Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma” and Moral Relativism

The beginning of Social Dilemma, the recently released Netflix documentary, poses a question to set up the entire film: what is beneath all the problems we are seeing in the tech industry and the world? Computer scientist and tech ethicist, Tristan Harris, is the one who asks it at the beginning and he provides the answer near its conclusion.

Harris says, “If we don’t agree on what is true, or that there’s such a thing as truth, we’re toast! This is the problem beneath other problems because if we don’t agree on what’s true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.”

I almost pumped my fists in the air in excited agreement as I listened to Harris hone in on what ails us. Relativism is at the heart of our social disorder. 

Pope Francis recognizes this fact. His words in Laudato Si could serve as an introduction to the Social Dilemma. He says:

“When human beings place themselves at the center, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find…the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. ” 1

Moral relativism is the belief that a moral judgment is the subjective expression of an individual and cannot be judged outside that individual. 2 The problem is that once objective moral grounds are removed, then it becomes possible to justify almost any sort of behavior.

So how are the tech industries engaging in moral relativism?

In Social Dilemma, artist Edward Tufte is quoted, “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” In other words, the tech industry has reduced the human person to merely a consumer. Just as illegal drug traffickers ruin lives through careless disregard for the person to whom they’re selling drugs, so is the tech industry degrading the people who use their software. What’s worse, these tech industries view people as not just users, but commodities themselves to be sold to the highest bidding advertiser.

These companies profit off of advertising and more clicks equals more ad revenue. That algorithm doesn’t account for whether any information they are pushing to the users page is true. It’s only goal is to get clicks. That benefits the spread of fake news, which according to a recent M.I.T. study, spreads six times faster on social media than true stories. As one interviewee said in the film, “We’ve created a system that biases towards false information…because that makes companies more money.”

The film points out that a company cannot be blamed for aiming to make money per se because companies are supposed to make money. Money is a desirable good, but it is not the greatest good. And that is why these companies are guilty of relativism. They’re pursuing money at the cost of social wellbeing. What these corporations are doing is articulated in Pope Francis’s quote from Laudato Si above. They are effectively making themselves the center, and we should not be surprised that everything else, especially people, are “irrelevant unless it serves [their] own immediate interests.”

One of the interviewees puts this in other words. Computer philosophy writer Jaron Lanier says, “A lot of people in Silicon Valley subscribe to some kind of theory that we’re building some global super brain, and all of our users are just interchangeable little neurons, no one of which is important.” He goes on to say people are then seen as another element to be programmed and manipulated.

And relativism is what makes all this possible. When the dignity of the human person is reduced in any way, abuses of all kinds occur. This isn’t a new phenomena, though. Numerous examples in history show this sort of relativism in practice: chattel slavery, the labor practices of the industrial revolution, the Trail of Tears, and so many more.

All these happened through the rejection of the innate value of all human beings, which is what relativism is powerless to fight against. We need objective moral truths, beginning with the inviolable dignity of of all humans, to combat this sort of injustice.

  1. Laudato Si, 122
  2. This was adapted from an interview of Roger Scruton. He says, “a moral relativist is somebody who believes that a moral judgment is the expression of the subjective opinion of a particular person, and that it cannot be evaluated from any other position than his own. So every judgment is relative to the interests and position of the person who makes it, so that in the end, there is no position outside the individual from which he can be judged.”

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