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Evil Online and the Moral Fog

The following is based on a brief presentation at the launch of Evil Online, by Dean Cocking and Jeroen van den Hoven and published by Wiley-Blackwell, in Bendigo, Australia, on 20 September 2018. It was an honour and a pleasure to be invited to speak, and I thank Dean for the opportunity.

Evil Online is a timely and very important book. It begins with the story of Jeronimus Cornelisz, a merchant from Haarlem who in 1628 set sail on the ship Batavia, bound for the East Indies. Cornelisz and others planned a mutiny, but before they could carry it out the ship was wrecked off Western Australia, and Cornelisz became the leader of a community of about 150 people on what was in effect a desert island. He then initiated a reign of terror, involving the murder of over 120 of these people. Why did he do that, and how could he have done it? Any answer to those questions will involve talking about him, and about his environment, and the authors’ point is that the same questions arise about the terrible things that some people do through the internet – such as, to use one of their early examples, hacking into an epilepsy website and inserting flashing images with the intention of causing seizures in those who view them.

The book is significant for several reasons. One is that Cocking and van den Hoven have identified something of a moral elephant in the room. The internet has developed amazingly quickly, but it’s been an incremental process and to some extent we are like the proverbial frogs (rather than elephants) in the pan of water who haven’t noticed that the temperature may well be approaching boiling point.

The second reason is really a corollary of the first. Philosophers are mostly as unimaginative and unperceptive as anyone else, and a quick look at the topics discussed in the major philosophical journals, including those specializing in ethics, reveals that the internet hardly features. In a sense, most of us – even those who don’t actually use the internet much – are in what the authors call a ‘moral fog’ about the internet itself. We’re too busy thinking about other things to have noticed just how radically it is changing us, our children, our lives, and our world. Recently I was involved in a project in so-called ‘positive psychology’, which among other things was investigating the effects of online life. One of the main findings of the research might have been expected – that people tend to be happiest when they’re socializing with other real people right there in front of them, particularly their family and friends. But another result was a surprise: people were asked to score the time they were actually using their devices – their phones, iPads, and so on – and the scores came out negative. In other words, people were saying being online was worse than nothing. Why do they keep logging on, then? One obvious reason is addiction and habit, and Paul Dolan – the Professor of Behavioural Science leading the project – said something to me I found quite chilling: that in about ten years, people will view the access to the internet we now allow for our children as equivalent to the access children were given to tobacco when it was first brought back from the new world.

For those of you who haven’t yet read the book – and of course you all must! – here’s a quick summary of what it covers. The first chapter brings out the range of problems with the internet, quite independently of the fraud and so on that occurs with cybercrime: malicious harm (as in the epilepsy case); catfishing, where people deceive others through assuming false identities; pranks; websites facilitating suicide, anorexia, and other mental health problems; revenge porn; extreme politics; and the list goes on, and on …

Chapter two talks about the online environment, and some of its main features: its addictiveness; its capacity for focusing on each of us as individuals, through targeted ads, news, links and so on; the way it encourages us to associate with others like us; its ‘unreality’, and its encouraging in us a false sense of our own autonomy and control; the isolation it causes, with consequent lack of empathy. This takes us into a third chapter, which brings out how the internet is transforming our social lives, and threatening some of our core values: autonomy, privacy, civility, intimacy, trust. Cocking and van den Hoven are especially good at remembering how our moral characters are socially grounded, the result of educative practices that have developed over millennia to enable us to function through co-operation rather than short-sighted and short-term competition. Somehow, those practices are failing properly to prepare many of us for the internet, and we do things online that we’d never dream of doing offline, in the ‘real world’.

Why is that? This is the topic of the central chapter of the book, on the ‘moral fog’ of the internet. The internet environment causes us to be blind to morally salient features of what we’re doing, screening off our moral understanding. The technology distances us from the people we are harming, and the moral authorities that provide us with guidance are no longer our parents, our teachers, ordinary role models, but our internet ‘friends’ – and if they admire us for our pranks, then surely they must be OK? This is one of the deep issues facing us which the book exposes: how we can we create a social moral authority for the internet? And the final chapter of the book, on the fate of our moral life, raises that question in the context of law, regulation, education, and social conventions.

I see Evil Online as in the same tradition as Hannah Arendt’s crucially important book The Banality of Evil, which attempted to explain and characterize the behaviour of apparently ‘ordinary’ people – rather than probable psychopaths like Himmler – in the Holocaust. As Cocking and van den Hoven note, whether their idea of a moral fog is a development of the banality thesis or something entirely new doesn’t matter much, since even if it is a development they are taking it further and using the idea of a moral fog to elucidate the way that the online environment we are in can make us insensitive to moral facts we’re otherwise perfectly capable of recognizing. Certainly the particular mechanisms of totalitarianism identified by Arendt aren’t straightforwardly going to explain evil online, but the general issues at stake do have similarities. How is it that Eichmann and the non-psychopathic perpetrators of evil online come to ignore their duty, or arrive at such a distorted view of what duty requires?

The book is also in some ways analogous to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, first published in 1651, in which Hobbes tries to explain how the natural state of human beings is amoral – a war of all against all – and how morality can be seen as a human creation enabling us to escape that state and build a civilization. The online world is something like a state of nature, but the difference between the Hobbesian situation and our own is that we already have a morality. The puzzle is how to disperse the fog, and it is a puzzle we need urgently to think about before it is too late and the fog begins to thicken and drift even further than it is already doing from the online into the real world.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. “websites facilitating suicide”

    Step 1: Ban the good suicide methods by law.
    Step 2: Censor or demonize information about the remaining suicide methods.
    Step 3: Never fail to mention suicide as an exit option when you need it hypocritically to defend natalism or anti-aging drugs.

    One infamous example is Bryan Caplan’s deceitful framing of life as a freely disposable good in defense of his natalist extremism:

    Another recent example is a youtube video of Adam Ford defending anti-aging research on the grounds that if you don’t like living any longer, you can always opt for assisted suicide or step in front of a truck:

    These are just two examples of many that use suicide as a reason why people aren’t supposed to complain about having been born, or fear technologies that can keep them alive against their will. As usual, neither of these two advocated actually defended suicide as an actual legal right.

    And if we complain about it, we are the villains. If we point out the inconsistency, nothing changes for the better. If we demand we actually have the actual liberty, we get insulted, mocked and we receive crude imperatives to kill ourselves with the remaining bad methods that weren’t banned yet. “Kill yourself” also frequently crops up in population debates. Also without defending the right to a self-chosen death.

    People are vicious and hypocritical, and this needs to have consequences on our evaluation on the value of human life in general. It certainly informed my view. The internet is not the cause, merely an amplifier and in many cases, it strips away people’s hypocritical masks to show us their true nature. There is an honesty in that.

  2. As exciting as the Batavia horror story, analagous with Leviathan : sounds like quite a book !
    Perhaps we should all get ourselves a copy, but judging from your précis, it might be good to revise Hume on induction before accepting what appear to be sweeping generalisations from selective observations concerning « the » (?) internet …..

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