?Unwired? for Compassion ? The Ethics of Care, Civility and Citizenry in the Global, Digital World

Donna M. Schaeffer, PhD and Jane Uebelhoer, PhD
School of Business Administration, Marymount University,
2807 North Glebe Road, Arlington VA 22207
Email contact: donna.schaeffer@marynount.edu and jane.uebelhoer@marymount.edu

(Source: wikimedia.org)

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

(source: New York Times, Inc.)

". . . My cousin named Samoa, in Modesto, Calif., contacted me on Facebook to ask if I would pick up Opi, his 64-year-old father, who lives on the mountain above the coastal village of Leone, and bring him to my house. So I loaded the children into the car and drove over there. But Opi could not think of leaving his beloved Leone. I listened intently as he told the story of his day."

Sia Figiel, "The Day of the Tsunami." New York Times, October 1, 2009, page A27.

The Ethics of Care:

Noddings (1984) distinguished between "caring for" and "caring about."

Caring for happens in face-to-face encounters in which one person directly cares for another.

Caring about is described as "One acknowledges.One affirms. One contributes five dollars and goes on to other things."

Professor Steven Strogatz, Cornell University

"The distinction between genuine friends and acquaintances is becoming blurred. Users are spending time maintaining relationsips with people they don't really care about."

Joel Patterson, editor Surfer Magazine

"iPhones, Twitter, and Facebook have made comfort zones portable. Our cell phones work on the top of Machu Picchu. The world is shrinking. "

Will someone listening to an iPod and walk by another human in critical need of assistance?

Our "higher" faculties - reason and judgment -- depend on our senses to call them into play. Little kids plug their ears, squeeze their eyes shut and sing loudly to block out unwanted input. Teens and adults have iPods and text messaging.

Where's the line between the morally permissible and impermissible? Where is the floor, my minimum obligation? What would a virtuous person do? What sort of example should we set?

When can we say - to hell with it. There's too much distress, too much misery, if I'm always entering sympathetically into everyone else's suffering then there is twice the suffering. When can we say - I'm out of here.

In my zone, in my head, in my fantasy future, in my music. Can we just throw our hands up and concede defeat to our high tech dystopia? Can I pull my circle of care tight around myself like a cocoon, a shroud, and only concern myself with the well being of one or two other people?

Or will our circle of care be extended?

If such images become easy to access and are available 24/7, might we evelop an indifference to the vision of human suffering? Studies have found that social networking sites such as Twitter result in streams of information that overwhelm the brain to the point where it becomes difficult to truly embrace the complexity of situations.

News about natural disasters spread so quickly that we are virtually there. A recent example was the use of social networking tools to spread news about Typhoon Morakot, which struck Taiwan in August, 2009. If we see it for ourselves in real-time, we may be able to operate from an ethics of care.