Moral Development and the Internet


Will the internet play an increasing role in shifting the source of moral standards from face-to-face communities to online networks? Gergen (1999), for example, argues that 20th century technologies of social connection undermine traditional face-to-face communities as the generative site for moral action. According to this kind of perspective, technologies such as the internet erode our ability to act in concert with locally defined moral standards. Instead, by connecting people across space, the dispersed network becomes the generative site for moral standards. Gergen seems to suggest that this is something we should lament. But if instead of acting in concert with what my next door neighbor thinks is right, I act in concert with what my online community thinks is morally appropriate, is this all bad? What if my next door neighbor is a deplorable character? It is true that non-geographically bound communities (such as online communities) have probably replaced the traditional community in more ways than one. But do these communities, and online communities in particular, simply give voice to the collective moral standards of their members, or are the moral standards of their members being shaped by the experience of being part of such a community? Furthermore, given the fragmentary nature of online communities, will the internet promote relativistic notions of morality, or contribute to the development of universally shared models of morality?

Morality is a set of social standards, developing and reproducing themselves through social transactions. Thus, it is not unreasonable to expect that a highly social medium like the internet replicates some of those transactions, albeit in new forms and subject to new dynamics. The internet is a socio-technical system, conformed of “hardware, software, physical surroundings, people, procedures, laws and regulations, and data and data structures” (, nd). How the combination of these elements shapes the development of morality is an issue mostly unexplored. In this paper, I will sketch briefly two possible research avenues towards this endeavor. My intention is not to suggest that just because these affordances exist, that they will somehow automatically emerge. To the contrary, if an affordance is a three-way interaction between the environment, the activity, and the actor (Dourish, 2003), then we need to make sure the environments and the activities are designed for actors to be able to take advantage of the internet to further their moral development. As with any other endeavor, technology can simply provide new means, but the end by necessity requires human agency.

The internet as an instrument of moral modelling

Albert Bandura’s work on social cognition suggests that moral development occurs as human observe others in a social context. Thus, Bandura believes that individuals’ moral development can be viewed as a

gradually expanding repertoire of moral values and moral actions by means of both observing others as models and trying the actions themselves and… using information from the observed and directly experienced consequences to guide future decisions about whether one sort of moral behavior will be better than another in fulfilling one’s needs and obtaining rewards. (Thomas, 1997, p. 86)

Bandura refers to this phenomenon as modelling, and argues that human beings are quite sophisticated at it:

When exposed to diverse models, observers rarely pattern their behavior exclusively after a single source, nor do they adopt all the attributes even of preferred models. Rather, observers combine aspects of various models into new amalgams that differ from the individual sources… Different observers adopt different combinations of characteristics. (quoted in Thomas, 1997, p. 72)

The kind of observation and modelling alluded to in Bandura’s theory is probably imagined to unfold in face-to-face interactions. But there is nothing to suggest that similar outcomes cannot be achieved through mediated experiences, such as those afforded by the internet.

For example, members of an online community can observe how pro-social and anti-social online behavior is rewarded or castigated, and decide to conduct themselves in a particular way based on their observations and conclusions. Of course, the fact that online behavior [I am using the distinction between online and offline settings
throughout merely to differentiate between the location of acts within
the same reality, not because I believe these labels correspond to two
parallel realities] is perceived as having less real consequences than offline behavior (due largely to the ease with which anonymity and identity transmutation is afforded) might have led some people to assume that they could get away more easily with anti-social and immoral behavior. However, research (see for example Turkle, 1995) seems to suggest that people’s emotions are as implicated in online acts as they are in offline acts, and people might begin to model behaviors that recognize that anti-social behavior is just as consequential online as it is offline.

Another advantage of modelling in online environments is that it increases exposure to models of behavior that the individual would not encounter normally. This can result in a more firmly established system of moral values, as the individual is able to put together more sophisticated amalgams based on diverse sources to accommodate his or her individual needs. At the same time, this same exposure to diverse models of behavior can result in more widely shared moral codes across society, as the pool of sources becomes widely known and distributed (even if individuals adopt these sources in different combinations). As Bandura suggests: “A shared morality… is vital to the humane functioning of any society… Societal codes and sanctions articulate collective moral imperatives as well as influence social conduct” (Bandura, 1991, p. 46). In our highly interconnected world, demands are increasing for a shared morality, as I will discuss next. In sum, modelling of behavior based on online interactions can promote individual moral codes that are stronger through diversity and at the same time more resistant to ethnocentric interests.

The internet as an instrument of social perspective taking

The second application of the internet to moral development that I wish to explore concerns the emergence of empathy in an online environment. Empathy is “the glue that makes social life possible… a biologically and affectively based, cognitively mediated and socialized predisposition to connect emotionally with others” (Gibbs, 2003, p. 79). Empathy promotes moral behavior by allowing an individual to identify with another’s situation, instead of his or her own. Empathic individuals are those who are able to put themselves in other’s people shoes, and act based on the kind of behavior they would like to see reciprocated by others. Empathy is primarily a social phenomenon, and so again it is not unreasonable to expect that it can be displayed in a techno-social system like the internet. Moreover, my thesis is that the internet can actively promote empathy in new ways by increasing opportunities for social perspective taking.

How does social perspective taking contribute to the development of empathy? The premise (based on Piaget’s theories and advanced by Hoffman) is that as children mature, they become able to focus on moral encounters not only from the superficial perspective of satisfying their individual needs, but from the perspective of others. Thus, they are able to act morally, in accordance to what is best for society as a whole, not just for themselves. They are able to achieve this decentration by engaging in social perspective taking, which as Gibbs (2003) suggests, “means not simply taking another’s perspective but taking into account another’s beliefs, preferences, and other attitudes” (p. 3, emphasis in original). Gibbs continues:

Also relevant is Hoffman’s (2000) suggestion that mature social perspective taking involves attention to both how the other person is feeling and how one would feel in the other’s place. Piaget’s (1932/1965) term for the Golden Rule (or do-as-you-would-be-done-by perspective taking) was ideal moral reciprocity… The common adoption in dialogue of the moral point of view and ideal moral reciprocity… amounts to mutual respect. (2003, p. 3, emphasis in original)

Of course, there are obstacles on the road to social perspective taking and empathy. Individuals or groups can act unempathically when their propensity to feel empathy is being curtailed by what Hoffman describes as empathic biases. Two of these biases, the here-and-now bias and the similarity bias, drive individuals to focus their empathy on what is immediately present and/or what is familiar to them, to the exclusion of the distant and/or the unfamiliar. This makes perfect sense as a way to guarantee the survival of one’s group. If a decision has to be made about who will one help during a crisis, most people will focus first on their own kin. If sides need to be taken, most people will align themselves with their own communities. However, while the application of these biases used to be relatively straight forward, modern technologies are changing the politics of empathy to the extent that they are changing the nature of communities and inter-communal relations.

According to Norbert Elias (1998), technological development in the last century initiated a process of global integration that has had important consequences to how we allocate empathy. Although Elias focuses on the example of the airplane in the following passage, it is not inconceivable to apply his arguments to other technologies, such as the internet:

The triumphant advance of the aeroplane, as a medium for global traffic in peace and war, has decisively contributed to the growing interdependence of all states on the globe and, at the same time, is also its product. It has enormous civilizing influence, by bringing people from all regions closer to each other. This is particularly, though not solely, because it aids peoples of all colours to begin to get used to the fact that they have to live with one another, however different their patterns of self-regulation may be. Growing interdependencies, however, are accompanied with great regularity by specific tensions and conflicts. No group of people is pleased when it realizes that it is now more dependent on others than before. I have called such tensions ‘integration and disintegration tensions’ (1998, p. 225).

The ‘civilizing influence’ that Elias alludes to can be interpreted as an ability to overcome similarity and here-and-now biases in order to empathize with people who are different and distant from us. However, Elias is aware of the resistance to these processes. In the face of the growing pressure towards integration of institutions and regulations, Elias notes that:

People’s self-regulation is (in accordance with their origin and therefore, understandably) geared to the identification with small sub-units of humankind, tribes or states. Compared with the emotional importance of one’s own tribe, one’s own folk, one’s own nation, the concept of humankind is an empty word. It is indeed to a large extent, but not solely, because of technological developments that people now find themselves in the position of having to be prepared in the long run either to live in peace with one another or to perish in wars with one another. (ibid, p. 226)

So while we might be conditioned to empathize with small sub-units of humankind-those similar to us-modern transportation and communication technologies are putting us in contact (and conflict) with people different from us. This is creating pressure on us to feel empathy towards the Other as a way to guarantee the survival of the species, and to not succumb to destruction by warfare. And so the same technologies are being used to bridge differences through empathy. Thus, these technologies can be seen as both promoting globalization and as the product of it. Next, I will explore some of the empathy-building affordances of the internet.

In order to understand how a technology that introduces more layers of mediation between two people can increase empathy, we need to refer to Hoffman’s notion of mediated association. Mediated association is a mature form of empathic arousal that takes place through the cognitive medium of language. “For example, one may read a letter describing another’s situation and affective state. Emphatic responding through language-mediated association entails the mental effort of semantic processing and decoding” (Gibbs, 2003, p. 83). In other words, Hoffman is arguing that to respond to empathic distress does not require the victim to be present, and that we can feel empathy towards subjects who are not near us. Communication technologies are capable of facilitating empathic arousal by allowing one individual to experience the affective state of another who might not be physically present. This is possible through telepresence, the technologically-mediated illusion of being somewhere where our bodies are not.

Through new forms of synchronous and asynchronous telepresence, the internet has increased the availability of opportunities for empathic arousal not only between people who know each other, but between complete strangers from different groups as well. In theory, the internet could usher in a new era of social perspective taking, as individuals are able (with increasing quality and diminishing cost) to engage affectively with members of other social groups. This increased exposure can advance the project of integration. If it manages to remain mindful of the richness that diversity provides, this integration can result in a shared consciousness of how we need each other to survive. An interconnected world in which social groups can negotiate the meaning of values with each other is a world in which integration makes possible the emergence of some basic, universally shared moral values.

However, there are at least three obstacles that work against the application of the internet for the development of social perspective taking.

First, some of us might react with discomfort to the increased proximity of the Other fostered upon us by the internet. As Norbert Elias would argue, the pressure towards integration generates tensions which might resolve themselves through antisocial impulses. The internet is as much a space for affective connections and the building of better understandings as it is a space for harassment and vituperation.

Second, while the internet might increase our affective connection with the far through telepresence, it might do so at the expense of our affective connection with the near (as I have argued elsewhere, cf. Mejias, 2004a). As Hoffman argues, some degree of the here-and-now and similarity biases are necessary to guarantee the survival of one’s group. However, the internet disrupts these biases by making what is near to us less relevant than what is distant from us. Disintegration, instead of integration, ensues as telepresence makes it possible for us to neglect our surroundings. This phenomenon can be observed in cases where people (affluent enough to afford constant internet access) opt to build affective bonds with others across the globe with whom they have more interests in common. This is then used as an excuse to disassociate themselves from people in their immediate surrounding who are of different social or ethnic backgrounds. In this case, the overall effect is one of a decrease in integration and the ability to empathize with the Other. Let’s not forget, for example, that modern cities are some of the best laboratories for social perspective taking and the negotiation of difference. Unbridled telepresence can undermine some of the benefits of localized diversity.

Third, social perspective taking on the internet can degenerate into self-focused perspective taking due to the egocentric affordances of the medium. As Gergen (1999) points out, in online encounters, “[r]ather than encountering others in the flesh-for who they really are-people project onto others their own desires. They imagine the others according to personal wishes… “the other is not really other, but it is actually a moment in my own self-becoming”” (1999, 20th page in chapter 8). The implications of this for social perspective taking can be surmised by quoting the following passage from Gibbs:

Hoffman (2000) suggested that perspective taking can be either self-focused (imagining how one would feel in the other’s situation) or other focused (imagining how the other person feels or how most people would feel in that situation). Although other-focused perspective taking is more readily sustained, self-focused perspective taking tends to be more intense, probably because “it activates one’s own personal need system” (p. 56). This activation, however, renders self-focused perspective taking vulnerable to what Hoffman calls “egoistic drift,” in which the observer “becomes lost in egoistic concerns and the image of the victim that initiated the role-taking process skips out of focus and fades away” (p.56) (Gibbs, 2003, p. 83-84)

Empathic online encounters can remain at a superficial level when they trigger egoistic concerns. The simulated nature of these telepresence encounters makes it difficult for authentic empathy to develop, as I have argued elsewhere:

Telepresence is entirely egocentric, in that it allows us to be selective about whom to engage and when according to our own interests… making it technologically possible to reduce interaction with the external world to mediated representations through which I can focus not on the emotions of others, but on my own reaction to the emotions of others. Importance is transferred to how *I* feel about the plight of others, represented through layers of mediation. Action (no longer classifiable as moral) becomes centered on how I can alleviate my own distress, not the distress of others, which results in further egocentrism (Mejias, 2004b).

It remains to be seen whether we can design effective online environments and activities that will allow individuals to escape the trap of superficial, egocentric perspective taking, that will help reintegrate them to their immediate surroundings, and that will encourage them to be prosocial participants in the project of integration. Until we do so, the potential of the internet to contribute to moral development will remain unfulfilled.

References (nd). Why a Socio-Technical System? Retrieved November 22, 2004 from

Dourish, P. (2001). Where the action is: the foundations of embodied interaction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Elias, N. (1998). The Norbert Elias reader: a biographical selection. (J. Goudsblom, Ed.), Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers

Gergen, K.J. (1999). An invitation to social construction. London: Sage

Gibbs, J.C. (2003). Moral development and reality: beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage

Hoffman, M.L. (2002). Empathy and moral development: implications for caring and justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Mejias, U. (2004a). Re-approaching nearness: Online communication and its place in praxis. Retrieved November 22, 2004 from

Mejias, U. (2004b). Un-empathic nation? Retrieved November 22, 2004 from

Thomas, R. M. (1997). Moral development theories-secular and religious: A comparative study. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen. New York, NY: Touchstone Books.

[Note: Originally submitted as term paper for a Moral Development class]

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  1. Hey Uli, how’s it going?
    I’ve been studying (freestyle) about blogs, social science, internet/tech, tagging, and all this kind of stuff. Just wanted to say that your writings and your links (oh, the CCTE links are just great) are helping me a lot, and I’m seriously thinking about going back to university for a MA (I have a BA in Social Communication). I’m discovering the internet that thinks! Keep up the good work!
    Best regards,
    Porto Alegre, Brazil

  2. Blogs are not the only fruit

    Blogs may have been a word of the year for 2004, but a wider variety of social software tools and group structures will start to gain widespread adoption in 2005, which will present both challenges and opportunities for those of us who are implemen…

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