What Aristotle Can Teach You About Ethical Blogging

Aristotle

We already know that Aristotle can make you a more effective blogger. But can he make you a more ethical blogger, too?

And, in today’s online world, where transparency can occur whether you want it to or not, aren’t they really the same thing?

My favorite Aristotelian work is likely Nicomachean Ethics. I love the ideas involved: how personally demanding Aristotle’s ethical system is, and how difficult and challenging it is to live out. Of all of the ethical systems I’ve studied Aristotle’s stands head and shoulders above them all by offering many concepts and principles that should be present in any quality ethical system.

I’d like to break down how Aristotle thought we should live virtuously. Then I would like to explain how we can apply his thoughts when it comes to writing online and managing online publications.

Ethics on an Individual Level

Aristotle’s approach to ethics makes the practice of morality an extremely personal issue. The key aspect in Nicomachean Ethics is the character, specifically the developing character, and justifications for actions. No one is deemed virtuous based on a single instance, or by having knowledge of what it takes to be virtuous (this is called intellectual virtue by Aristotle, which is distinct from moral virtue). Only lifestyles, which turn into habits, which in turn become instincts, truly speak of one’s nature.

I’m reminded of something C.S. Lewis once said. To paraphrase: Who we are is what we do by instinct. Not having time to think and to react in an appropriate way is no excuse for immoral behavior: who we are when we’re surprised is who we really are.

Back to Aristotle. In order to be a virtuous person one must develop one’s character in such a way that doing the right thing is, literally, as natural as breathing. Knowing what’s right won’t get you far with the big A, and neither will doing something that is right for the wrong reason. In fact the only way to become a virtuous person is by following someone who is already a virtuous person, from whom you can acquire characteristics and traits that are more virtuous than the ones you have now.

Leading by Example

Readers demand ethical practices from their online publishers (bloggers) often because they’re already sick of the way the mainstream media has, in many ways, shirked their journalistic responsibilities. Fair or not, online publishers are held to a very high standard by their readers—especially those writers with intelligent readers.

I’m reminded of a great Jewish parable: may you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi. This is a beautiful concept. This saying came about during a time when students (disciples) would follow their teacher (their Rabbi) so close that the Rabbi’s feet would be kicking sand, dirt, and dust back onto the students. This was a time when the way to learn was to follow someone you wanted to become more like. For instance a farmer would follow his father (who was a farmer) everyday and learn to follow his example.

I’ve always been a fan of this method. Alas, the socially acceptable teaching practice of today is much more formal, and students are left taking classes and exams instead of traveling with their mentors. C’est la vie.

Follow Another

I suggest something similar to these practice when it comes to blogging. Follow those who you respect and want to be more like. Grab their RSS feeds and pay attention. And if you are really serious about it, don’t stop there. Read what they read and subscribe to the feeds they subscribe to.

Usually those bloggers who are prolific enough for you to take notice of them will make it a habit to point out good resources when they find them. Some even talk about what feeds they subscribe to and read on a regular basis. If the blogger you admire doesn’t seem to provide this information, try shooting them an email and ask them for it. They are sure to be flattered by your request, and you will end up with valuable information that very few have.

Then again, this post isn’t really about becoming like the blogger (i.e. write the way they do on the topics they cover) as much as it is about aspiring to have the values they have. Think about the bloggers you know that demonstrate great blogging ethics. I think of things like disclosure: what blogs are really good about revealing their relationships with topics and/or people they discuss?

Consider bloggers who are fair and balanced. Or, imagine the opposite: how many bloggers do you know that will only write where there is controversy, whether it is true or not. Monetization is an ethical issue too: why is the blogger writing, primarily? Making money is not a bad thing, of course. But abusing your readership by flooding the page with ads and littering posts with affiliate links is, and the marketplace will call you out.

These examples start to chip away and get to the real issue at hand, which Aristotle saw also: intention shows all. When examining bloggers, look for the why. Search for the reason they are blogging, the reason they are doing the things they are doing. Are they blogging to provide useful content to others, or is it for something less honorable?

Remember, just knowing the difference between ethical and unethical blogging isn’t enough. Practice speaks much louder than words.

Talk Back

In what way have you run head first issues involving blogging ethics, good or bad? Have any warnings for others? Words of wisdom? According to Aristotle, the way towards virtue is each other, improving in the small ways each of us can offer. So, let’s have it: What can you offer to this discussion of virtuous blogging?

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Comments

  1. Interesting perspective, I especially liked the bit about ethical behavior being as ‘natural as breathing’.

    Strangely enough, I was blogging yesterday about the ‘Ethics of Influence’… in a similar vein, though only asking relevant questions, not providing Aristotlean answers ;)

    All success
    Dr.Mani

  2. Brilliant. Really. So glad to see a post like this. Consider me subscribed Ryan. There’s noise and clatter and there’s knowledge and clarity. Guess which one I vote for?

  3. Virtuous blogging huh, I’m relatively knew to blogging and I’m sure this has been written on before but sometimes the whole blogging world seems somewhat contrived to me. It seems a bit overly planned and artificial to make comments on other blogs just for the possibility that they will return the favor. Being perfectly honest, I’ve done some of this and it has been reciprocated. For this I am grateful. So I’m not judging here. I’m just wondering how many comments would be made on our blogs if there were nothing in it for the commenter?

    In this case my motives are primarily pure because I have something to say about this issue. But I haven’t subscribed to all the feeds I have simply to learn from the bloggers. In some cases I’ve subscribed because they are writing on finding your true calling as I do; so I’ve wanted to build my visibility within the community. Perhaps it is virtuous as long as we come clean our intentions in doing so? I’d love to hear what you more experienced bloggers think about this is.

  4. Many people seem torn or unsure on the ethics of blog monetization. I don’t know who said it first (it sure wasn’t Aristotle) but one of my favorite sayings that has kept me out of trouble is this: Just because you sold out doesn’t mean anyone’s buying.

  5. Tom,

    Cross-commenting on blogs might be virtuous, and might be crass. I delete many crass, spam comment submissions on my blog every week. Where a person visited my site, read the article, and has a response, that is great. It is even better if the comment explores an aspect of the topic of the message, that is, contributes to a search for truth or understanding (these are not always the same thing!).

    The reason for making comments may be to increase your interaction in your chosen blogging community, it may be just to garner links, visits, or that fuzzy concept, ‘traffic’. Everyone feels shy (afraid) when beginning to interact, in any social situation. If, after a time, you still have questions about exchanging comments – look to the comments that you appreciate seeing the most on you blog. See where else that visitor contributes. One the blogs you read, look at what those virtues those comments represent. And maybe look again at the blogs you are visiting, and what you are contributing.

    Oops! I guess I just paraphrased the article ..

  6. Thanks for the post.

    Ethical blogging also calls for authenticity.

    You can’t blog what you are not. And if you try – your readers will see right through you every time.

    Those bloggers and business that succeed are able to succeed because they provide bottom-line value to their readers.

    They take their reader’s concerns and needs to heart, and then they find solutions and remedies that make their reader’s lives richer and more vibrant.

    We thank you for all you do in keep our minds enriched.

    Thanks.

  7. Thank you for such an interesting post. I found it thought provoking on a number of levels.

    I don’t think society has changed too much. Many people still try to become more like the people they admire. The problem is the shortage of modern day role models, who are able to capture the imagination of youngsters, whilst still maintaining the moral high ground.

    Good, strong, moralistic, positive media can fuel positive outcomes for readers. And it is truly amazing that blogging has opened the door to so many people who feel they have something positive to contribute.

    As with anything there is good and bad, but as the eternal optimist, I believe that those who blog ethically and with integrity and passion, will have far more longevity than those who don’t.

    Time WILL tell!

  8. Excellent post Ryan. Aristotle’s famous quote is, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Thanks for calling attention to it and framing it in a context of writing.

  9. Wow… what a timely post Darren! I’m in the midst of an ethical/moral/legal debate on my blog right now. I’d certainly love some more opinions from bloggers.

  10. Dangit! My last comment was directed at Ryan, not Darren obviously. I need to take more time between blogs (was just over on ProBlogger.net).

  11. I don’t have much to add, but I’m a big NE ethics fan. It’d be really cool to see you expand all this a little more in depth.

    Brian keeps picking winners, goddamn.