Sunday, August 18, 2019

Weighing the greater good

Occasionally, I give over the space of my column to draw your attention to a book or story that seems relevant and particularly timely to any thoughts about doing the right thing.

In the past, readers have asked me what some of the influences have been on how I think about answering ethical questions posed or thorny challenges featured in the news or our daily lives. For some time, Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" has struck me as particularly astute at pointing to the limitations of how to structure an idyllic society built on the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

The notion of the greatest good is the underpinning of utilitarian theory. Proponents see it as a method of making decisions and taking actions which maximize the prospects of a good life for most of a group of people. On the surface, it's a noble endeavor.

But Le Guin, who spent a lifetime exploring alternative societies in her rich body of work, poignantly addresses the tradeoffs involved in utilitarian theory. If we are part of the majority that benefits from actions taken, that could be result in a good, rich life. But if we are among those who are not part of the greater number of people receiving the greatest good, the outcome might be far more dismal.

If you haven't read "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," I must warn you that what follows will give away a key plot twist which appears close to the end of the story. Consider this a spoiler alert.

The premise for Le Guin's story is that there is an idyllic society called Omelas. Bells ring, birds chirp, food is plentiful, and people live full lives of happiness and joy. We are treated to Le Guin's masterful scene setting and description of Omelas. Her description paints such a beautiful picture, full of detail, followed by: "Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing."

Le Guin goes on to let us know that in the village of Omelas, there sits a young child in a room on the dirt-floor basement of one of the "beautiful public buildings." The door is always locked. No one visits the child, except to fill his or her food bowl and water jug. The child will occasionally say, "Please let me out. I will be good!"

But the people of Omelas know that for the society to continue as it has been depends "wholly on this child's abominable misery."

There's no indication in Le Guin's story that anyone tries to free the young child. The vast majority of Omelians go along with their lives. But every so often someone grows silent for a few days, decides he or she cannot bear to accept a society premised on such cruelty, leaves the beautiful gates of the village, and walks away from Omelas.

I offer Le Guin's story as recommended reading not to make any poignant observation about any specific topical issue. But it's a thoughtful meditation examining whether we would choose to do the right thing when faced with the knowledge that the goodness of our own life is premised on harsh realities for someone else. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 


Sunday, August 11, 2019

Should you unfollow those with whom you disagree?

A reader we're calling Ken who is a teacher in the Midwest writes that while he is not overly active on social media, he does like to follow some news organizations, professional associations, academic resources and individuals whose work touches on his own interests on Twitter. He figures it's a quick way to keep up with what others are thinking about issues even if 280 characters rarely provides any in-depth insight.

Ken tries to keep the number of those he follows below 500, believing that that gives him a good sampling. As he finds himself creeping above that number of people, he regularly cuts some who either don't post much or don't post much of interest to him.

But Ken writes that he has a strong belief that he should not follow anyone whose views he finds abhorrent, irresponsible or lazy. He believes that adding to followers on these accounts only encourages the poster to believe that what he or she is posting is of value.

He also writes that he believes he has an ethical responsibility to stop following people who regularly repost tweets from such objectionable sources. While the person retweeting might be retweeting without comment, Ken views this as a tacit endorsement of their views or, at the very least, an encouragement that they should keep posting such stuff.

"Am I wrong to believe this is an ethical issue?" Ken asks.

I do not tell people who they should and shouldn't follow on social media. If Ken's approach works for him to keep him as informed as he wants to be from consulting his Twitter feed, then it's perfectly acceptable for him to follow or unfollow anyone he wants to follow. It's curious that Ken chooses not to block the accounts of those he finds truly objectionable with their posts, but that is his call as well.

In general, however, I do not agree that it is inherently unethical to follow those tweeters with whom you disagree or whose views run counter to your own. Sure, if someone is truly offensive on a regular basis, that's good reason to unfollow. It's also Twitter's responsibility to enforce its stated policy of not permitting tweets that incite violence, endanger children or others, abuse or harass, promote hate, encourage self-harm, or incite illegal activity. Twitter lays this all out in its "Twitter Rules" on its site. Tweeters would do well to report tweets that fall into any of these categories.

Personally, I follow many whose political, personal, religious or other views are different from my own. I find it a useful way to broaden my perspective and stay informed - well, as informed as short bursts can provide.

The right thing when choosing who or who not to follow on Twitter or other social media platforms is for each individual to decide what they want to use the site for. No social media site of which I'm aware is a substitute for keeping up with current events. Deciding whom to follow is more a personal than an ethical choice.

Ken should follow or unfollow whomever he wants, but he shouldn't delude himself into believing that those who manage their social media differently from him are any less ethical in doing so. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to