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Sunday, June 14, 2015

'How a focus on Aristotelian ethics can develop good digital citizens' by Tom Harrison

Photo: Dr Tom Harrison
Dr. Tom Harrison, director of development at Birmingham University’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues reports, "The virtual world is difficult to police and even harder to predict, but Greek philosophy can help make a virtue out of online necessity."

It may sound far-fetched, but I believe the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle can help in tackling some of the moral issues encountered by young people on the internet today.
Indeed, a reconsideration of virtue ethics and a focus on character could help to counter some of the problems that teachers face daily, such as cyberbullying and online plagiarism.

In dealing with such issues, most schools adopt strategies along deontological or utilitarian lines of thinking. Deontological philosophy is based on the principle that it is one’s duty to follow rules and guidelines to “do the right thing”. Displaying rules in corridors and classrooms about how to avoid plagiarism is an example of this philosophical principle in action.

"Aristotle" by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882). 
Photo: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Utilitarianism, meanwhile, is based on the principle that the “right thing to do” is the action that brings the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This involves calculating what the consequences of any particular action might be. Strategies that follow this principle often involve showing students shocking films about, for example, Amanda Todd, who killed herself after being cyberbullied, in an attempt to elicit empathy and make them aware of potential unintended outcomes.

Although teachers report that both strategies have some effect, issues of online behaviour are still very real concerns in many schools. This is why I believe that educational strategies directed at developing good digital citizens, based on Aristotelian virtue ethics, are worth considering.

The strength of virtue ethics is that it emphasises good character as the best guide for “doing the right thing”, alongside adhering to rules and attempting to calculate the consequences of a course of action. In the cyber worlds that many young people inhabit, rules are particularly hard to establish and uphold, and consequences are difficult to predict.

Rules were made to be broken
Recent research conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, where I work, shows that 11- to 14-year-olds in England think the internet is largely unregulated and that rules about what is right and wrong are often opaque. Although participants say that their teachers enforce rules in the classroom, these are often broken when they are at home alone, online in their bedrooms.

Website giants such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter find it hard (or are sometimes unwilling) to regulate personal profiles or impose rules regarding their use. Furthermore, even when the rules are understood, young people report bypassing them by going online anonymously.

The research also shows that many 11- to 14-year-olds are unaware of the consequences of some of their online actions. For example, they post messages that they don’t realise will upset their peers because of a lack of visual clues compared with a face-to-face interaction.

Furthermore, because the journey of any online communication is so unpredictable, messages that were intended for one individual can quickly spread around a whole school, with significant unintended consequences. Many teachers report having to deal with fallouts from supposedly private emails, or “sexting” posts that have been widely broadcast.


Additional resources 
Aristotle (Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Does the internet influence the character virtues of 11 to 14 year olds in England? A mixed method study with particular regard to cyber-bullying by Harrison, Thomas John (2014)
Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham.

eTheses Repository

Aristotle: Biography of a Great Thinker


Source: TES News and Socratica Channel (YouTube)