Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Read the News? Part 4

Our epic symposium on the ethics of being informed comes to an end.

What is the purpose of the news? Can we change the channel without feeling bad? It took Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, but we’re finally ready to bring this ship to shore. 

Ben Adams: I’m going to take the position that there is an intrinsic benefit to learning more about the world, even if there is no way to do anything about it. That is, even if you’re a peasant living in the middle ages and you are utterly bound to your farm with no prospect of making any impact on world events, it’s still worthwhile to ask around at the tavern about the progress of the 30 Years War. (Assume for a second you’re in no danger of being drafted or whatever).

I think the obligation to be informed is commensurate with your political/personal power to shape events. If you’re immensely powerful, you have a corresponding obligation to stay informed so that you can exercise the power responsibly. For the average middle class person in America, this translates into “some, but not much” obligation to stay informed: you have the power of the pocket book and the franchise, so you should probably make an effort to at least have a general idea about what’s going on, but it doesn’t have to be central to your life in any way.

THAT SAID, the “news” is a generally terrible way to go about fulfilling this obligation/achieving this goal. Because the news is by definition “what’s new.” And most of the stuff that would actually be useful for you to know is not “new” in the sense of newsworthy, it’s just new to you.

That is, if you wanted to be more educated about the conflict in Syria, 99% of the information that would be useful to learn is stuff that isn’t new–it’s old, and you can read it in a book. Once you have that baseline level of knowledge, and only once you have that baseline level of knowledge, does staying informed through the “news” do you any good.

A couple more concrete examples: the news parrots the stock market report every day. That’s a useful thing to know if you have a portfolio, but ONLY if you already know a whole bunch about stocks, the economy, your personal finances, etc.

I know a lot about naval warfare and the role of the Navy in the middle east. So it’s really useful for me to read a news article about a US ship getting fired on by Houthi rebels in Yemen. For the average person without that experience, that news story is essentially valueless: there’s nothing they can do about or will ever be able to do about it, and they lack even the basic knowledge to understand what the story means.

BTW, the above can be summed up as: “explanatory journalism is great and there should be more of it.”

Jordan Stokes: And it’s not hard at all to argue that most journalism has no interest in keeping you informed (in that meaningful power-channeling way). The stuff that does best is the stuff that feeds a particular kind of emotional engagement; a story that explains the Yemen situation won’t get nearly as many clicks as a story that gets me riled up about the Yemen situation.

So the story that is useful to you might be worse than useless to me: it might be positively harmful in that it will stop me from learning the necessary context. Rather than going out and reading the right book, I’m going to be scouring the internet for another version of basically the same news story, so that I can feel that sweet sweet emotional engagement.

The lotus-eater machine is real, we’re strapped into it, and it’s Twitter. Instead of opium we got dopamine. (I for one feel cheated.)

Richard Rosenbaum: I don’t know. It seems to me exactly like saying “2+2=4” but not going around checking every kindergartener’s homework because that’s not your job. Personal autonomy doesn’t enter into it. Does asserting that stealing is wrong limit the scope of your physical agency? Sure. But so do the laws of thermodynamics and calling Isaac Newton a fascist colonialist isn’t going to change that.

Matt Wrather: Well, actually, Lord Kelvin.

Rosenbaum: I stand corrected.

Stokes: So Pete, lemme get this straight: if you’re at a cooking class, and the chef tells you “now remember, you must take the roast out of the oven the MINUTE it reaches 125 degrees,” your response is “Hey fuck you for undermining my agency, also, threats are really uncalled for.”

But kidding aside: basically you just don’t think that moral obligations are a thing. For you, must is always a power claim. It might be under color of morality, but ultimately it’s about what someone can make you do. This is a wild claim, but you back it up pretty well, and I can see you’ve thought a lot about it.

However, Matt’s original question was “do we have a moral obligation to watch the news?” So from your point of view I guess this is like asking whether there are any unicorns named Melvin.

Peter Fenzel: Yeah, for the cooking class it would totally be a power claim. Like if it were my boss or if I’d promised to help someone make dinner, I’d say “Yep! Sure thing!” But if it were just me learning how to do it, my first question would be “What happens if I don’t?” There’s probably a good reason.

Fun fact: I hate recipes and almost always prefer mixing herbs and spices on impulse. I’ve been very Kierkegaard-on-the-bridge the last few years. But just for the sake of the conversation, I’ll put this all aside and see “obligation” and “moral right” as equivalent. So at least we can talk about it. Sorry to stonewall.

Stokes: Hang on, though, when I was explaining what I meant by a moral obligation, I specifically said “for moral reasons, you must do X” and “morality compels you to do X.” In the cooking class case, that’s closer to “you must take the roast out when it hits 125, or else it won’t be tender.” Do you still read that as a power play?

I mean, I guess it could be. Actually, yeah, I see the shape of this.

Because where do they get off telling you that roasts ought to be tender, right?

To display full respect for your agency, they ought to say something like “Now most people like to take it out at 125, so that it will be tender. If you like chewier meat, you can leave it in longer.”

Oh, but where the fuck do I get off saying that they ought to have respect for your agency!

Pete, your moral life sounds exhausting.

Fenzel: Oh totally. I’ve got more Umbrage than Dolores.

Stokes: Can the next think tank be a late-90s party rap verse where all the references are to minor characters in the Harry Potter franchise?

Coming next week, a late-90s party rap verse where all the references are to minor characters in the Harry Potter franchise, because why not.

Think Tank is an occasional series of articles written by Overthinkers in collaboration and friendly competition.

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