Technology Is Making It Harder to Tell Right From Wrong
The human conscience is our ‘inner voice,’ but we can’t hear it without mindful focus on where we direct our attention
Once, while sitting in my car waiting to get onto the Bay Bridge, I was physically assaulted by a man with a bag of rocks who seemed to be strung out on drugs. The experience was disconcerting, to say the least, but what I also remember is the shock of looking around at nearby cars that were likewise stopped. One guy was chatting on his phone, sipping a drink, casually glancing back and forth between me and my car being attacked and the road ahead. A woman next to me was holding up her phone in my direction, presumably filming the event. The person in the car ahead adjusted whatever device was hanging from the front window, then pulled closer to the car in front of them, as if the violence might be catching.
As I fumbled for my own device, which had fallen to the floor in the commotion, I realized that traffic had yet to move — and still no one had tried to intervene or checked to see if I was all right. Apparently, the police were not informed either, as I learned when I was finally able to call them. The irony was that we were a block away from a police station.
My story is nothing compared with those of countless others who have experienced a mobile device thwarting human decency. The dopamine deluge that comes from the instant gratification of getting likes on social media can make capturing a spectacle more enticing than heeding our conscience. Conversely, the Pavlovian response to incessant notifications gives us an excuse to avert our eyes, mitigating uncomfortable situations and distancing us from them.
All told, there is a sense that our capacity for moral attention is degrading. Moral attention is the ability to notice the morally salient aspects of a given situation so that we can best respond. It’s not a new concept. The Stoics considered attention (or what they called prosochê, a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, a “self-consciousness that never sleeps,” a constant tension of the human spirit) to be the fundamental spiritual attitude.
Moral attention is the ability to notice the morally…