Source: New York Times
Almost no students leave university without passing a course on ethics–so why is the modern application of ethics so far from the textbooks? The word ethics comes from the Ancient Greek ēthikós that means “relating to one’s character”. To Socrates, being ethical meant knowing one-self and being open to every fact relating to one’s truth. In Economics, we learn that perfect models don’t exist–models simplify general guidelines for us, but every country, province, community and people may behave differently than expected. We are taught, to a certain degree, to remain open to such changes and strive to become aware of all complexities and intricacies arising from our scientific interest in human behaviour. We are taught that being an economist is first and foremost admitting that it is out of our reach to model everything, to know everything. Being ethical is thus, in simple words, not being intellectually disingenuous–not ignoring facts that may disprove your thesis, weighting every perspective with the same analytical seriousness until proven otherwise.
As I progress in researching my Bachelor thesis, the topic of a post-ethical world has increasingly called my attention. In a fair debate between two opposite sides, both versions of the same “truth” see the light of day, and the listener is then able to judge who he agrees with. That is the core of dēmokratiā. However, with algorithms that optimize for echo chambers–only showing you what you agree with–have you ever asked yourself if there is a truth that you are not hearing? How is your personal super-optimized echo chamber, shaping your views, opinions and reality of the world? The days where the media was proud to be “objective and impartial” are far behind us–but who can blame them? If Google optimizes what articles it shows to you based on assumptions it has made about who you are (using your gender, age, profession, income bracket, region of the world, favorite websites, and much more) wouldn’t showing you news that are increasingly biased towards your opinions ultimately be the goal? We could be living in a post-ethical world where echo chambers are the new “relating to one’s character”, where people not only have opposing versions of reality, but willingly choose to believe in opposing realities.
Much has been said about a post-truth world when Donald Trump became the U.S. president. An ocean of fake news swarmed the media, with all sorts of absurd claims. No, you will not turn into a lizard if you take vaccines. No, AOC is not having an affair with Bernie Sanders. For a while, the fake news was ridiculous and easily debunked. However, the “good guys” noticed that the strategy of bending the truth for shock value actually really worked in our human psyche. An increasing number of publications with centuries-old credibility have decided to take sides and voice their biases, without restraint. The Economist cover, days before the U.S. election, had a big bold lettered title saying “It Has To Be Biden”. Fox News, on the other hand, was beating audience records with Tucker Carlson’s monologues about how Biden had almost no real support. We can disagree on who should be the president, but why are the main sources of information delivering completely different realities? This is the next step after a post-truth world: a post-ethical world too. In the post-truth we were delivered “fake news” from Whatsapp chains, Facebook posts from relatives, obscure blogs and just plain, old one-on-one conversation. Journalists were tasked to “fact-checking: to make sure nobody believed things that were not real. In the post-ethical world, there are media companies with thousands of employees and billions in resources, who are perfectly capable of being accurate and precise in their reporting, bending the truth so much that it has broken: Only 9% of Americans trust the media completely. 33% don’t trust the media at all, and similar amounts are in the middle between “A fair amount” and “Not very much”.
Source: Gallup News
Is that because the media is reporting false news? Not necessarily, but the news from different media sources are so conflicting that it is impossible to believe that either of them is completely true. For example, when two siblings fight and call their mother, they usually blame the entire ordeal on each other. “She hit me first for no reason at all” and “No, he hit me first and I was only watching TV”. The mother sees that the TV is off and the remote control is broken on the floor. Is it possible that the truth is somewhere in the middle–they both could not agree on what to watch and started fighting? That’s to be expected of kids.
However, the same immature and naïve way of reporting may have infected even the most serious of reporters. Look at this case: As of February 2021, Brazil is the #7 best country in covid-vaccination in absolute numbers, and its rate of vaccination has beaten almost every other country in the world. However, because a media channel is in a constant feud with the Brazilian government, it decides to report “Brazil is behind Argentina in Vaccination” in big bold letters. Objectively, without further context such “as per 100 people”, that should be fake news since that statement is not universally true. What happens then is a cherry-picking of statistics to prove an specific self-serving thesis (“the government is not doing a good job”) that comes before the actual purpose of journalism: the delivering of accurate information.
Another interesting case is the recent interview from the Sunday Times with the controversial professor Jordan Peterson. In the interview, Mr. Peterson says that he was initially misdiagnosed with schizophrenia but that he actually had another condition called akathisia. Several headlines then decide to report that “Jordan Perterson says he has schizophrenia” since that statement is short, doesn’t require context and is much more powerful than his actual statement. The quote is not universally true, the journalist knows it is not universally true, but decides to present the reader with only one option–the most self-serving one (“Jordan Peterson’s theories are invalidated because of his mental condition”). The same thing happens on the other side of the aisle: Fox News writes in big bold letters that “Democrats use coordinated lying” in relation to the viral AOC video where she says she feared for her life when rioters stormed the Capitol building. AOC was in her office at the time of the riots, about 2.3 miles away from the epicenter, but she never claimed to have been in the main building. Is it universally true then that Democrats used coordinated lying? Absolutely not, but the Fox News clip self-servingly leaves out this detail to prove “democrats are bad”.
It is not the end of the world that some journalists have personal beliefs: if a journalist believes the Brazilian government is not doing a good job or that Jordan Peterson’s ideas are bonkers, it is their duty to provide accurate and precise research and arguments to corroborate their thesis. If their thesis survives even in the light of opposing information, then it is good and should be published à la scientific method. However, in this post-ethical world, it is becoming more and more acceptable (and even expected) to argue one’s thesis with (knowingly) untruthful information to back it up–or worse yet, to manipulate others with misleading information into agreeing with you, without even telling them that’s your actual intention. A post-ethical world is a time where the “ends justify the means” and if you disagree, you could see your name in big bold letters in a title somewhere.