Beliefnet
Everyday Ethics

I received a lot of flack for my last post. And I’m willing to admit I may just have deserved some of it. I was called out for failing to ‘do my research’ and ‘being ignorant’ when I drew a hypothetical scenario out from news about Steve Jobs’ liver transplant to ask a greater question of whether perhaps the rich and powerful get special medical treatment in a way that might be unethical. And I’ll grant that, in retrospect, I learned a lot more from some of my commenters’ remarks than I had known about the subject I wrote about in the first place. They rightly pointed out some areas of potentially faulty logic in my argument, though many of them seemed to fail to note the hypothetical nature of the argument.

For that, I’m actually quite grateful. I’m new to the blogosphere, and I suspect I’ll make more than a few missteps as I tread these unexplored and dangerous waters. If people didn’t get my point, I have to take responsibility for not being thoroughly clear. And if my point was stupid, by all means, it’s important not to let it slide, especially in a blog about ethics. So that’s OK, no harm done.

What surprised me was the discourtesy with which some of the commenters flung their criticism (and in some cases, exposed how carelessly they’d read my piece, one person not even bothering to note my name or gender, another assuming my mother was dead when my post clearly states otherwise). Some were downright nasty. It made me wonder about how casually we read–and write–online, and how carelessly we treat one another when there’s no accountability and no face-to-face interaction.

So today’s ethical question is: Does our moral behavior depend on knowing there’ll be consequences? In other words, if the person you’re insulting is no more to you than words on a screen, does that give you free license to behave badly?

I can’t speak for others, though my suspicion is that, yeah, there are a lot folks out there who feel that way. And I can’t do a thing about them. I can only take ownership of my own actions. So, knowing now that these factors are present, my question to myself is, do I have a responsibility to write the perfect piece every time? Research the sh*t out of every post before it goes up? (Full disclosure: sometimes I am crunched for time and feel pressured to post just to get something up there.) Should I write only non-controversial material? (Like that’ll work when the topic is ethics!) Express no opinions? Hmm…

In part I do feel that my role is more discussion opener than arbiter of ethical or moral rectitude. I mean, I’m a writer and former philosophy major, not some white-bearded ancient who’s spent a lifetime pondering human mores on a mountaintop. I like to throw a topic out there, elucidate a question, and invite opinions. In that way, I learn from others’ thoughts, rather than just pontificating about my own.

With my Steve Jobs post, I did learn a lot–both from the information provided in the comments, and from the largely negative tone of them. I also learned it’s important to begin with an unimpeachable argument, or to be able to take the heat when and if I fail to do so. I’d simply hoped the tenor of the discussion would remain in the realm of the civil, and that people would see the post for what it was: a sincere wish to discuss big issues, using a topical jumping-off point for a conversation opener.

As I continue on blogging, I expect I’ll just have to grow a thicker skin.

Incidentally, for those who would like to have a look at Beliefnet’s Rules of Conduct, you can view them here

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