On The Philosophy of Catfishing

catfish-the-tv-show-logo

I’ve been watching this reality TV show on MTV called Catfish: the TV Show. I haven’t watched anything on MTV in years. I’m hooked on watching this show. And I’m surprised that I’m watching MTV and not complaining that they’re not showing music videos.

The TV show is inspired by the 2010 documentary Catfish. The movie is about the real-life story of filmmaker Nev Schulman and his online relationship with a woman who turned out to be a 40 year-old woman.

She was a catfish.

A few years ago, the important internet question was “Have you been one cupped?” now it’s “have you been catfished?”

I’ve been one cupped. I will never be the same again.

According to Wikipedia a catfish “is a person who creates fake profiles online and pretends to be someone they are not by using someone else’s pictures and information. These “catfish” use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, usually with the intention of getting other people or a person to fall in love with them.”

In short, a catfish is liar.

They lie sometimes about everything

Dr. Phil even had a show about Catfish. He told his viewers how to spot an internet “catfish”.

He says there are five signs you may be dealing with a catfish.

I’ve met three of Dr. Phil’s five signs.

But I’m not a catfish. I don’t lie online.

I just prefer not to tell anyone anything about me.

It’s obvious that the problem with catfish is misrepresentation. If someone misrepresents who they are we have no idea who we are really talking to. This problem is only amplified on the internet.

The internet (especially social networking sites like Facebook) is supposed to make communication easier and to bring people with like interests together. This is what makes the internet not only useful but fun: the ability to find a potential soul mate or (at least) a friend. I may not know anyone in the town where I live who likes Jean Claude Van Damme movies and blueberry pancakes, but I most assuredly will find someone on the internet that does.

But the convenience of fiber optic communication also makes it easy to be deceitful. The absence of physical contact between individuals communicating via computer means anyone can say anything about themselves or their lives leaving us only to assume what people post on the internet is true. A catfish relies on the fact that whomever they are misrepresenting themselves to is either trusting or hasn’t the time or the know-how to investigate every social network follower and/or friend to verify that they are who they claim they are.

Thus proving what they say about what happens when we assume.

When you assume things you end up making yourself one of these.

When you assume things you end up making yourself look like one of these.

We know what Immanuel Kant would say about a catfish. According to the Kantian view, the real harm of a catfish is that a catfish’s lies are damaging to individuals and society. In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) Kant tells us

Act as though the maxim of your action were by your will to become a universal law of nature

Kant’s ethics forbid all lying in all circumstances. He argues that our actions are morally correct only if we can universalize the act. Honesty (at least a certain amount) and trust are necessary not only for the world to function but for relationships as well. Kant argues that one of our duties to others is an obligation to be honest. If people make a universal habit of being deceitful to others, Kant says we have no reason to trust what anyone says (especially people we meet online). Kant states:

He immediately sees that it could never hold as a universal law and be consistent with itself; rather it must necessarily contradict itself. For the universality of a law which says that anyone who believes himself to be in need could promise what he pleased with the intention of not fulfilling it would make the promise itself and the end to be accomplished by it impossible; no one would believe what was promised to him but would only laugh at any such assertion as vain pretense.*

Kant also states:

…it is nevertheless impossible to will that such a principle should hold everywhere as a law of nature. For a will which resolved this would conflict with itself…

If Kant is correct, the act of lying undermines the purpose of social networking.

However….

The problem with a catfish may not be the lying in itself. Everybody lies to some degree (if you claim that you don’t, congratulations you’re a liar). I think it’s safe to say that the real problem with lying is that when we do not tell the truth to others we are involved with our relationships are inauthentic.

The catfish specializes in inauthentic relationships.

Authenticity is necessary to develop healthy, long-lasting relationships with others. Aristotle tells us that the only way to develop true (authentic) relationships with others is to engage in frequent social intercourse with others. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that close physical proximity is a necessary component for real relationships (Aristotle calls physical interaction a “characteristic of friendship”). Aristotle writes:

Such friendship, moreover, requires long and familiar intercourse. For, as the proverb says, it is impossible for people to know one another till they have consumed the requisite quantity of salt together.

A Kantian may argue that a person is damaged by a catfish’s online deception, but Aristotle may tell us we never had a true relationship (at least in the philosophical sense) to begin with.

This, of course, raises and interesting philosophical question.

Is the anonymity of the internet actually better for relationships?

Namely, given the fact that we do not physically interact with people we “talk” to online, some may argue that since we don’t have physical contact with people over the internet, we are forced to deal (supposedly) with people as is, with who they really are.

Let’s say the only thing that a person is deceitful about (in an internet relationship) is their appearance. An individual uses a photo of someone else (presumably more attractive) when communicating with others on the internet. This individual reasons that s/he uses a fake photo because s/he feels that they must hide their physical appearance in order to successfully communicate with others and that using a fake photo on the internet allows them to avoid the (negative) aesthetic judgments of others.

Some might consider this person a catfish especially if they enter into a “relationship” with another person while representing themselves as the person in the photo.

But is that always a bad thing?

Now, some people create fake profiles out of maliciousness. Some people do it because they are mentally disturbed or narcissistic. But if everything else, sans appearance thoughts, feelings, opinions, even a person’s voice (if they speak to others on the phone) are the real deal?  Philosophers often emphasize character over perceived material worth (that is, unless you’re a materialist). Socrates and Aristotle sought virtuous people; Kant wanted people who possessed good will. And John Stuart Mill argued people should rather be a dissatisfied Socrates than a satisfied pig. Would a philosopher appreciate internet relationships with good, virtuous, or philosophically oriented people even if a person lied about what they look like (assuming the intention wasn’t malevolent-intended)? Perhaps a utilitarian (and certainly an ethical egoist) would say that a little white lie may be necessary if one’s intention is to develop a relationship that would be beneficial to both parties.

Perhaps for some catfish the lie enables them to get to the truth. The lie makes them honest.

Then is it possible that catfishing be a philosophically good thing?

Watch this clip and decide for yourself.

NOTE:

In the documentary Catfish, the term “catfish” as a reference to people who misrepresent themselves on the internet is explained  as follows: fishermen, exporting cod from the U.S. to markets in Asia noticed that the cod were soggy when they arrived at their destination. When catfish were shipped along with the cod, the cod retained their firmness and vigor. Catfish, the film explains, are people who keep other people from losing their firmness and vitality.

* Kant’s example refers to someone who repeatedly makes promises to others and subsequently breaks them, which is a form of lying. It’s easy to see how lying about one’s life and/or appearance is similar to breaking a promise as lying  and promise breaking are grounded in misrepresentation of one’s intention and requires trust on the part of the other party.

You can find Dr. Phil’s signs you’re possibly dealing with an online catfish at: http://drphil.com/articles/article/720

SOURCES:

1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catfish_(film)

2) Immanuel Kant. 1997 [1785]. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. Lewis White Beck. 2nd Edition, Revised. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 38-40.

3) Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 1893. 2004. Trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. NY: Barnes & Noble Books. 177.

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