William McKenzie:
Internet is forcing us to rethink our ethics

William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, talks about ethics, social media and the Internet.

By William McKenzie
Editorial Columnist

Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner  is gone from Congress, so perhaps we’ll stop hearing so much about his Internet habits. But his distribution of a lewd photo and online sex talk with women other than his wife does leave behind ethical issues for the rest of us to ponder.

They start with this question: To what degree is a sin still a sin?

Jesus said to look at a woman with lust was like committing adultery. Applying that standard to the Internet, what happens online “counts” as much as what happens physically between two people. . .

Social networking is, by nature, hyper-democratic. People tweet. They Facebook. They blog. In each case, the individual is supreme.

There’s much to like about that democratization, especially when individuals take down unjust, tyrannical regimes. But society also is atomizing because of the Internet.

That’s not all good, especially when you get into questions about ethics. If the only standards are the ones we define for ourselves, we risk having no community mores. And that opens the door to social chaos.

William Lawrence, the dean and professor of American Church History at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, seized on this point during a recent discussion of the Weiner case on The Dallas Morning NewsTexas Faith blog. Lawrence wrote:

“Precisely because these new forms of social media are so highly atomized and individualized, we run the risk that every writer and every reader is the creator of her or his own ethical standards. When that happens, social media are not managing to connect us as a society. Instead, they are managing to disconnect us from one another.

“It is not simply that new ethical standards need to be written in our age. It is also that we need to determine how to establish ethical standards that apply to more persons than solely the individuals who write them.”

Read the full column.

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