Ethics Explainer: Shame

Flushed cheeks, lowered gaze and an interminable voice in your head criticising your very being. 

Imagine you’re invited to two different events by different friends. You decide to go to one over the other, but instead of telling your friend the truth, you pretend you’re sick. At first, you might be struck with a bit of guilt for lying to your friend. Then, afterwards, they see photos of you from the other event and confront you about it.  

In situations like this, something other than guilt might creep in. You might start to think it’s more than just a mistake; that this lie is a symptom of a larger problem: that you’re a bad, disrespectful person who doesn’t deserve to be invited to these things in the first place. This is the moral emotion of shame. 

Guilt says, “I did something bad”, while shame whispers, “I am bad”.

Shame is a complicated emotion. It’s most often characterised by feelings of inadequacy, humiliation and self-consciousness in relation to ourselves, others or social and cultural standards, sometimes resulting in a sense of exposure or vulnerability, although many philosophers disagree about which of these are necessary aspects of shame. 

One approach to understanding shame is through the lens of self-evaluation, which says that shame arises from a discrepancy between self-perception and societal norms or personal standards. According to this view, shame emerges when we perceive ourselves as falling short of our own expectations or the expectations of others – though it’s unclear to what extent internal expectations can be separated from social expectations or the process of socialisation. 

Other approaches lean more heavily on our appraisal of social expectations and our perception of how we are viewed by others, even imaginary others. These approaches focus on the arguably unavoidably interpersonal nature of shame, viewing it as a response to social rejection or disapproval.  

This social aspect is such a strong part of shame that it can persist even when we’re alone. One way to exemplify this is to draw similarity between shame and embarrassment. Imagine you’re on an empty street and you trip over, sprawling onto the path. If you’re not immediately overcome with annoyance or rage, you’ll probably be embarrassed. 

But there’s no one around to see you, so why? 

Similarly, taking the example we began with, imagine instead that no one ever found out that you lied about being sick. It’s possible you might still feel ashamed. 

In both of these cases, you’re usually reacting to an imagined audience – you might be momentarily imagining what it would feel like if someone had witnessed what you did, or you might have a moment of viewing yourself from the outside, a second of heightened self-awareness. 

Many philosophers who take this social position also see shame as a means of social control – notably among them is Martha Nussbaum, known for her academic career highlighting the importance of emotions in philosophy and life.  

Nussbaum argues that shame is very often ‘normatively distorted’, in that because shame is reactive to social norms, we often end up internalising societal prejudices or unjust beliefs, leading to a sense of shame about ourselves that should not be a source of shame. For example, people often feel ashamed of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability due to societal stigma and discrimination. 

 

Where shame can go wrong

The idea of shame as a prohibitive and often unjust feeling is a sentiment shared by many who work with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, who note that this distortive nature of shame is what prevents many women from coming forward with a report.   

Even in cases where shame seems to be an appropriate response, it often still causes damage. At the Festival of Dangerous Ideas session in 2022, World Without Rape, panellist and journalist Jess Hill described an advertisement she once saw: 

“…a group of male friends call out their mate who was talking to his wife aggressively on the phone. The way in which they called him out came from a place of shame, and then the men went back to having their beers like nothing happened.” Hill encourages us to think: where will the man in the ad take his shame with him at the end of the night? It will likely go home with him, perpetuating a cycle of violence. 

Likewise, co-panellist and historian Joanna Bourke noted something similar: “rapists have extremely high levels of abuse and drug addictions because they actually do feel shame”. Neither of these situations seem ‘normatively distorted’ in Nussbaum’s sense, and yet they still seem to go wrong. Bourke and other panellists suggested that what is happening here is not necessarily a failing of shame, but a failing of the social processes surrounding it.  

Shame opens us to vulnerability, but to sit with vulnerability and reflect requires us to be open to very difficult conversations.

If the social framework for these conversations isn’t set up, we end up with unjust shame or just shame that, unsupported, still manifests itself ultimately in further destruction. 

However, this nuance is far from intuitive. While people are saddened by the idea of victims feeling shame, they often feel righteous in their assertions that perpetrators of crimes or transgressors of socials norms should feel shame, and that their lack of shame is something that causes the shameful behaviour in the first place. 

Shame certainly has potential to be a force for good if it reminds us of moral standards, or in trying to avoid it we are motivated to abide by moral standards, but it’s important to retain a level of awareness that shame alone is often not enough to define and maintain the ethical playing field. 

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Losing the thread: How social media shapes us

“I feel like I invited two friend groups to the same party.” 

The slowly spiralling mess that is Twitter received another beating last year in the form of a rival platform announcement: Threads. And although this was a potentially exciting development for all the scorned tweeters out there, amid the hype, noise and hubbub of this new platform I noticed something interesting. 

Some people weren’t sure how to act. 

Twitter has long been associated with performative behaviour of many kinds (as well as genuine activism and journalism of many kinds). Influencers, comedians, politicians and every aspiring Joe Schmoe adopt personas that often amount to some combination of sarcastic, cynical, snarky and bluntly relatable. 

Now, you would think that people migrating to a rival app with ostensibly the same function would just port these personas over. And you would be right, except for the hiccup of Threads being tied directly to Instagram accounts.  

Why does this matter? As many users have pointed out, the kinds of things people say and do on Twitter and Instagram are markedly different, partially because of the different audiences and partially because of the different medium focus (visual versus textual). As a result, some people are struggling with the concept of having family and friends viewing their Twitter-selves, so to speak. 

These posts can of course be taken with a grain of salt. Most people aren’t truly uncomfortable with recreating their Twitter identities on Threads. In fact, somewhat ironically, reinforcing their group identity as “(ex-)Twitter users” is the underlying function of these posts – signalling to other tweeters that “Hey, I’m one of you”.  

The incongruity between Instagram and Twitter personas or expression has been pointed out by some others in varying depth and is something you might have noticed yourself if you spend much of your free time on either platform. In short, Instagram is mostly a polished, curated, image-first representation of ourselves, whereas Twitter is mostly a stream-of-consciousness conversation mill (which lends itself to more polarising debate). There are plenty of overlapping users, but the way they appear on each platform is often vastly different. 

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking: How do our online identities reflect on us? How do these identities shape how we use other platforms? Do social media personas reflect a type of code-switching or self-monitoring, or are they just another way of pandering to the masses? 

What does it say about us when we don’t share certain aspects of ourselves with certain people?

This apparent segmentation of our personality isn’t new or unique to social media. I’m sure you can recall a moment of hesitation or confusion when introducing family to friends, or childhood friends to hobby friends, or work friends to close friends. It’s a feeling that normally stems from having to confront the (sometimes subtle) ways that we change the way we speak and act and are around different groups of people.  

Maybe you’re a bit more reserved around colleagues, or more comical around acquaintances, or riskier with old friends. Whatever it is, having these worlds collide can get you questioning which “you” is really you. 

There isn’t usually an easy answer to that, either. Identity is a slippery thing that philosophers and psychologists and sociologists have been wrangling for a long time. One basic idea is that humans are complex, and we can’t be expected to be able to communicate or display all the elements of our psyche to every person in our lives in the same ways. While that’s a tempting narrative, it’s important to be aware of the difference between adapting and pandering. 

Adapting is something we all do to various degrees.

In psychology, it’s called self-monitoring – modifying our behaviours in response to our environment or company. This can be as simple as not swearing in front of family or speaking more formally at work. Sometimes adapting can even feel like a necessity. People on the autism spectrum often “mask” their symptoms and behaviours by supressing them and/or mimicking neurotypical behaviours to fit in or avoid confrontation. 

In lots of ways, social media has enhanced our ability to adapt. The way we appear online can be something highly crafted, but this is where we can sometimes run into the issue of pandering. In this context, by pandering I mean inauthentically expressing ourselves for some kind of personal gain. The key issue here is authenticity. 

As Dr Tim Dean said in an earlier article in this series, “you can’t truly understand who someone is without also understanding all the groups to which they belong”. In many ways, social media platforms constitute (and indicate further) groups to which we belong, each with their own styles, tones, audiences, expectations and subcultures. But it is this very scaffolding that can cause people to pander to their in-groups, whether it simply be to fit in, or in search of power, fame or money. 

I want to stress that even pandering in and of itself isn’t necessarily unethical. Sometimes pandering is something we need to do; sometimes it’s meaningless or harmless. However, sometimes it amounts to a violation of our own values. Do we really want to be the kinds of people who go against our principles for the sake of fitting in?  

That’s what struck me when I read all of the confused messaging on the release of Threads. It’s one thing to not value authenticity very highly; it’s another to disvalue it completely by acting in ways that oppose our core values and principles. Sometimes social media can blur these lines. When we engage in things like mindless dogpiling or reposting uncited/unchecked information, we’re often acting in ways we wouldn’t act elsewhere without realising it, and that’s worth reflecting on. 

It’s certainly something that I’ve noticed myself reflecting on since then. For some, our online personas can be an outlet for aspects of our personality that we don’t feel welcome expressing elsewhere. But for others, the ease with which social media allows us to craft the way we present poses a challenge to our sense of identity.  

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Blindness and seeing

Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life’. Elizabeth Costello, from J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals

Don’t think, but look!’ – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 

Philosophical debates about animal welfare can appear abstruse. Much scholarly ink has been spilt over whether animals possess the requisite features—an interest in the future, an ability to suffer, a mind—that would ground our duties towards them. I wonder, however, if theoretical arguments of this sort really do justice to the issue at hand, which seems not so much a matter of moral disagreement as a radical difference in ways of seeing. What for the animal rights activist is a mechanised holocaust of unconscionable scale is for the meat-eater an institution that betters their well-being. The most pressing issue, as I see it, is not whether animals have rights, but whether we are able to see them at all as fellow creatures inhabiting the same world and sharing our vulnerabilities.  

In J.M. Coetzee’s novella, The Lives of Animals, the elderly novelist Elizabeth Costello is invited to give an address at Appleton College. Her chosen theme being on our treatment of animals, she prefaces her lecture by exhibiting what she calls a ‘wound’: a scar from being exposed to the haunting nature of our treatment of animals, of being surrounded by well-meaning human beings who remain bewildering blind to the atrocities she alone perceives.  

Throughout the novella, Costello discusses and answers arguments but never as the theorising philosopher. When an opponent suggests that life and death cannot be to animals, who lack a sense of identity, what it is to us, she responds by the line quoted in the epigraph of this piece, that whoever would say so has not held in their hands an animal fighting for its life, a line which I find stunning. Never mind our favoured theory of the mind, can’t you see it is suffering?  

Here is an affirmation of our exposure to the suffering of animals, an involuntary confrontation, before which what is called upon is not our reason but an anguished response that is a testament to our humanity. Costello is not a vegetarian out of moral convictions; instead, she insists ‘“it comes out of a desire to save my soul”’– out of a vivid awareness of her exposure. There is a sense in which any attempt at philosophising inevitably ends up deflecting us away from that immediate reality, the animals in our hands. 

Costello provocatively compares the meat industry to the Holocaust. Her point, I take it, is linked to what Stanley Cavell has called ‘soul blindness’: a failure to see another human as human. Primo Levi, in his Survival in Auschwitz, vividly recalls the look from a Nazi examiner, which ‘came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds’. What we find so accursed about the examiner, I think, is not his false moral beliefs – rather, there seems to us a critical defect in their sensibility, a blindness to humanity which stings.  

We find another illustration of ‘soul blindness’ in the film Blade Runner, which imagines a world where human-like ‘replicants’ are mass-produced and enslaved, and those who escape are tracked down.  

At first pass, we might see Blade Runner as a film noir exploring the boundary between humans and intelligent replicants; yet when we realise that the replicants, who can think, feel, and interact exactly like humans, are perhaps denied moral status only by the technical stipulation that ‘humans’ are those with a specific biology, the film takes on a more sinister meaning. In particular, it might shock us with how easily we become blinded to the living humanity of another, when some abstract, in hindsight irrelevant pieces of information are introduced – ‘They do not have DNA’; or ‘They are a Jew’.     

Animal rights activists often point to the difference in our treatment of pets and those whom we eat for meat; but rather than dismissing it as a sign of our irrationality, if not hypocrisy, the datum ought to be probed further. What is different is a way of seeing: the pets are companions, family members, whom we acknowledge as fellow creatures, while the pigs are just food.

Many times I have felt deeply perturbed, flipping through an illustrated children’s book, when I saw the image of a smiling pig with just the right amount of anthropomorphism that it looks uncanny. Those are eyes which I do not dare meet. The knowledge inside those images, that a pig is also a being capable of feelings and suffering, is knowledge too terrible to bear – we have been raised to suppress it. If he could explain the examiner’s look, Levi tells us, he would also have explained the insanity of the Third Reich. We might make a parallel statement about animals: if one could explain the way we look upon animals as mere food and not living creatures like us, then one would also have explained our treatment of animals.   

Here is what I think the three cases – our treatment of animals, the Holocaust, and the enslavement of replicants – have in common: drawing on an idea of Simone Weil, they are issues on a separate moral plane from those to be afforded intellectualised debate. We could argue about why slavery is wrong, but we should not argue over if it is wrong. I am not saying that we should give up persuasion and begin accusing each other of the monstrosity of eating meat; rather, what I claim is that abstract disputes over rights and permissions seriously misrepresent the moral terrain.  

Levi remarks that one of the things the camp taught him was ‘how vain is the myth of original equality among men’. What use is there of a theory of human rights if the abuser does not see you as a human at all? This is why Costello appeals not to philosophy, but to imagination and poetry: a chasm of sensibility can only be bridged by changes in the way of seeing. And why should our response to animals be out of a sense of duty? Often, the more humane response may well be one out of kindness and a sense of fellowship.  

In today’s world, our blindness to each other’s humanity is unfortunately still all too prevalent – the images that emerge from recent conflicts confirm it. One could say, however, that our blindness to the suffering of animals is just as distressing. What is most frightening is perhaps not that we come up with the wrong moral beliefs, but that we lose the ability to see animals, and other humans, as fellow beings who are like us 

 

Blindness and seeing‘ by David He is one of the Highly Commended essays in our Young Writers’ Competition. Find out more about the competition here.       

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What we owe our friends

Friendships are confusing. I’ve often found myself feeling that something is missing in my friendships — a sentiment that seems to be shared, yet rarely addressed. One that’s echoed in the paradoxical 21st century correlation between our ever growing hyper-connectivity and reports declaring a loneliness epidemic. One that’s felt in parties full of friends that you can’t wait to leave.

Like many of us, I have learnt that this is partly down to the culturally accepted life cycle of friendships. I never felt lacking when I was younger: I had deep bonds with childhood friends, who I did the wild adventures of youth with, but also spent infinite hours in pyjamas with, drinking tea and learning how to build loving relationships. But as plans with friends became plans reserved for partners, and time became stretched by work and adulting, I slowly processed the idea that their importance will silently decline as you age.  

But I’ve also had a nagging sense that something more unspeakable affects the quality of our friendships. Something resigning friendships to the trivial and fun, and shaming a desire for deeper bonds.  

It wasn’t until I read The End of Love by Eva Illouz that I felt able to articulate what this is, and why it is so hard to talk about feeling disappointed by friends. Through an extensive analysis of social relations under consumer capitalism, she makes a simple central point: freedom, the value that trumps all for western society, requires the dissolving of expectations in human relationships.  

In an age of abundance, the defining feature of 21st century liberal social relations is the practice of non-commitment. Personal autonomy is the main cultural story that guides our lives. We’re driven by the search for personal success and pleasure. To realise this, we must be free to choose our own relations at will, and therefore also leave them at will. We make responsible choices to avoid things that might impinge on our personal growth, including that relationship stopping you from moving, or that friend whose chaotic period has gone on a bit too long. 

So we have relaxed our mutual expectations on each other — almost to the point of having none at all. 

The value of freedom has transcended left and right politics, and is accepted as an untouchable pillar of morality. Self empowerment has been the prerogative of many left wing progressives as much as neoliberal free-marketers. It’s found in the language of capitalist growth and competition, but also in the language of pop-psychology that tells us to set boundaries and cut people out of our life who don’t ‘serve’ us or bring us pleasure.  

But Illouz reopens this debate that has been closed since liberal philosophy claimed hegemony over morality, asking us ‘does freedom jeopardize the possibility of forming meaningful and binding bonds?’ 

I think about the hollowed expectations we have of our friends. Flaking is normal. We tend to leave maximum space to opt out of plans whenever and minimum pressure to commit, generally resigning ourselves to polite understanding if people cancel even when it hurts, knowing that we often do the same. Asking for support is also done cautiously to avoid overstepping, burdening or offloading, even in our greatest moments of need.  

And then there are the ways in which many friendships silently end. When I was 22, after an ongoing period of difficulty where we both hurt each other, one of my closest friends sent me a facebook message telling me she never wanted to speak again. Despite my ongoing attempts in the coming years to reconcile, she stuck to this conviction, and I have only seen her in passing at parties since then. A long term friendship was suddenly gone with minimal discussion, and the invisible rulebook of friendship said that this was fine.  

Friendships which diverge from the comfortable space of convenience, ease, and fun can quickly become threats to our personal growth. Consumers at our core, we are well practiced in disposing of things that don’t benefit us anymore and less well practiced at fixing broken things. Systems make their way into our bodies and minds, and the system we live in is one built on endless desire and access to the new. In such a society we owe our friends nothing. We might choose to owe them, but we don’t have to.  

We sense this fragility. We know on some level that if friends can exit at any moment without consequence, we must persuade them to stay. Friendship mimics a market in which you must compete to survive, and we are all painfully aware of the limits of what our commodified selves can offer. In this knowledge, socialising often becomes fraught as we feel this pressure to bring something positive to the room that wins us a good review after. Those who lack status built by resource, health, and charisma struggle more, their exclusion a reality made invisible by the language of choice. 

The psychologist Sanah Ashan tells us that falling apart is a birthright. For us to feel connected, our relationships must embrace discomfort. Friendships shouldn’t be intolerant of prolonged messiness. We must instead embrace the misery and the insanity; coming together in these times not running away. Intimate bonds are difficult.

We live in an age where traditional sites of belonging have been diminished — religion, community, even family and romantic relationships are more uncertain than they have ever been. Public care structures have been decimated to the point of dysfunction. More and more of us find that we have to make our own communities of care and belonging, found in the friends we make ourselves. 

Yet conversation about building these communities is often superficial when we don’t know how to be close to each other. We long for community, but often turn to therapists in our times of need. 

Re-envisioning how we build strong and enduring bonds requires us to open a conversation that asks bigger questions than how we balance time between work, relationships, and friends. It requires us to question the promises of fulfillment from personal freedom alone. Wendy Brown reminds us that achieving, and even envisioning personal freedom is far from straightforward: 

‘historically, semiotically, and culturally protean, as well as politically elusive, freedom has shown itself to be easily appropriated in liberal regimes for the most cynical and unemancipatory political ends.’ 

The left has been good at unpicking how the appeals to freedom have created unjust markets and vast inequalities, but we haven’t openly discussed the effects of this in the world of emotions and relationships. The practice of non-commitment in our relationship building mimics the rise of the gig economy, precarious work, and the breakdown of worker solidarity. Free market economics sacrificed security and equality in the name of unfettered growth. We must ask whether the same might be happening in our social relations. 

We all yearn for connection, yet our disdain for responsibility in the name of freedom keeps us apart. But we owe our friends something different to the transactional relationships of the capitalist workplace; we owe them love and time regardless of the value they offer us.

 

What we owe our friends‘ by Zoe Timimi is the winning essay in our Young Writers’ Competition (18-30 age category). Find out more about the competition here.       

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Our desire for reality: What OnlyFans says about sexual fantasy

Despite being a generation overwhelmed with technological means to fulfil their fantasies, today’s youth desire sexual reality. The rapid uptake of OnlyFans embodies a paradoxical desire to escape an increasingly grim sexual reality through indulging in consumption of ‘reality’ pornography. But how realcan pornography ever be, and does it represent an entrenchment of the patriarchal sexualisation of women?

Pornhub’s 2022 annual report demonstrated that the fastest growing trend for 2022 was ‘reality’ – increasing viewership by a total of 169%. Simultaneously, viewership of the ‘amateur’ category declined roughly 20%, leading the researchers to note ‘visitors are still seeking a real homemade porn experience’ – the guise of amateur is not enough. In Australia specifically, the two top trending searches for 2023 were ‘sharing a bed’ (+%600) and ‘therapy’ (+%540), a far cry from what would typically be associated with pornographic content.  

Society’s previous relationship with pornography was one of explicit fantasy; a consumption of unrealistic bodies in improbable scenarios conducting inconceivable acts. Aiding this was explicit acceptance of the disconnect present, lusting for the physical specifically because it was not also attempting to be a fill-in for true connection. In other words, the fantasy being indulged in was the removal of emotional or social connections from sex – it was sex for the sake of sex. 

A national survey recently highlighted that those aged 18-24 age were most likely to experience loneliness, with 22% of this bracket stating they are either constantly or often lonely. Such trends are replicated globally in the general decrease of sexual activity experienced by young people, particularly in Western countries. But it is feasible to broach this deficiency through faux realities? 

OnlyFans is fast becoming a behemoth of pornographic facilitation with users paying more than $5 billion to creators in 2022. Not only is spending up, but content creators have grown by nearly 50% in the past year. OnlyFans’s explosive growth comes from linking creators to consumers in a way porn never did. Individuals are no longer the perverts behind a screen, instead they have become ‘fans’ that are afforded technological involvement with the objects of their sexual desire.   

Here the pornographic trope of ‘the girl next door’, previously relegated to a fantasy, has now become a form of sexualised reality and should be taken literally – the girl next door might exist. This merging of sexual fantasy into the real world suggests that today’s youth want more realistic sexual content, and greater interpersonal connection, due to a lack in real life. Porn actors are no longer 2D figures who appear only as sexualised objects for my fantasy to manipulate, the rise of technology and social media means we connect with adult content creators as holistic beings who can perceive us as a human (or a fan) – not simply as an anonymous click or view.  

Fantasy for sale

While traditional porn inserted fantasy into reality by imagining all the ways certain sexual desires were unattainable, OnlyFans is seeing a reversal by injecting reality into fantasy by imagining all the ways in which sexual desires may be attainable.  

What should be obvious is that escape toward this ‘reality’ is anything but – reality, as a pornographic concept, has now become a commodity. Platforms such as Meta pioneered the sale of ‘reality’ as a commodity, initially through social media which promised global connection and more recently with openly ‘virtual’ realities as places of escape (for a price). 

Just as it was once assumed constant connection through Facebook would alleviate loneliness, which it is now proven to increase, society needs to be careful of establishing a feedback loop in sexual consumption. Here the phenomena of ‘parasocial relationships’, where effort and interaction is one-sided, operates in full effect; while a user can ‘interact’ with their favourite explicit content creator. The purpose of this interaction is only as a profit mechanism, there is no symbiotic social relationship taking place.  

OnlyFans in essence offers a new commodity of sexual ‘reality’ which, just as social media has, proports to sell us connection to reality, while simply creating a new grey space of pseudo-connection.

In turn, the more reliant society is on technology to fulfil our needs, the less-equipped we are to find such things organically – an increasing trend of abstinence being evidence to the point.  

Political-economy of sexual reality

This sexualisation of reality brings with it a major challenge to the sex-positive view of feminism. We should take seriously that the liberalisation of sex and sexuality in the 21st century has positively influenced the lives of women by offering space and safety for progressive practices. Yet, it cannot be ignored that the financial prosperity that OnlyFans affords (largely female) creators comes at the cost of internalising a core patriarchal notion; the sexual objectification of women’s bodies.  

The sex positive view typically argues that patriarchy was a limiting factor on sexuality and is instead in favour of removing societal stigma and shame surrounding pornography. Here the trend of reality-centric porn would be supported to further liberate both men and women from sexual restriction – even if the establishment of unhealthy norms which propagate the sexualisation of patriarchal interests through porn continues. Here issues of subjugation, domination and sexualisation must necessarily be supported, providing an indication as to why younger generations are turning away from the positivist view.  

In OnlyFans’s case, it may establish a sexual panopticon where women perceive self-sexualisation as liberating, not realising that the patriarchal logic of objectifying bodies has now become self-imposed and self-regulating as women free men of this task. The danger being that, if the trend of sexualising reality continues, what was previously relegated to closed-door fantasies is brought into the real world. Tangibly this could mean that women now find themselves more sexualised as pornographic content increasingly blurs lines between public and private thoughts or actions.  

A springboard

As sexual lives become further digitally enmeshed (what will the Metaverse mean for sexting?) there is need to reflect on how our desires are impacted. Desire for reality should reflect an underlying lack thereof as well as the pseudo-reality technology such as OnlyFans sells us as a replacement. In a world of fast fashion, fast food, and fast internet it should be pause for thought that today’s youth don’t want fast sex – they want real sex but will settle for less.    

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Stoicism on Tiktok promises happiness – but the ancient philosophers who came up with it had something very different in mind

I don’t know about you, but my TikTok is full of influencers telling me I should be a Stoic. You might know the term “stoic” as a person who goes through hardship while maintaining a steely and calm disposition, and never complains. However, a stoic is also someone who prescribes to the philosophical school of Stoicism.

Stoicism became popular in ancient Rome. Stoic TikTok exclusively draws on Roman Stoicism, mainly Epictetus (a formerly enslaved person), Seneca (a fabulously wealthy and self-aggrandizing advisor to the emperor Nero), and Marcus Aurelius (who was himself a Roman emperor).

But the school goes back much further to ancient Athens, where Stoicism was founded around 300BCE by Zeno of Citium. After Zeno, Stoicism flourished in Athens, especially under Chrysippus, known as the second founder of Stoicism.

On TikTok, you’ll see people saying that Stoicism is a great way to lead a happy and productive life. I’m a professional philosopher who specialises in ancient Greek philosophy – and it’s great, if somewhat surprising, to see how popular Stoicism has become over the last ten years. But as a philosopher, I’m not a Stoic – and Stoic TikTok gets quite a lot wrong about this way of thinking.

Despite what you see on TikTok, Stoicism was a dry, technical, ivory tower philosophy. Its ideas around happiness and productivity diverge quite a bit from what modern people consider these to be. Traditionally, it was divided into three branches: ethics, physics, and logic – much of which TikTok’s Stoic preachers don’t get quite right.

Logic

Distinctively, the Stoics emphasised logic, comparing it to the shell of an egg or the bones and sinews of a body, because logic protects (like a shell), supports (like bones) and connects (like sinews) our beliefs and knowledge. In fact, the Stoics developed a systematic logical theory which, through various historical twists and turns, inspired 20th-century logic and hence theoretical computer science.

The Stoics took logic seriously because it was needed for knowledge. For the Stoics, to know something – including how to live well – was to understand it so totally that you could defend your view against any degree of argumentative scrutiny, against any opponent. In other words, they used logic to win a sort of philosophical Hunger Games.

But Stoic TikTok isn’t really interested in a deep, rich and logically defensible knowledge of the world and our place in it. In so far as Stoic TikTok is interested in knowledge, it implies that you can get knowledge by simply reading quotations of famous Stoics or practising certain mental exercises, such as meditating on death.

Physics

Stoic TikTok also ignores Stoic physics – the principles that Stoics used to explain the natural processes in the universe. For the Stoics, everything that exists, including your soul and God, is a body. God, in fact, is “mixed with matter, pervading all of it and so shaping it, structuring it and making it into the world”, as the critic Alexander of Aphrodisias told us in the early third century.

The Stoics argued that, since God is rational and active, this makes everything that exists in the world rational and organised for the best. You are part of this rational universe so, if bad things happen to you, it would be irrational to complain – as if your foot complained about getting muddy.

This idea of a rational universe is popular with Stoic TikTok, and can be seen in posts telling followers to “love their fate”. They suggest that true happiness comes from accepting anything that happens.

But does loving your fate in a truly Stoic sense achieve the sort of productivity and happiness most people want? I think not.

Ethics

Which brings us to Stoic ethics. While Stoic TikTok promises productivity and happiness, it’s unlikely you’ll achieve the levels of productivity and happiness you actually desire if you go by what Stoics believed these to be.

Happiness, for a Stoic, was a matter of having virtues and lacking vices. Everything else – including health, wealth and status – were “indifferents”, because they made no difference to your virtue, and so to your happiness.

So, even if the self-helpy advice of Stoic TikTok could make you more productive, being more productive won’t make you be happier, according to Stoic philosophy. At best, you’ll acquire health, wealth or status, but those things are indifferent to your happiness.

There is, of course, something hypocritical about Seneca arguing that wealth is indifferent while being one of the richest men in Rome; or Marcus Aurelius saying that power is indifferent while being emperor.

It is rational to prefer to be healthy rather than ill, rich rather than poor, powerful rather than oppressed. In fact, there was nuanced ancient debate in which the Stoics tried to find a middle way between a view where health, money and power are simply good, and a view where they are totally irrelevant to living a good life.

Chrysippus tried to steer this course by saying that while health, wealth and power are indifferent, how you use them is not. If I use power intemperately or wealth to indulge my most disgusting appetites, I will not be virtuous or happy. Personally, I don’t think the Stoic philosophy will ultimately solve this problem of whether health, wealth and power are totally indifferent to happiness, but it is an open question.

I’ve not touched here on the more sinister aspects of Stoicism on the internet, discussed in Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men. Rather, I’ve tried to point out what Stoic TikTok misses, because I hope people dive deeper into Stoic philosophy. A great place to start is Tad Brennan’s The Stoic Life.

Stoicism is a rich, fascinating and sophisticated philosophical tradition. But, if you’re looking for happiness and productivity in more modern terms, the Stoics might not have the answer.

 

This article was originally published by The Conversation. Image by Bradley Weber.

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What does love look like? The genocidal “romance” of Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon, the newest film by Martin Scorsese, starts with a terrible, distorted version of the romantic “meet-cute.”

Ernest Burkhart (played with leery relish by Leonardo DiCaprio) romances Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone). He’s a driver; she needs to get around the place. Throwing knowing looks over his shoulder as he spins his wheel, he flirts with her, and though she is initially suspicious, eventually she succumbs to his interests. A romance is born. 

It is the classic “boy meets girl” story – or at least, it would be, if we didn’t already know the real reason driving Ernest’s romantic designs. He has been put up to this meeting by “King” Hale (Robert DeNiro), his calculating and murderous Uncle, who is seeking to redirect the fortunes of the Osage tribe of which Molly is a member. Though he projects an image as a pillar of the community, King is the centre of a string of murders – and Ernest is recruited as his budding killer-to-be, with Molly as a target. 

The tension at the heart of Killers of the Flower Moon lies in Ernest’s dual role as Molly’s wife and her poisoner. Though Ernest is the film’s main character, we are given little in the way of his interior life. Instead, we understand the man through his actions, which are, increasingly, in direct conflict. Ernest acts like he loves Molly, and the children they have together; he weeps when one dies. He also injects her daily with a poison. When, in the film’s climax, the pair are reunited, he almost collapses into her arms. Nobody outright asks Ernest if he loves Molly, but they ask similar questions, and he responds in the full-throated affirmative. She is his wife, and at least some of the time, he treats her as such. 

So, do we want to accept this kind of attachment – murderous, openly destructive – as a form of love? Or would doing so fundamentally taint the concept? 

Love as a blinding force

The ethical value of love has long been debated by philosophers. Plato and Socrates both saw love as a fundamentally morally valuable emotion – one which expands our sense of the world’s beauty and possibility, and motivates us to do better. Indeed, according to this view of love, romance is the foundation of ethical action.

It’s a way of teaching us of the importance of other people, an escape from selfish solipsism that draws out into the world.

But love – as the mere existence of the term “crime of passion” proves – does not always lead us down virtuous paths. Any romance also has the capability of reducing ethical scope, not expanding it. Arthur Schopenhauer, the notorious pessimist, saw love as an essential “illusion” that consumes people utterly. He described it as little more than the desire to procreate, over which the fiction of romance gets written. On this view, love creates a lopsided sense of ethical value, transforming the world down to a single point – the love object. This in turn breeds jealousy; possession; and, Schopenhauer said, frequently madness. 

What makes Ernest’s “love” distinct, however, is that he doesn’t seem to experience the usual ethical pitfalls of romance. He’s not jealous of Molly. He doesn’t act as though he wants to possess her – at least not in the normal sense. Nor does he, in the traditional sense, go mad. Instead he acts to destroy her, an essentially self-negating series of actions where the one he prizes the most is also the one he seeks to snuff out. 

Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Molly Kyle (Lily Gladstone), Killers of the Flower Moon, Paramount Pictures

Love in and of itself

Perhaps ironically, given his reputation as a cold, difficult and abstract philosopher, it is Immanuel Kant who provides the solution to the puzzle of Ernest’s love. Taken as a whole, Kant is paradoxical on the nature of love – he once dismissed it as a “feeling”, and wrote that “a duty to love is an absurdity.”  

But, importantly, Kant did believe we should love one another. And more than that, this was a duty to love another “in and of itself.” One of Kant’s key ethical positions is the idea that using another – treating them like a mere “means” – is wrong. Instead, he believed that we should view other people as an “ends”. Kant believed that value did not exist outside human beings – that we create value – and that we should view all others, including those we love, as the source of value in the world. We respect and love others, he thought, because we see them not for what they can do for us, but for what they are; what they value and what they care about. 

Ernest does not do this. Both of the ways that he treats Molly – doting on her and poisoning her – are for his own benefit. He has turned her into a mere object, a machine for love and money. She gives him children, and her death will give him riches and success. When he falls into her arms and embraces her, he is embracing not the whole Molly – the full, rich person, a source of value in the world – but only the parts of her that help him. 

In this way, Ernest’s broken form of love serves as a warning to the rest of us.

When we say we love someone, we should direct that emotion to all who they are. Not choosing the parts we like, or the parts that service us. But the difficult parts; the awkward parts; the fears and the pains as well as the highs.

A lover’s eyes should always be open, after all. 

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Ethics Explainer: Altruism

Amelia notices her elderly neighbour struggling with their shopping and lends them a hand. Mo decides to start volunteering for a local animal shelter after seeing a ‘help wanted’ ad. Alexis has been donating blood twice a year since they heard it was in such short supply.  

These are all examples, of behaviours that put the well-being of others first – otherwise known as altruism.  

Altruism is a principle and practice that concerns the motivation and desire to positively affect another being for their own sake. Amelia’s act is altruistic because she wishes to alleviate some suffering from her neighbour, Mo’s because he wishes to do the same for the animals and shelter workers, and Alexis’ because they wish to do the same to dozens of strangers. 

Crucially, motivation is what is key in altruism.  

If Alexis only donates blood because they really want the free food, then they’re not acting altruistically. Even though the blood is still being donated, even though lives are still being saved, even though the act itself is still good. If their motivation comes from self-interest alone, then the act lacks the other-directedness or selflessness of altruism. Likewise, if Mo’s motivation actually comes from wanting to look good to his partner, or if Amelia’s motivation comes from wanting to be put in her neighbour’s will, their actions are no longer altruistic. 

This is because altruism is characterised as the opposite of selfishness. Rather than prioritising themself, the altruist will be concerned with the well-being of others. However, actions do remain altruistic even if there are mixed motives.  

Consider Amelia again. She might truly care for her elderly neighbour. Maybe it’s even a relative or a good family friend. Nevertheless, part of her motivation for helping might also be the potential to gain an inheritance. While this self-interest seems at odds with altruism, so long as her altruistic motive (genuine care and compassion) also remains then the act can still be considered altruistic, though it is sometimes referred to as “weak” altruism. 

Altruism can (and should) also be understood separately from self-sacrifice. Altruism needn’t be self-sacrificial, though it is often thought of in that way. Altruistic behaviours can often involve little or no effort and still benefit others, like someone giving away their concert ticket because they can no longer attend.  

How much is enough? 

There is a general idea that everyone should be altruistic in some ways at some times; though it’s unclear to what extent this is a moral responsibility. 

Aristotle, in his discussions of eudaimonia, speaks of loving others for their own sake. So, it could be argued that in pursuit of eudaimonia, we have a responsibility to be altruistic at least to the extent that we embody the virtues of care and compassion.  

Another more common idea is the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Although this maxim, or variations of it, is often related to Christianity, it actually dates at least as far back as Ancient Egypt and has arisen in countless different societies and cultures throughout history. While there is a hint of self-interest in the reciprocity, the Golden Rule ultimately encourages us to be altruistic by appealing to empathy. 

We can find this kind of reasoning in other everyday examples as well. If someone gives up their seat for a pregnant person on a train, it’s likely that they’re being altruistic. Part of their reasoning might be similar to the Golden Rule: if they were pregnant, they’d want someone to give up a seat for them to rest.  

Common altruistic acts often occur because, consciously or unconsciously, we empathise with the position of others. 

Effective Altruism 

So far, we have been describing altruism and some other concepts that steer us toward it. However, here is an ethical theory that has many strong things to say about our altruistic obligations and that is consequentialism (concern for the outcomes of our actions).  

Given that, consequentialism can lead us to arguments that altruism is a moral obligation in many circumstances, especially when the actions are of no or little cost to us, since the outcomes are inherently positive.  

For example, Australian philosopher Peter Singer has written extensively on our ethical obligations to donate to charity. He argues that most people should help others because most people are in a position where they can do a lot for significantly less fortunate people with relatively little effort. This might look different for different people – it could be donating clothes, giving to charity, volunteering, signing petitions. Whatever it is, the type of help isn’t necessarily demanding (donating clothes) and can be proportional (donating relative to your income).  

One philosophical and social movement that heavily emphasises this consequentialist outlook is effective altruism, co-founded by Singer, and philosophers Toby Ord and Will MacAskill. 

The effective altruist’s argument is that it’s not good enough just to be altruistic; we must also make efforts to ensure that our good deeds are as impactful as possible through evidence-based research and reasoning. 

Stemming from the empirical foundation, this movement takes a seemingly radical stance on impartiality and the extent of our ethical obligations to help others. Much of this reasoning mirrors a principle outlined by Singer in his 1972 article, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”:  

“If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” 

This seems like a reasonable statement to many people, but effective altruists argue that what follows from it is much more than our day-to-day incidental kindness. What is morally required of us is much stronger, given most people’s relative position to the world’s worst-off. For example, Toby Ord uses this kind of reasoning to encourage people to commit to donating at least 10% of their income to charity through his organisation “Giving What We Can”.  

Effective altruists generally also encourage prioritising the interests of future generations and other sentient beings, like non-human animals, as well as emphasising the need to prioritise charity in efficient ways, which often means donating to causes that seem distant or removed from the individual’s own life. 

While reasons for and extent of altruistic behaviour can vary, ethics tells us that it’s something we should be concerned with. Whether you’re a Platonist who values kindness, or a consequentialist who cares about the greater good, ethics encourages us to think about the role of altruism in our lives and consider when and how we can help others.  

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The niceness trap: Why you mustn’t be too nice

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Can we be too nice? On the surface, it seems absurd to say we should put a cap on how nice we should be. But if we overdo it, we can end up shirking our other ethical obligations.

Skim the headlines or scroll through social media and you’d be forgiven for concluding that there’s a serious deficit of niceness in the world today, and if only people were a little more kind, compassionate and giving, then the world would be a much better place.  

Imagine a nicer world where other drivers consistently backed off to let you merge lanes, or shrugged off your occasional failure to check a blind spot with a smile and a wave. Imagine a workplace where everybody lifted each other up, and covered for you when you needed a break. Imagine a world with more Dumbledores and fewer Snapes. Imagine a world without Karens. 

Most philosophers have sought such a world by urging us to cultivate niceness. Confucious promoted the foundational virtue of ren, often translated as benevolence or humanity. Aristotle argued that the path to flourishing lay in cultivating virtues like magnanimity, generosity and patience. Christian scholars promoted temperance was a cardinal virtue. In more modern times, Peter Singer has said we ought to take the compassion we feel towards close family and friends and expand it to cover all sentient creatures, human and animal. In short: be nice. 

But there’s also a catch with niceness. If we take it to excess, we can leave ourselves vulnerable to exploitation, fail in our ethical duties and even undermine the very moral foundations of our community.

This is because a world where everyone is fully trusting and selflessly giving is a ripe hunting ground for those who are willing to abuse that trust and get ahead by stepping on the backs of others. 

The paradox of niceness

This phenomenon can be modelled using the popular game theoretic thought experiment, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Imagine a situation where two bank robbers are arrested and held in separate cells, unable to communicate with each other. The police have no other witnesses, so they’re relying on the suspects’ testimony to prove the case against them. If both suspects confess, they’ll both receive a five-year sentence. If they both remain silent, then the police will only be able to charge them with a minor offense carrying a one-year sentence. However, if one of them testifies while their partner remains silent, then the dobber will be set free while their partner will go to jail for 10 years. 

On the surface, it seems sensible for them both to remain silent. That would be the “nice” thing to do because it benefits them both. But there’s a twist. If one of the suspects believes that their partner will remain silent, then they have an opportunity to testify against them and get off scott-free, while their partner is thrown in the slammer. They also know that if they remain silent, then their partner will have an opportunity to dob them in. As a result, the most reasonable thing for either of them to do is dob on the other, which means they both end up with a harsher penalty than if they’d both cooperated and stayed silent. 

The Prisoner’s Dilemma models a fundamental truth when it comes to social interaction: if we we’re nice, we all benefit, but there will always be a temptation to exploit the charity of others to get ahead, and in doing so, we can end up destroying the possibility of cooperation altogether.  

There have been whole virtual tournaments using the Prisoner’s Dilemma to see what kinds of strategies – whether “nice” or “nasty” – will yield the best results for the agents playing the game. And it’s from these tournaments that another twist emerges.  

In a single Prisoner’s Dilemma game, the nasty dobber has the upper hand, especially if their partner is nice. However, when the same agents play the game over and over, it turns out that it pays to be nice, because you’re likely to be punished in the next game if you’ve been nasty. When you add in some real-world flavour to the game, like making it so that agents can sometimes mistakenly defect when they meant to cooperate, it’s the nicer agents that come out on top. 

But these simulations show that niceness has its limits. Those agents that are unconditionally nice tend to get exploited by nasty ones. However, those strategies that are conditionally nice, and that defect only to punish bad behaviour, do best of all. 

Toxic niceness

Back in the real world, what this means is that it is possible to be too nice. If we’re unconditionally generous and forgiving, then we leave ourselves open to exploitation by people who will take advantage of our niceness.  

It’s likely we all know someone who is a natural giver, someone whose empathy is overflowing and who goes out of their way to help everyone around them. These people are often much loved, but they can also be crushed under the weight of their own compassion, sometimes neglecting their own wellbeing, and it’s not uncommon for others to take advantage of their generosity. 

Such unconditional niceness can also prevent us from punishing those who deserve it. You may have also worked for a manager who was overly forgiving, not only of minor transgressions, but also behaviour that was toxic or harmful to others. Punishment is inherently unpleasant, and the overly nice can be reluctant to mete it out, staying their hand while wrongdoers run amok. That not only undermines the moral community, but it makes it harder to hold people to account for their actions, preventing them from growing by learning from their mistakes. 

Niceness is good. Be nice. But not so nice that you allow others to be nasty. 

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On saying “sorry” most readily, when we least need to

Sorry

One of the first things I learned when travelling in Europe, knowing only English, was to prioritise learning the word “sorry” when preparing to enter a new country.  

There’s nothing wrong with learning “hello”, “thank you” and “please”, “I am…” and “where’s the nearest…”, but if you’re going to learn one word by heart, that’s the one I’d recommend. If you get yourself in trouble, it will likely be the word you need the most. 

I speak from experience. Picture a nineteen-year-old washing her hands in the fountain at the foot of The Spanish Steps. Unbeknownst to her, the police have just rebuked some fellow tourists for cooling their sweaty feet in the waters of this national treasure—and told the watching crowd to heed their warning, show respect. 

When their whistles blew at me and I was asked to show my passport, I didn’t have the words to explain that I’d just been to the loo and had been unable to find a handle for the tap. This was before sensors became commonplace; perhaps there was a pedal, but I hadn’t thought to look. Instead, I’d opened the door (with difficulty—I’d already covered my hands in pink slimy soap) and headed for the next available water source. 

I had my reasons, but I didn’t have the words to explain why I’d done what I’d done, and until some friends explained later, I couldn’t fully understand why what I’d done had been so very wrong. 

I could say Lo siento, and did, repeatedly. 

I was reminded of this incident when reflecting on the ways in which we use the word “sorry” in daily life. 

Sometimes we’re not apologising at all—we’re expressing sympathy to a bereaved friend, or being polite to a stranger. The bereavement “sorry” might translate to: “I wish you didn’t have to go through this”, or “I really feel for you”. The polite “sorry” to a stranger might translate to “excuse me”, or “I excuse you”. It might not be “performative” at all; we use it as a statement, nothing more. Or we’ll say “sorry I’m late” when we’re not sorry, but are late. If we really are sorry we’re late; our eyes, our tone, must do the work. 

At other times, we apologise when we needn’t; we say “sorry” if we burst into tears when we are “supposed” to be keeping it together, or if we’ve had to ask for help when we’d hoped to solve a problem on our own. 

In the workplace, if we’ve been asked to do something we haven’t been trained to do, and need to take up a manager’s time to find out how, we might apologise when really, we’re just doing our job, and asking them to do theirs. 

In the context of close friendship, pouring out our worries, or asking for help, or advice, or both, isn’t something to apologise for, it’s (in part) what friendship is for. I know this, yet I find myself behaving otherwise. Just the other day I said “sorry” to a friend while crying on the phone, even though when friends do this to me I tell them off. Being trusted in this way honours a person more than it puts them out. When you love someone, you want to help; real “sorry” territory is more likely to be shutting a loved one out, than letting them in. 

This is because “real sorry territory” is using the word in the deepest sense of the word; it’s apologising for hurting someone. It’s not using the word to escape consequence, it’s using the word to express heartfelt regret for causing real harm and, rather than making excuses, choosing to take responsibility.

It can be easy to say “sorry” when we don’t really mean it—when we’re being polite, when we’re going through a motion, avoiding punishment. It’s easy to say it, even mean it, when we see we’ve made a dumb mistake: Lo siento! Lo siento! It can roll right off the tongue. 

In the case of the Fontana della Barcaccia, I’m pretty sure my excuses would have only caused further offence. Looking back, I’m glad I couldn’t say another word. But that sorry didn’t cost me, it helped me. 

It’s using the word to admit—to ourselves as much as to somebody else—that we’ve not only caused offence, but ongoing hurt, and to ask for undeserved forgiveness, that’s hard. Even if we haven’t done wrong technically, we might have had a chance to help, and turned away. Using “sorry” to express true regret—to “repent”—could be the rarest use of “sorry” there is. 

The rarest and, when it’s sincere, when it changes how we think and act, the most powerful. A word that can mean little can mean much; can be the difference between making excuses, or facing the truth; between a wound that keeps on causing pain, and one that, finally, begins to heal. 

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