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Gotta look good

Socrates’ ancient philosophy shows why moral posturing on social media is so annoying

By Olivia Goldhill

Social media offers the chance to carefully curate a public image and, while some choose to broadcast their professional success or vacations, others are keen to make a show of their moral worth. You’ve seen the messages on Twitter or Facebook: “Give a compliment, it can make someone’s day.” “Please, be kind.” These and similar messages emphatically condemn someone else’s behavior, or call for some moral act.

They may be well-intentioned, but these messages can be intensely annoying—especially when you know the person sending them isn’t particularly kind or complimentary. While the quirks of lecturing about morality on social media are contemporary, the emotional impulses behind it are millennia old. They were explored by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who, according to his disciple Plato’s writing, was unimpressed by moral posturing.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates explicitly condemns hubris through a well-known philosophical tale: The oracle at Delphi said no one was wiser than Socrates. In response, Socrates, who thought he was far too ignorant to be considered the wisest, talked to various other people who claimed to be wise. In the end, Socrates recognized that he was indeed the wisest—because he was the only one to recognize how much he didn’t know.

Though this story is well-known (and oft- paraphrased as “All I know is that I know nothing”) one key detail is often overlooked: Socrates was talking about moral wisdom. And so the various experts he spoke with didn’t simply claim to be knowledgeable, but also, and especially, moral. Marcus Folch, a classics professor at Columbia University, explains that sophists (teachers of wisdom) in the ancient world taught politicians both the skills and moral sensitivities they need to be a good leader. “There was a sense in the ancient world that wisdom and morality are connected, and it’s dangerous if they’re disconnected,” he says.

And so, in Apology, Socrates discovers that those who are confident of their wisdom are also assured of their moral authority. Just as intellectual arrogance leads people to overlook the gaps in their knowledge, those who are adamant that they understand morality are in fact unaware of their own failings, and tend to overlook the complexities of morality itself. “The more expertise people claimed about the most important things in life—justice, virtue and the best way to live—the less they could justify their claims,” Glenn Rawson, a philosophy professor at the University of Rhode Island, writes in Philosophy Now magazine. “Even the knowledge some people did possess, like the art or science of their trades, was overshadowed by their mistaken belief that they were also qualified to tell people how they should live.”

There are differences between those who assert their moral worth on social media in 2019 and an authority figure in Ancient Greece doing the same. In particular, as we don’t necessarily interact with online contacts in real life, there’s greater license to create an exaggerated impression of one’s own morality online as there would be in person. “In an ancient society, people know you. They see how you actually live, or at least parts,” says Folch. “On social media, you’re allowed to create an illusion. It’s highly constructed and there’s very little way to regulate that illusion.”

That said, there are plenty of characteristics that are true of moral posturing both in Ancient Greece and contemporary society. For example, we still tend to equate knowledge with morality. Folch points out that if someone doesn’t accept certain facts, such as the effects of climate change, many on the left are apt to condemn them for behaving in a way that is immoral. “There’s a sense among the left that if you don’t endorse certain significant claims, then you’re probably not a very good person,” he says. “Having the right beliefs is a very significant part of virtue.” And signaling these “right beliefs” can be important for many to feel that they themselves are virtuous.

Of course, some of those who condemn certain behavior on social media may be voicing genuine frustration, rather than a desire to self-aggrandize. But loudly asserting that someone else is immoral does imply, intentionally or not, that the person making that claim is more moral.

Ultimately, any one person’s claim to be a moral authority is probably not true: We all contain far more shades of gray than we might like to admit. “I’m generally suspicious of people who claim to be moral,” says Folch. “Morality’s a great equalizer. We’re all a mix of good and evil, probably more evil than good. If you try not to show that, you’re probably hiding something.”