least because of its attention to the moral agent, the questions of character, and its formation in community, virtue ethics has often represented a welcome movement away from grand yet abstract theories of ethics.

These abstract theories were often, perhaps stereotypically, preoccupied with ethical conundrums that have little relevance to our actual lives. While we can all be amused by far-fetched iterations of the trolley problem, they seldom help us much with the issues that are most immediate to our lives. In contrast to such theories, virtue ethics has tended to encourage greater attention to the integration of the self with community and of action with character. In the work of Hauerwas, this has taken the form of a pronounced particularism, with the church as the community of virtue and an emphasis upon the role of liturgy and scripture in the task of formation.

More recently, writers such as James K.A. Smith have popularized a form of virtue ethics in relation to the discussion of Christian formation, emphasizing the importance of the formation of desires and imaginations through ‘liturgies’. Smith maintains that we need to be mindful of the embodied and imaginative dispositions and habits that shape our Christian belief and practice. We must also seek to address and correct these through healthful forms of practice within the Church.

Although it is limited and should not be the only tool in our toolbox, a virtue ethics approach helpfully foregrounds the question of the sort of people that we ought to be. While many other moral systems concern themselves chiefly with decisions, virtue ethics takes a broader perspective, calling us to attend to our practices, habits, desires, imaginations, to the communities, rituals, and other forces shaping them, and to the character that arises from them.

Community and Virtue

In reflecting upon the significance of social media, many commentators, both Christian and non-Christian, have naturally been drawn to the sorts of language and frameworks afforded by virtue ethics, even when they may not have realized it. Such commentators recognize that social media encourages certain sorts of communities and that it is structuring and forming us, often in disquieting ways. For instance, many have observed that being on social media has led them and others of their acquaintance to become more short-tempered, anxious, distracted, fractious, ungracious, and unkind.

In both the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, Aristotle highlights the connection between the self and the city. Virtue is formed in the political community that is ordered towards the good. We need to be educated and habituated in community if we are to achieve virtue.

In contrast, largely on account of our modern individualistic society, we can often approach the task of ethics as if we were detached, self-grounded, heroic selves, leaving us forgetful of the part played by our structures, systems, and social orders in shaping the our selves and characters and in orienting us towards the good. As we reflect upon social media, virtue ethics can foster an attentiveness to salient features of our contemporary ethical landscape that other approaches may miss or neglect. In particular, the insights of virtue ethics enable us to appreciate certain of the radical changes social media occasions in the ways we form communities, in our practices of expression, discourse, and association, and in the structuring of selves.

Social Media and the Represented Self

I want briefly to draw your attention to just a few of the ways in which both our experience and the very character of the ethical self are structured by the rising prominence of social media environments. My hope is to encourage you to think about some of the ways in which social media shape your understanding, experience, and expression of your self and the ethical practice that arises from these. Alert to the concerns of virtue ethics, specific features of social media and the environments it harbours will be set forth in a sharper relief.

When people talk about the formation of the self, they typically have in mind the education of the self into moral values and practices, orienting and shaping the self towards good ends. The formation of the self on social media runs deeper, though, which is why I use the term ‘structuring’ to distinguish it. The self of social media can take numerous different forms, but, to some degree or other, each of these forms is structured by the more fundamental reality and form of the technologies themselves.

While human beings have always used various media for expressing themselves, these media have historically largely been secondary and peripheral, with the self principally being defined in the realm of concrete social interactions in what some have more recently termed ‘meatspace’. The physical body was the primary medium of the self. Even secondary media often functioned as extensions and expressions of this physicality, rather than mere substitutes for it. If you received a handwritten letter, for instance, you are handling a physical product of someone’s physical activity.

The novelty of the Internet and of social media in particular lies in the extent to which our selves and communities are migrating to a realm of representations, spectacle, and simulation, virtual realms that are steadily replacing many aspects of the realities. As the French philosopher Guy Debord wrote in the 1960s, observing the direction society was heading even in his own day: ‘Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.’

The ‘self’ on social media is primarily a represented self, an artifice or projection, constrained by the media in which it operates. You can be whoever you want on Facebook, provided you express that self in the structures that Facebook affords you. For instance, whatever self you express, that self will exist within a framework that is designed to make you scrutable to algorithms and marketable to advertisers.

The Strangeness of the Social Media Self

If we were to describe the self of social media, how might we do so? Here are a few of the features that we might observe.

First, it is disembodied. On social media we exist as images and words largely abstracted from our physicality. The concreteness, friction, locality, and particularity of the body are all effaced or overcome. Our bodies are sedentary, parked in ungainly postures before screens that occupy the entirety of our attention, upon which we communicate our disembodied consciousness to other disembodied consciousnesses, forgetful and neglectful of our physicality.

Second, it is atomized and decontextualized. On social media, the self is deracinated, uprooted from context and community, and fundamentally functions as a detached individual, defined by its own choices. What notion of ‘locality’ remains is thin and fragile. Families, neighbourhoods, churches, and other such communities are all almost invisible or non-existent on social media. Everything is ordered around the context-free individual.

Third, it is rendered as a spectacle. The self on social media is a projection or representation of the self. While we are always presenting ourselves in particular ways in our day-to-day life, such self-presentation is always grounded in and constrained by our physicality, contexts, and behaviour; online, however, these things fall away and all becomes representation. A consequence of this can be an extreme reflexivity, as we become highly sensitized to and concerned with the image we are projecting of ourselves and how others are perceiving it.

I have previously compared this to a society in which no one has ever seen their face in a mirror or reflective surface before. After the introduction of the mirror to such a society, people would swiftly become acutely aware of the way that they appear to others and the image they are projecting. The reflected image would increasingly start to structure person’s relation to themselves. In place of the self-knowledge resulting from the self-relation developed in true solitude, we can substitute the self-relation that is mediated by virtual self-representations. An introspective self-relation made possible by solitude is displaced by an extrospective self-relation, where social perceptions of the represented self begin to assume a far greater prominence, leaving us much more vulnerable to peer pressure and to others’ negative judgments of us.

The phenomenon of ‘virtue-signalling’, for instance, is something that we all almost inescapably engage in online, as all our statements are self-representations or personal brand management to a degree that they are not in regular in-person conversations. The online self is hyper-performative, creating itself in its acts of representing itself.

Fourth, the social media self is submerged in socially-saturated environments of mutual display, yet lacks both true community and genuine solitude. It does not truly belong anywhere, yet it also lacks robust self-definition. Such a self is highly susceptible to external influence and pressure, as it is without both the external and the internal rootedness to resist the movements of the crowd.

Fifth, the social media self is the cookie-cutter self of the universal individual, variously cosmetically customized as a means of self-representation. Online, the rich variegation of real world selves is lost as all selves are rendered fundamentally comparable and commensurable. Many aspects of our humanity are obscured or rendered invisible as a result. Age, authority, family, disability, poverty, neighbourhood, and other such things are all difficult to perceive on social media, where every profile is much like every other.

Sixth, no longer embedded and grounded in community, online the self can become a consumer of community. The givenness of community, a sort of gravity that grounds the self, is lost. Individual choice becomes the overriding principle governing everything and is no longer held in check by strong belonging. Yet the power of community lies largely in its unchosen character, and in the ways in which it can form us to choose differently.

When detached individuals are radically free to choose communities that fit their preferences, the power of the different characters and perspectives of our unchosen neighbours to challenge and broaden our own perspectives and to knock the rough edges off our characters can be forfeited. Without the powerful balancing and stabilizing presence of such unchosen neighbours, virtual communities can become far more extreme and unbalanced people can easily find others to reinforce them in their problems, gradually inuring them to the influence of loving friends and neighbours who might shepherd them back to health.

Seventh, the social media self is a commoditized self, a self that is sold to advertisers, a self that can be measured, manipulated, and ordered. It is a self that is conformable to the logic of technique.

Eighth, the social media self is fragilized, uprooted, and deracinated. It functions in highly pluralistic contexts, within which it is—or at least feels—subject to intense social judgment. Such selves tend to be reactive and easily threatened. People talk a lot about ‘echo chambers’ online. However, increasingly research is showing that echo chambers don’t generally exist. Rather, the problem is that, as we feel threatened in contexts of repeated exposure to people with whom we differ, we rapidly become reactive and polarized.

Finally, where lots of atomized and uprooted selves interact in realms where contexts are weak, or have collapsed into each other, where the boundaries or friction between people have been lost, one of the predictable results is the rise of herd dynamics. Where human beings cease to function in well-structured communities, they tend to act like the undifferentiated mass or herd. As René Girard and others have noted, when people become undifferentiated in such ways, we become reactive and the scapegoat mechanism often comes into play.

Virtue and the Virtual

What does all of this have to do with virtue and virtue ethics? If we are to think well about the formation of the self, it is imperative that we consider the structural framing of the self on social media. We must recognize the character of the virtual self as a representation and reflect upon the unhealthy relationships that can develop between this self and our immediate embodied and localized selves.

In our conversations about virtue ethics, it is easy to take the fundamental reality of the self for granted and to focus more narrowly upon the question of the best way in which to form this self. Yet, before the self can be properly formed, it needs to be structured. An uncritical posture towards the reality of selfhood in social media leaves us ill-equipped to understand the fracturing and fragilization of the self that many people experience in this realm. The rising prominence of the virtual representation of the self on social media is an event that merits the close attention of virtue ethicists.

Within this talk, I have tried to take the necessary initial step of increasing our mindfulness of the ways in which our selves are structured and ethically formed in the realms of social media. The emphasis that virtue ethics places upon community for the formation of the self in virtue needs to be considered when approaching social media. What might a virtual community of virtue look like? If social media is, as I have argued, a realm where we lack both the capacity to be genuinely together and the capacity to be alone, what does this mean for the formation of virtue? It must also be considered that, unlike the Aristotelian polis, social media isn’t a political community intentionally ordered towards virtue and the common good, but rather is an impersonal technological framework or set of platforms, continually being optimized for ends that are frequently contrary or entirely indifferent to our moral and social well-being.

A Crippling Freedom

As people feel the ways in which their habits and characters are being poorly formed by social media, many resort to heroic moral individualism. The individual user of social media simply needs to increase their mindfulness, redouble their efforts, develop personal strategies of resistance, etc. Now, such an approach may be our only means of pursuing something approximating to well-being in many situations. However, the true development of virtue requires community. The problem is that online community is either weak or disordered and we often have no more robust, resilient, and substantive alternative community to assist us. This leaves us struggling to pursue virtue well.

The Internet and social media hold out to us the possibility of radical freedom and the removal of limitations and boundaries. Yet each freedom it affords us seems to be attended by new forms of bondage. The collapsing of boundaries, the removal of obstacles, the elimination of friction, the extension of possibilities, the amplification of powers, the speeding up of processes, the vanishing of distances, and the overcoming of the constraints of the body all promised liberation, yet we find ourselves the victims of new habits, vices, frustrations, fears, pressures, powers, and limits.

Virtue ethics can help us to understand why this might be the case. The development of virtue and the freedom that comes with a well-formed character, with a nature ordered towards our good, requires limits, boundaries, and authority. The removal of these things will not leave us freer, but will leave us at the mercy of untamed appetites.

A Hopeful Conclusion?

Social media isn’t going to go away, nor are the problems that I have outlined. Indeed, we should expect many of them to be exacerbated in the future. In light of the problems I have highlighted, we might be tempted to abandon social media altogether. This would not be an irrational move for some to make. Social media presents many dangers and many of us may not be able to resist them effectively. Highly selective use of social media or more general or periodic abstaining from them may do us good. Indeed, we may well be better off in communities where many, yet not all, members largely abstain from social media. We need to learn how to resist the inevitability and imperative of technological progress, which requires our uncritical capitulation to every supposed advance; our belief that no other realistic possibility exists to relatively unqualified adoption of each new technology can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, the positive opportunities presented by social media are vast and those who abstain from them on grounds of principle don’t merely avoid certain dangers, but also miss out on much that is good. Besides, ‘directly lived’ society is no longer just there waiting for us to return to it: its members and activities have increasingly relocated to the virtual, leaving it to languish in their neglect and absence. While we should seek to revive such society, even achieving this will require engagement with the virtual.

Rather than simply rejecting social media, which would require both disengaging from our neighbours and the forfeiting of remarkable opportunities, we must, I believe, be inventive and imaginative users and creators of social media, considering ways in which we can make the most of the technological possibilities, without succumbing to the unhealthy tendencies. Achieving this, however, will require the coordination of the efforts of robust communities, rather than simply the individual brilliance of moral mavericks.

If we recognize the insufficiency of social media for supporting communities of virtue and the dysfunctionality of a selfhood pursued in such a realm of shallow representations, we will receive a salutary caution against placing too much weight upon it. However, this does not mean that we need abandon it altogether. The image that I have often returned to is that of scaffolding. Social media, at its best, can be scaffolding that enables us to build up, strengthen, and extend community in the concrete, physical world of localities and bodies. Scaffolding is a completely unsuitable place to make one’s home, but is a very effective tool for extending it and building it up. An event such as this Festival of Theology is a great example of such a use of social media in action, where social media has been used to create concrete and directly lived connections and interactions where they would not otherwise have existed.

Finally, healthy use of social media will be nigh impossible where users are not deeply embedded in robust and weighty communities of virtue that are concrete, physical, and local. The need for such communities is so much greater when we are subject to powerful forces pulling us towards abstraction, atomization, and alienation. Strong communities ground us and equip us with the necessary habits, virtues, and disciplines to navigate contexts that are unable to form the virtues that healthy users of them require. The Church must be such a community for Christians, firmly tethering them to a stable and secure reality, lest in an unchecked ascent into the abstract airiness of social media they were to float away entirely. To use a different metaphor, it is like the boat from which oxygen can be pumped to submerged divers, preventing them from drowning in the abyss, and providing them with somewhere safe to which they can resurface.

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8 thoughts on “What happens to virtue in an age of social media?”

  1. Thanks so much for this Paul. I hadn’t come across Alsdair on this before – this is gold. Just about the most important thing I’ve read during the lockdown. All churches need to hear this. As you say, the pandemic has merely accelerated changes that were already happening. Thanks!

  2. I enjoyed this a lot and I would add in what we can learn from St Benedict and the whole monastic tradition of stable communities as places where we learn virtue not by being with the ones we choose but by discovering the gifts the other brings who is different from us. This is also in part what parish church should be about as it draws together people in a local area who submit to the discipline not to choose who they will be with.

  3. This is a profound and timely post. It concerns me greatly that online worship is becoming more than a temporary replacement for what I call incarnational worship; that which involves the totality of being. When I hear or read of clergy pontificating about ” the welfare and health of our people” , my immediate response is : what do they mean by “welfare”; what do the mean by “health”? On more than one occasion the response can be reduced to the slogan “safety first”. Clearly online worship meets that need . But it does meet the call of Jesus Christ to take up our cross daily and follow him!
    I am old enough to remember the time when Marshall McLuhan burst on to the world academic stage with the mantra “the medium is the message”. Is that word of prophesy coming to fruition in our own age?

    • Apologies -an acute attack of lockdown amnesia. I shall rewrite my contribution.

      This is a profound and timely post. It concerns me greatly that online worship is, in some quarters, becoming more than a temporary replacement for what I call incarnational worship; namely that which involves the totality of our being. Lately, I have encountered clerical pronouncements using terms such as “welfare” as the primary justification for lockdown. Unquestionably resorting to lockdown is undergirded by strong logic but in my experience, for a growing number of people, “welfare” is in reality to be understood as “safety first” – following the guidelines but without filtering them through the lens of scripture! For a variety of reasons, there are those who are beginning to see online worship as the norm, and it has to be said, worship that sometimes incorporates uplifting sermons but without presenting the challenge to take up our cross to follow Christ. In the gospel context, welfare does not primarily mean maintaining an ongoing comfortable middle class existence. It incorporates a willingness to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the One who has given all for us and remembering in prayer, for example, our brothers and sisters worldwide; suffering persecution and death for Christ.For them, welfare and worshipand the issues of communication belong to a different cosmic plane.

  4. This is a very good paper, but I wonder whether some of the criticisms of what social media does to the self are over-stated?

    Theologians who specialise in digital culture such as Pete Phillips would certainly take issue with the idea that we are disembodied selves on social media. Maybe we are ‘less embodied’, but ‘disembodied’ (along with similar claims to be ‘disincarnate’ made by people such as Michael Frost and Paul Blackham) is surely over-egging it.

    Likewise, the claims to deracination. There is much truth here, certainly, that people can become more atomised on social media, but Facebook has afforded me the opportunity to stay in touch with opinion wider than that of my church members in the two villages where the churches I serve have their buildings and centre their ministry. I am also part of a WhatsApp group in our road that was set up for the sake of mutual support when the first lockdown was about to be introduced.

    I also agree that there is a concern with image, that some people craft an ‘Instagram self’, and that this leads to problems, not least depressive tendencies among others who compare themselves unfavourably to an edited account of someone else who seeks to present herself in the best possible light. But that said, there is a place for editing what we are public about. There are things I will not say (or no longer say) about my personal struggles in a social media post, because I don’t know who will pass it onto someone else, and because it has in the past been taken down and used in evidence against me by unscrupulous church members.

    As I say, this is a very good post and there is a lot that must be heard here but given that all the comments so far are uniformly positive I wanted to sound a note of moderation.

  5. I normally love this blog but I’m afraid I find this article severely lacking. It sounds promising. On the face of it what Christian doesn’t want virtue ethics?

    However the following discussion on the subject is so full of assumptions and presuppositions it’s almost impossible to respect it’s integrity. It represents a gloomy fearful view of social media which reminds me deeply of the anti-cinema then anti-pop music discourses I heard in my younger days. All with elements of truth but lacking clear unbiased analysis.

    It makes generalisations for example about social media or liturgy but has no statistical research to back up his opinions. It’s just take my word for it. And my friends’ word. Hearsay? Gossip? But lacks clear examples that would suggest personal experience of the milieu.

    It’s unbalanced, suggesting that social media could possibly be harnessed for good but with little perception of what good it could potentially do let alone what good it’s actually doing in real time in the real world due again to the lack of statistical evidence.

    In my opinion this blog post represents to me the worst dangers of theologians trying to make social comment without reference to the statistical analysis that is readily available in social scientific and psychological research, let alone listening to any opposing point of view like my experience of patient and carer support groups for example, or the pleasure of easily accessible human contact, looking at images of other humans, being able to express opinions freely, the facilitating of communication with kin, friends neighbours and a very wide society indeed. My sister and brother in law who both work extremely long hours fell on texting in it’s earliest days as a family life line.

    He appears to be suggesting that his view of moral virtue can ONLY properly be accessed by “concrete, physical, and local” human contact. While those things are obviously very important I really feel that’s not only not completely true but also a very unhelpful reflection in the current climate. Does it reflect a church leader’s anxiety about what his congregation might be getting up to without him there teaching them every week? Does he trust his congregants – they’ll feel it if he doesn’t. Or maybe he’s reflecting a very real social anxiety of those who were probably moving in a more socially limited church or ‘old fashioned values’ world at seeing first hand what people can be like. They were like that before just on a scale of in the office or pub or fan club or allotment committee meetings.

    Suffering from severe chronic illness, my daughters and I have progressively been abandoned by those who feel that “concrete, physical, and local” is the only way. We couldn’t be present in church or family gatherings but it didn’t occur to people that making the best of a bad job is considerably easier these days. Since the invention of the postal service (at least since Roman times), let alone the telephone and even social media all of which may be less than ideal but which in fact mean that even deep communication of ideas and feelings is perfectly possible (ask any penfriend) and in fact many people are actually quite content with simple gestures of interest and affection. Maybe many social media users are in fact freer than socially limited liturgical event attenders at communicating using emojis, modern day hieroglyphics and more expressive than many traditional British facial expressions ?

    My final concern is why on earth does he need to have to oppose “concrete, physical, and local” against social media? We really do not need such polarisation and alienating attitudes, othering of others, at such a time as this. Surely we need both. I want both. Paul visited AND wrote letters AND asked others for news. We need encouraging to make the most of every opportunity to show love and support to one another. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love, honour one another above yourselves, share one another’s burdens, etc etc may require a little extra imagination at this time but perhaps a little shake up to our comfortable routines to realise we were more attached to the scaffolding than the temple we’re supposed to be making with the living stones!

    Of course there are real concerns that need to be expressed about the current inability to gather as we would like to but I don’t think demonising social media is the best way to go about helping people to navigate their need to make both meaningful as well as superficial social contacts whether in troubled or calmer times.

    • I just want to clarify what I was saying here.

      I didn’t want to say that Alastair Robert was necessarily right or wrong, just that unless we back up our arguments with research and scripture it remains simply an opinion and has no more or less authority than that.

      I do recognise that social media and social isolation can both have very nefarious effects and that the combination could potentially heighten existing societal problems and the writer has made some interesting observations about human behaviour. I would like expert warnings and guidance about this to be expressed in credible terms that won’t undermine the point we’re trying to make.


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