Snake and the wheel
Facing our choices
A key theme across these notes is moral agency. Rarely do we determine the conditions in which we act, but this does not absolve us. The circumstances may be more or less extenuating, yet we always have a choice. Recognising and accepting our agency, and the responsibility that flows with it, is a necessary part of acting in the world. The macro is made up of the micro. The choices we individually make collectively add up. What we each decide is both inconsequential and of significance.
I most recently explored these ideas in reference to Czeslaw Milosz’s book, The Captive Mind, in which he examined - and judged - the various compromises others made with the communist regime as it came to power in Poland. He was not suggesting that they had simply sold out, he was pointing to a more complicated dynamic in which they had been ensnared, determining they were ‘more or less consciously, victims of a historic situation.’ Milosz observed that ‘an appeal to ambition and enforced by pressure’ was sufficient for many to cooperate. He never proposed that it was easy to resist, nor did he expect most would, only that resistance was needed. Reasons can be found, rationalisations are possible, the difficulty is doing what is right. The challenge is enduring, as Pythagoras stated: ‘this is the divine law of life: that only virtue stands firm. All the rest is nothing.’
These thoughts and themes appeared again in my mind when reading a new Atlantic piece on ‘The Facebook Papers’, which details the many misgivings of Facebook staffers over the trajectory of the company and the decisions being made by its leadership. Adrienne LaFrance judges that:
The documents are astonishing for two reasons: First, because their sheer volume is unbelievable. And second, because these documents leave little room for doubt about Facebook’s crucial role in advancing the cause of authoritarianism in America and around the world.
To this, I would add a third reason: employees are acutely aware of the harms their company is causing, and keep working on advancing that same platform. Then again, perhaps none of this is particularly surprising, unfortunately. LaFrance continues:
Again and again, the Facebook Papers show staffers sounding alarms about the dangers posed by the platform… Again and again, staffers reckon with the ways in which Facebook’s decisions stoke these harms, and they plead with leadership to do more. … And again and again, staffers say, Facebook’s leaders ignore them.
And yet… most of these people keep on working for Facebook. The incentives are straightforward and easily comprehensible: money, career, status, and for some, perhaps power. Moreover, it is not like Facebook is the only company that is socially problematic and producing public bads. And certainly, rank and file employees do not bear the same degree of responsibility as those who hold leadership positions. While acknowledging all of these qualifications, lets be clear: the incentives and pressures facing employees are hardly comparable to those Milosz was considering.
It must be asked: what is the difference between those Facebook employees who have misgivings about their work and those who don’t? In the end, both groups of people are choosing to continue working for a company that is explicitly causing considerable social harm and has shown little willingness or capacity to change. Reading through LaFrance’s piece, what surprised me was not the behaviour of Facebook - this was very consistent with what we already know - but the way its employees were presented as being passive bystanders, pulled along by the decisions made by leadership.
We all have a choice, so do Facebook employees, who choose to keep working for the platform knowing what they know. The point is not to absolve or lessen the responsibility of its leadership, but to suggest that this is not where responsibility ends. LaFrance finishes her piece by proposing the lesson for individuals is to be vigilant and careful with how they engage with information streams, and the lesson for Facebook is that the public deserves and expects greater transparency. But what is the lesson for those individuals working for Facebook? They are making a choice, they have a degree of responsibility for that.
Facebook is an acute and important case, but the issues being discussed here are ones we all have to reckon with. Indeed, it could be suggested that these dilemmas are often more challenging to recognise because they are presented in a much less clear and obvious fashion than with Facebook. We are placed in conditions not of our choosing, we are never free agents, it often appears we are being handed a set menu. None of this is sufficient to excuse us for the choices we make, and the consequences that can flow from them. All these choices add up, the macro is built out of the micro.
Circling back to Milosz, in A Treatise on Poetry, he wrote:
Yesterday a snake crossed the road at dusk.
Crushed by a tire, it writhed on the asphalt.
We are both the snake and the wheel.
It is easy to recognise ourselves as the snake, much more difficult - but all the more necessary - to understand we are also the wheel. We do have agency, our choices do matter. Better not to be the wheel.