Public Philosophy Network

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Thanks to Michael for suggesting that the attempt to define our terms would be a worthwhile endeavor here. (And thanks to Vance for welcoming Michael while my attention was being diverted by the urgency of other matters here at Penn State.) I thought I might start to take up Michael's suggestion by reflecting on a question that he poses:


[H]ow can discussion of the ethical implications of X be coherent when the nature of X is undefined?


If I am right to identify this as a rhetorical question in the context of Michael’s post, then I think it would also be fair of me to understand him to be using the question to express at least a concern (if not a conviction) that the coherence of our project here might depend on our prior possession of a definition of the term ‘social media’. I’m not sure I share this concern, at least not without further qualificiation, even though I certainly agree that there might be cases where clarity about our definition would in fact be crucial. Let me explain why this is the case, and then suggest a question that I think could lead to the kind of document that Michael (I think rightly) suggests would be a fruitful outcome of our discussion. 


According to one way of understanding this definitional requirement, it threatens to lead to a paradox of the kind we find in Plato’s Meno. I think most of us would be likely to agree that we need to start out with some common understanding of what X is, in order to take part in any meaningful discussion of X—whether this discussion aims at more precision in our definition or at something else that we agree is important. If we grant that, however, I’m not sure I see what prevents this discussion from being a discussion of the ethical implications of X.


Why should we think that the common general understanding of X we start with has to be refined into a precise definition of the nature of X before we can discuss other things about X coherently?


What would be wrong with thinking that a discussion of the ethical implications of X could actually reveal to us both why and where there is need for something like a more precise definition of X?


I agree with the commitment to seeking greater clarity wherever and whenever doing so is likely to remove some particular obstacle to the progress of our discussion. I don’t, however, think we would be better off tabling that discussion until we achieve the kind of clarity and consensus that would be required to ensure that such obstacles will never, or only rarely, come up.

Accordingly, I would suggest the following question as one that keeps with the spirit of Michael’s suggestion:

Within the broader discussion of social media and its cultural impact, what are some particular points where greater clarity concerning what is meant by ‘social media’ might be helpful for advancing our discussion of its ethical implications? 

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