Twitter and Facebook Addictive? New Boundaries for Temperance

Those who have come across posts from my Facebook author page, my Twitter feed, or my other blog Virtue Ethics Digest, know that I have a penchant for pointing out instances where results of research publicized by putatively cutting-edge brain scientists, psychologists, or other cognitive and social scientists do little more than reintroduce -- often without adequate reference or reflection -- topics and truths developed long ago within traditions of moral philosophy, particularly those traditions we term "Virtue Ethics."

Perhaps I seem overly gleeful at the prospect of showing -  or rather showing up -the supposedly more scientific approaches to the complex phenomena of moral life that their objects of research possess a history antedating their perennial efforts to yet once again pronounce the definitive word on the matters. It's hard not to when researchers routinely say things straightfacedly like "Little is known about how people experience and regulate desires in daily life"  -- as if human beings haven't been experiencing, reflecting upon, discussing, proposing and testing models, and occasionally even experiencing some success with these matters for millennia -- and in some cases even writing some things down about them, a few ideas considered useful, insightful, or at least entertaining enough that we read them still today under the rubric of "classic literature," even moral philosophy.

What really motivates me, however -- well, at least a far as I'm genuinely aware of my own desires in such affairs -- is a somewhat more complicated mix:  assimilating what genuinely valuable results or insights the scientific effort has contributed within a broader, more robust framework of moral theory; bringing the new perspective or problems articulated by the younger discipline to bear on the long-established doctrines and distinctions of the moral theory, usually, for me, Virtue Ethics; and, arguing the continued relevance of Virtue Ethics to those whose education thus far has included less of that tradition's texts and thinkers than one would hope for them.  And those are precisely my aims in turning to some recent studies about indulgences, pleasures, activities, and addictions.

Social Media, Self-Control, and Addiction

Another set of pleasurable and potentially addictive activities made the news this week: Twittering and Facebooking.  One of the more interesting pieces discussing research on social media was published in IT World, but short articles in the Guardian and BostInno also usefully flesh out the background of the studies about Twitter, Facebook, and self-control.

It's revealing to see that both researchers and reporters seem bent on framing the matter primarily in terms of self-control and addiction -- specifically a broader disorder of "internet addiction" -- or alternately in more or less economic-analogous conceptions of "costs."  It's not surprising.  Addiction seems a relatively easy concept to work with and thereby understand matters of desire, temptation, resistance, and giving in, as do now-popular notions like "will-power depletion."

As a side-note, academics aren't the only ones thinking about internet or social media activity in terms of desires, failure to resist, and addiction.  Balancing out a Facebook site specifically devoted to "warning signs" of Twitter addiction is a Twitter site called Facebook Addiction.  You can even take a test for whether you are addicted to Facebook (my score?  65% addicted) or Twitter (only 54%) on the comic site Oatmeal.

In the very way the Twitter-focused social media-focused study was designed by Wilhelm Hofmann's (the author of the quip cited above) team of researchers surveyed participants in ways leading almost just up to, right up to the threshold of a moral theoretical perspective.  They were provided Blackberries, with which the researchers would periodically check in with them throughout their days, asking them whether they were
experiencing a desire at that moment or had experienced one within the last 30 minutes, what type it was, the strength (up to irresistible), whether it conflicted with other desires and whether they resisted or went along with it.
It's interesting that the 205 participants, all located near Wurzburg, were asked about these matters, not about whether and how -- let alone for what reasons -- they decided to resist, or even to indulge their desires, nor about any degrees, qualifications, or other limits placed upon their desires for particular pleasures.

Moral Philosophy's Contribution

Those sorts of questions -- and the moral realities they ask about -- are much harder to come up with means for quantifying and counting, require yet more explanation to participants (and understanding by researches), and might be more difficult to get straight answers about --so they're not very amenable to social scientific methods or mindsets.  But those dimensions, ignored or treated rather reductively by a scientific approach (in a study dubiously claimed as the "first to monitor such responses 'in the wild' outside a laboratory"), are of central importance if one aims at or makes claims about a genuinely adequate understanding of these matters -- of human beings as they actually are, as moral agents, with all the complexity, ambiguity, murkiness and mystery that entails.

In order to do justice to that overarching, encompassing moral dimension, we have to employ not only social science, but also introspection, experimentation, a different sort of empirical observation, and to learn from those others who engaged in those processes, participated and contributed to an ongoing conversation about it.  We have to look to moral philosophy -- and in these matters,  to classic proponents of Virtue Ethics, I think -- to inform and frame our study and thinking, because these specific kinds of desires, giving in to or resisting such desires, the patterns, the motivations, the justifications, the evaluations of one's choices only become fully intelligible when understood in terms long ago found or forged for them -- in terms of the virtue of temperance or moderation.

Temperance for Plato -- at least in the Republic, where unlike in the aporetic dialogue Charmides, he develops a clear picture of what that virtue does and consists in -- has to do mainly with the bodily desires for physical pleasures, like eating, drinking, sex, and comfort, but also seemingly with desires for other things like money, watching spectacles, listening to music, even the concerns of those obsessed with all things horsey.  Plato articulates a clear realization that temperance is a matter of imposing, acknowledging, abiding by limits applying first to one's visible actions, second to the enjoyment of pleasures (the action's objects), third to the very course of desires motivating the actions and driving towards the object of pleasure.  His account advances the understanding of this process of limitation and disciplining beyond that of his own culture -- indeed beyond most of ours --in several ways.

First, while establishing these boundaries required for temperance initially occurs because the person in whom temperance is to be established looks to societal norms (or rather ideals), for approval from others, to avoid punishment or obtain rewards, at some point the regulation, the tempering must come from within -- from, as Plato tells us, other parts of the person's soul or personality.  It is not just a matter of desires blocking other desires, but of reason advising, of the spirited part of the soul intervening.

Second, if a person is to become genuinely temperate, temperance becomes their good -- both instrumentally and intrinsically.  At a certain point, the control over and freedom in relation to one's desires is recognized as a good worthy of possession for its own sake, not just for the sake of other inducements it brings or renders possible.  The temperate person enjoys behaving -- and being -- temperately. 

Third, Plato makes it clear that at each moment in our lives, when desires arise, when pleasures present themselves, when temptations occur, we are presented with an opportunity -- but also an inescapable choice.  impose and follow -- or at least intend and attempt  -- limits, reasonable limits (whose full rationality may not be entirely apparent in the moment).  Virtue is cultivated in a kind of cumulative process

Aristotle's analyses of temperance in his Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics surpass Plato's in contributing to a fuller understanding of that specific virtue, its associated vices, and their similarities to and differences from the states of enkratia and akrasia, self-control and its lack.  He does, however, take one step backwards -- or perhaps a step too far -- by deliberately restricting the scope of the virtue of temperance, the vice of intemperance, and the rarer vice of insensibility principally to pleasures of food, drink, and sex.

While many will gladly incorporate Aristotle's finer and more systematic descriptions of moral phenomena, most later virtue ethicists will not follow him in his restrictive move away from Plato's wider range of objects of pleasure and desire relevant to, and in need of regulation by, temperance.  Thomas Aquinas -- whose thought I merely want to mention rather than explore here -- provides a prime example in widening temperance's ambit to engulf even the vices and virtues bearing on anger, a complex emotional reaction Aristotle thought worthy of its own distinctive virtues and vices. 

I think that is on the whole the right move to make -- otherwise, why note these studies about desires associated with Facebook or Twitter, and why suggest that the social science research represents only baby steps taken into footprints left by moral philosophers who would more adequately frame these matters in terms of temperance and intemperance, self-control, and its lack?  Why advance the notion that social science do decent work in putting more issues on the table, placing more items on the agenda, shedding a spotlight on matters, or aspects of matters, that we might ordinarily take for granted or overlook -- with which then it's up to those who have been trained in and embraced the discipline of thinking these matters out further, more systematically, critically, contextually to do precisely that?

I'll end here by simply noting what the study about desires brought to light about its human subjects in that time-frame, and thereby suggested for the rest of us human beings:  Internet use -- particularly social media -- is just as much a matter of desires and pleasures as are other attractors or experiences with which we struggle.  These activities can develop desires as strong as, or even stronger than those we more readily think of in terms of self-control, will-power, even (hopefully) the character one's choices make for oneself.

"[T]he urge to log into social networking sites was stronger than almost any other urge – including the urge for a cigarette, coffee, food or alcohol." Some of the other desires contrasted in the study include "sports inclinations, sexual urges, and spending impulses," and more global desires for work and leisure.  All of these are well worth thinking about in Virtue Ethics terms of temperance and self-control, but social media may be a bit more pressing, precisely because of its perceived innocuousness and ubiquity.  On that note, I'll leave Hofmann the last word: "Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not 'cost much' to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist."