May 14, 2015

Philosophical black holes: Internet memes

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, May 14, 2015

Philosophical black holes: Internet memes

The internet is a breeding ground for memes (a meme is a saying or image that spreads rapidly over the internet as internet users re-post the saying or image). Some memes promote what I call Philosophical Black Holes, i.e., philosophical ideas that, if not carefully considered, suck unsuspecting readers into intellectual darkness.

Let's take a critical look at three popular memes.

Meme 1. Your beliefs don't make you a better person. Your behaviour does.

Pause and think: for these claims to make moral sense depends on what one believes “a better person” is. It also depends on what one believes is good behaviour or what a better person ought to do.

Didn't serial killer Ted Bundy believe that “a better person” was one who is daring and willing to rape and murder? He did.

Surely, then, we should seek out and believe what's right, true, excellent, and good. Not any behaviour will do. In other words, ideas have consequences, so the idea—i.e., what is believed—matters.

We should of course concede that beliefs not acted upon don't amount to much. Nevertheless, for behaviour to amount to something good requires accurate beliefs about what is the good. To paraphrase the Apostle James (and adding a dash of Immanuel Kant): belief without behaviour is dead, but behaviour without belief is blind.

Beliefs do make you a better person, if you believe—and subsequently act upon—whatever is right, true, excellent, and good.

Meme 2. “It matters not who you love, where you love, why you love, when you love, or how you love, it matters only that you love.

Here's a criticism that cuts to the chase: “I love you,” said the cannibal to his dinner. “I love you,” said the pedophile to the child. “I love you,” said the Marquis de Sade to his torture victims.

Clearly, love has moral boundaries. Love isn't mere subjectivity/ feeling, contrary to what popular culture tells us. Love—true love—has a defining moral structure.

Meme 3 is a doozey: “We live in a society where people can't survive if they're not judging the next person. If you're proud of who you are and don't give two [cents] what anyone thinks, share [this post].”

This meme seemingly presents an attitude against judging others.

But look carefully at the last sentence.

The last sentence makes the implied judgment—yes, judgment—that if I don't share this post, then either (a) I am not proud of who I am or (b) I give two cents about what others think (or both). So, if I don't share the post, I have a problem.

On the other hand, if I do share the post, then I have a different problem. Contrary to what I'm agreeing to in the post, I obviously do care what people think.

How so? By sharing the post, which claims I don't give two cents about what people think, I show that I do give two cents: I obviously want people to think I don't give two cents about what they think! Also (if I'm honest), I probably won't be proud of myself for pretending not to give two cents when in fact I am giving two cents.

So if I don't share the post, there's something wrong with me; and if I do share the post, there's something wrong with me.

In other words, under the pretense of encouraging people not to judge others, the author of this meme is encouraging people to judge others—as are those who re-post it!

Overall lessons: To avoid letting memes suck you into Philosophical Black Holes, read carefully. And, to help others not get sucked into such holes, read carefully before you re-post.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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