Is a secret identity morally permissible

Moral reflexes instead of reflexivity

What cancel culture, identity politics and corona measures have in common

The cases seem bizarre. The translation of works by the black poet Amanda Gorman today requires people with the right skin color or at least an adequate cultural background - an international phenomenon.

A nine-year-old "youth sin" in the form of a (supposedly?) Racist tweet prevents the professional career of an award-winning journalist, despite her apologies.

A well-known actor seriously asks himself whether he is allowed to play as a non-disabled person, a handicapped person, a slim person, fat person, or, not affected by grief, a sad person; Not to mention the possibility of "blackfacing" (great hour of philosophy: cf. from minute 21:45). This in view of the risk of offending the feelings or the true identity of the groups of people concerned and of putting one's own reputation at risk.

What these cases have in common is that the moral conditions for the actions of persons are discussed here, the question is negotiated under which conditions one and other persons can be ascribed respect or disregard. It is about situation-independent judgments about people

Moral judgments are dangerous because reflexively, without "extenuating circumstances" and with reference to unquestionably valid values, they are given the paint of finality. In its judgments, morality is hostile to reflection, also in order to emphasize the validity of values ​​in their undoubtedness. Especially in the face of dangers. For example, anyone who relativizes the value of life in a reflective way in the Corona crisis is exposing themselves to the risk of discrediting themselves, not the morality relating to this value.

Looking at the aversion to reflection, which, unlike ethics, is typical of morality, it becomes clear why, in the cases mentioned, explanations, replies, arguments, even excuses are hardly effective. If it is certain that a translator belongs to the category of currently disregarded "old white men", a reference to the quality of his work may hardly be convincing.

Once branded as a racist, it is hardly effective anymore to point out youthful naivety, that even "identity" is a construct that is dependent on situations and people. Where are the youngsters who like to be watched by their parents at their peers' parties?

Social reflexivity

Social reflexivity should be understood to mean the possibility of observing observations, i.e. to distinguish between things that are already different. This allows the contingency of observations or perspectives to be made visible. So it is found that a phenomenon can be seen in a certain way, but not necessarily that way.

The morally unbiased observation of conspiracy theorists, for example, makes it possible to differentiate between Angela Merkel and Donald Trump not only as politicians, but also as lizard-like beings who disguise themselves as humans.

In fact, social progress over the past ten thousand years can be understood as an increase in social reflexivity, as a pushing back of moral claims that reject reflexivity. Essentially, this is due to the different forms of communication through which societies reproduced or reproduce themselves.

Tribal societies, as the earliest social formations, were only available in the form of fleeting oral communication. The simple repetition of oral communication in the form of such proven traditions, rites and customs gave these societies continuity and stability.

It was therefore hardly possible to question well-established, traditional expectations reflexively or even critically, highlighting their contingency. In today's terms, reflecting on traditions was probably punished with severe moral disregard. There was no communicative safety net that would have absorbed the risks of deviations from what was expected. A deviation from a proven tradition would have been equivalent to the immediate dissolution of this tradition.

The volatility and exclusivity of verbal communication hardly allowed to explore possibilities apart from necessities. Tribal societies, in radical contrast to modern society, could therefore only reproduce in almost unchanged form over a number of tens of thousands of years

It was not until the invention of the "communicative safety net" of the written form and later, above all, the development of letterpress printing, that a positive connotation of reflexivity became possible. This became almost characteristic of society. In modern society, which is also reproduced through written communication, it became relatively safe to distinguish between different things without losing complexity. So without the risk, as it would have existed in tribal societies, that traditions and what has already been tried and tested would be lost, it would be questioned, would deviate from the tried and tested.

The opposite became the norm. Modern society reflexively enriches itself with complexity through the book culture. Multiperspectivity, the critical reference to topics, the generation of alternative perspectives - preserved in writing - possible with relatively no risk. Change, progress, innovation, creativity could all have positive connotations.

The reflective generation of contingent perspectives is even functionally safeguarded in modern society. Any social issue, any event can be observed from different perspectives, for example in accordance with politics, economics, law, science, art, education, religion, mass media.

The social self-description - for example as "market economy" or "democratic" - expresses the fact that modern society sees itself as a reflective one. For example, markets enable the contingency of services, qualities and prices to be observed. With a view to the contrast between government and opposition, democracies make it possible to observe the contingency of the exercise of power or political programs.

In view of the fundamental importance of reflexivity which modern society has, it is astonishing that a social trend towards anti-reflective revival of moral claims is currently gaining plausibility. This can be seen in the excesses of identity politics and cancel culture mentioned at the beginning.

But also with a view to current corona measures. These are to be understood as hostile to reflection, as morally dominated. At the moment it is hardly possible to (fundamentally) question the epidemiological perspective that has dominated society for more than a year. Anyone who critically emphasizes the contingency of current corona politics, for example from the perspective of the educational system or the scientific system, quickly runs the risk of exposing themselves to moral disregard.

What social changes in recent years have promoted this tendency?

Objectified individuality

The individualization of people is a sociologically well-known phenomenon. What is meant by this is the possibility of modernity to lead a self-determined life, for example away from family constraints, and the resulting social diversity of lifestyles.

When we speak of "objectified individuality" as follows, we mean, on the other hand, forms of individualization that result specifically from the functioning of social media. Objectified individuality should be spoken of with a view to the profiles of users of social media. The large number of similar user profiles, if possible, is essential for the functionality of social media

It is explained that social media promote the personal perception of loneliness on the one hand, and the moral charging of perspectives on the other.


The modern experience of isolation and loneliness is of course not a new phenomenon of the masses that only emerged with the use of social media. Edward Hopper's long popular pictures are impressive testimony to this.4 It can be assumed that it was and is in particular the often fragmented, non-committal environments of modern urban life that the mass (in) personal perception of both Cause freedom as well as loneliness.

However, the personal perception of loneliness seems to have increased in recent years. This shows the popularity of publications such as "The New Solitude: And How We Can Overcome It as a Society" (by Diana Kinnert and Marc Bielefeld) or "Age of Solitude" (by Noreena Hertz). The way social media works suggests that this widespread (self) perception is at least partly due to the use of these forms of communication.

The functionality of social media depends on the abundance of user profiles. Only an unmanageable multitude of similar, to a certain extent bondless "elementary particles" (Michel Houellebecq) makes it possible to speak of a medium on which forms (here: communicative bonds) can be imprinted. For example a "friend request" on Facebook, which is accepted; or a double-sided "swipe" of the profile pictures to the right of users of Tinder.

It should be noted that non-binding is only exercised or exercised in the use of social media. The ease and informality that is possible with making contact is bought at the cost of the contingency of the addressees. Contact with a specific user (of the medium) is possible, but not absolutely necessary. The easier it is to contact a user on social media, the less likely it is that a binding and connecting focus on one contact will be.

The application of the medium itself gives users a kind of swingers club mentality: everything can, nothing has to be done.It would be naive to assume that this problem could be got under control through the intention of a responsible, binding use of these media. Because often, at least on dating websites, responsibility and, if possible, a mutual (appreciative) perception of individuality should first be established through the use of the medium. This does not have to be given in advance.

Social media is a communicative innovation of social evolution with no long-term experience connected. For example, it makes behaviors like "ghosting" more likely than before. A phenomenon that shows that the perception of irresponsible noncommitment imposed on users of social media has the potential to be internalized or generalized by users.

This is also because, once again, because users of social media usually create personalized media. Namely lists of many hundreds or even thousands of contacts, which make it easier to establish contact, but also tend to suggest non-commitment to individual persons, or which make the exclusivity of ties between contacts less likely.

Last but not least, it should be noted that the experience or perception of common, shared environments significantly counteracts loneliness. In the case of a passionate love affair, this environment may also be exclusive to another person at times. Hopefully in a reciprocal manner in order to avoid cases of "stalking".

As already mentioned, the manifold fragmentation of the environment had already turned out to be a problem in urban life. With the advent of smartphones, however, the problem of loneliness-promoting undivided environments has become extremely acute.

In the meantime, it is no longer just a question of fragmented, but of individualized people’s environments that promote loneliness. If studies are correct that people now spend an average of almost four hours a day in front of the screens of their smartphones, then there must even be a predominance of largely undivided environments.

It is therefore not surprising that there are now not so few cases of people who prefer the divided, community-creating environment of a prison to individual, yet lonely freedom.


Gone are the days when the above-mentioned future editor who was shot because of a presumably racist tweet could have cited in her defense the bon mot that was falsely attributed to Konrad Adenauer: "What do I care about my chatter from yesterday, nothing prevents me from becoming wiser. "

The user profiles of social media simulate a stability and continuity of "individuality" that is completely unrealistic. User profiles offer ideal anchor points for the attribution of moral judgments and evaluations. People can here, referring to their permanently stored posts, regardless of the situation, and thus to a certain extent absolutizing, be attributed respect or disregard.

But social media are not only susceptible to morality in the effective situation-independent individual attribution of communication. Their use also suggests moral categories. Social media motivates through the opportunity to find respect, attention and recognition. For example through the large number of "friends" or "followers", or the large number of "likes", comments, or shared, for example "retweeted" posts. In this way, respect and recognition become tangible, objectively measurable and can be increased.

The alleged objectivity of the parameters for recognition and attention, respect and disregard, which social media allows in the form of likes (or their absence), benefits moral communication. Ultimately, morality strives for value judgments that, if possible, cannot be easily relativized in a reflective way - by referring to situativity.

Probably the most common form of simply ignored communication on social media is also susceptible to morality. This can easily be interpreted as personal disregard and motivate to more extreme, provocative communicative contributions in order to finally gain attention.

Be it in the form of the attribution of respect or disregard. Donald Trump has impressively shown over the years that (politically usable) attention can be aroused in particular by disregarding provocative contributions.

Last but not least, it should be noted that the design of social media once again provokes moral communication. The character limit on Twitter, for example, does not suggest long, balanced, reflective, but short, aggressive, biting posts. Regardless of Twitter, it must be assumed that short, provocative and contentious posts generate more attention than long, balanced, reflective posts.

It is necessary to keep in mind that the user profiles of social media in their many billions of times penetrate all forms of differentiation of society communicatively. Social media, with their susceptibility to moral communication, therefore has the potential to corrupt all forms of society. Obviously, social media can largely draw attention, perception and evaluation to a topic in a synchronizing manner for society as a whole.

Social media can have thematically synchronized effects on personal interactions, on organizations and on functional systems such as business, science, mass media or politics. The comprehensive, societal focus on one topic (Corona!) That has become possible as a result would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.

Lockdown as a phenomenon of morality

"Megatrends" described here seem to culminate in social lockdowns. Isolation, "social distancing", on the one hand, is one of the primary means of choice to combat the pandemic. The moral suppression of reflexivity, on the other hand, enables an epidemiological perspective to gain a dominance to which all other social perspectives (economic, political, artistic, educational, religious, etc.) have to subordinate themselves. The current reference to a dangerous virus almost seems to serve as an obstetrician in order to fully realize the social trends of the past decades that have already existed.

In fact, the perception of events (such as the current pandemic) as a danger that has to be accepted or as a risk that can be countered with action is contingent.5 Whether an event is an event depends on the current social structures, on the perception of one's own social options for action is perceived in terms of third-party reference as a risk that is more or less acceptable, or as a risk that can be countered by suitable measures.6 This is also shown by a look at victims of road traffic or diseases of civilization such as alcohol or obesity. The causes of these deaths are evidently perceived as a risk to be tolerated rather than a risk that needs to be combated.

The pandemics of 1957 (Asian flu) and 1968 (Hong Kong flu), which are comparable to the current pandemic, were only perceived as dangers (as usual "life risks"), which are largely passively accepted and therefore hardly noticed. They hardly left any traces in the cultural memory of society. Nevertheless, the actual risk of the pandemics at that time corresponds to that of today. It is assumed that at that time, extrapolated to today's world population, between two and eight million people died

It is therefore not only the "objective" danger of the corona pandemic that makes lockdowns indispensable, as morality would have us believe. Rather, the current opportunities for social action made possible by "digitization" (such as "home office", "homeschooling", "homeshopping") allow Covid-19 to be perceived as a risk, as an event to which action must be countered. Current measures to ward off the pandemic would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.

Functionally, the risk aversion of morality is important to be able to react quickly to perceived dangers. Reflexivity in the form of objections, critical reservations, disapproval, and contradiction takes time. A time expenditure, says morality, that we cannot afford in the face of dangers that require quick, immediate action. Morality therefore tends to discredit critical contradiction. For example, sniffing at lateral thinkers, Covidiotes, Corona deniers and petty speakers, mask refusers, critical questioners.

In the mainstream of the mass media (newspapers and television), there are hardly any alternative perspectives that could appear defeatist. Nonetheless, of course, you can find all kinds of views and opinions "on the web" or on social media. Although these can be marginalized, they can hardly be made invisible. Morality can at least state that "the net" is a playground for Covidiots and conspiracy theorists, opinions to be found here are not to be taken seriously.

The functionally necessary, danger-defending tunnel vision of morality therefore does not in principle allow one to put oneself up for grabs. Critical objections, such as that lockdowns will lead to a global economic emergency, death from hunger will multiply, mass unemployment, the destruction of economic livelihoods, especially in the artistic and cultural area, in the catering and tourism industry, may at best be expected - immoral? - to elicit a reflexive shrug. However, the criticism cannot be received in a reflective or argumentative manner.

It must be assumed that it is billions of times the number of user profiles that enable the amazingly stable, blinkered view of Corona. A perspective that enables or allows all other social perspectives only with the reservation of the limiting consideration of lowering "high numbers of cases".As mentioned, the user profiles, which are susceptible to morality, permeate all functional areas of society and are thus able to directly and comprehensively influence or even corrupt social perception and evaluation.

The "bad pictures from Bergamo", for example, or videos "from the intensive care units in Wuhan", which were distributed globally and across society at the speed of light, through social media, pretend an immediate glimpse of a virtually unfiltered reality. To a dangerous reality that must be responded to immediately, without hesitation.

In this way, morality can also corrupt specialization in looking at reality, namely scientific perspectives. For example in the selection of only "serious" scientists who are hardly able to relativize the fact of a hazard scientifically. Another choice would be precisely this: too dangerous and therefore morally questionable.

It is naive to assume that there will be a time before and after Corona. Not only a virus in its "objectivity", which can only be successfully combated, "will give us back our freedom, our lives", as morality claims. The main cause of the current crisis is the specific (changed) form of social perception of dangers and risks.

The structural change in society, often described as "digitization", and the resulting new opportunities for social perception, evaluation and action have obviously led to the fact that on the one hand we overestimate control options in combating external dangers. On the other hand, underestimate the risks and dangers associated with current moral tunnel vision.

The crisis shows that today's society, which is rapidly changing due to digitization, has not yet learned to "wisely" balance self-referential and third-party references. That is, to distinguish between events that require courageous, risky action and events where it is better to maintain an attitude of serenity. For now, we only have the one - courageous, serene, wise, resigned, even cynical? - Invocation of "higher authorities" to remedy the situation:

God give me the serenity to accept things that I cannot change, the courage to change things that I can change, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.

Reinhold Niebuhr
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