Is Taking a Selfie a Selfish Act?*

Introduction

In the Philippines, House Bill 4807 or the Anti-Selfie Bill was once debated in Philippine Congress or legislature: whether or not it is proper to penalize people who take selfies without the consent of the people concerned. Thus, one wonders: Is taking a selfie that dangerous and self-centered that needs legislation and punishment?

One can often hear from some school authorities, educators and moralists, labeling selfie as a form of selfishness. I have heard one Catholic college president delivering a speech saying that taking a selfie is a form of selfishness or narcissism. She explained that the word “narcissism” came from the name Narcissus, the son of River God Cephisus and nymph Lyriope. The Greek myth has it that “Narcissus was once walking by a lake or river and decided to drink some water; he saw his reflection in the water and was surprised by the beauty he saw; he became entranced by the reflection of himself. He could not obtain the object of his desire though, and he died at the banks of the river or lake from his sorrow” (http://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com).

The speaker was implying that taking a selfie is a form of selfishness, therefore a sin or immoral act. In the Catholic catechism, a sin “kills” the soul if not forgiven in a confession. So a person taking a selfie, especially when done frequently, would “die” like Narcissus in the spiritual realm.

Is taking a selfie or self-image a selfish act or immoral?

The Basic Difference between Face-To-Face and Online Interaction

Before we judge those who take selfies as selfish people, let us first see the basic difference between personal or face-to-face social interaction and digital or online social interaction. There is a big difference between the two. In a face-to-face social interaction, we can easily see the entire setting of the interaction, physical presence and actuation of the person or group we are interacting with. The verbal and non-verbal cues can easily be observed by actors during the encounter, providing each one the opportunity to respond or react immediately to what they hear and see. This is different from digital and online interaction. In an online interaction, the actors do not see each other in the physical or spatio-temporal space but in the cyber or digital space with limited images and information of the other and mediated by a screen of a device or gadget. This implies that actors in an online interaction have limited view of what actually transpired during the entire interaction and the actual setting where the actors exchange their messages. Even if with the use of the web cam, the viewer cannot still fully capture all images of the other and of the background or location of the conversation. In front of a web cam one can pretend what h/she is not. It is difficult to get a confirmation or clue if the person is pretending or not in an online interaction. For instance, one cannot fully observe the non-verbal action of the other, crucial in fully knowing the unspoken message of the other. This is even difficult if the person is just posting messages without attaching videos or selfies. The recipient would only rely on the written message without any of image of the sender. Thus, attaching self-photos or selfies to one’s message becomes important to improve the quality of one’s online presence to the other. A selfie or picture provides a lot of information about the other such as appearance, facial expression, or mood.

A Selfie Enhances Online Presence

In social media, people normally post short messages and attach pictures. To enhance their visibility to the other without using the web camera, they attach selfies, not that they are selfish persons, but because they want to make their presence more felt by their recipient, filling up the lack or absence of images if the encounter were made face-to-face or personal. The more poses, selfies or images sent, the more impact is generated for the other. A post or message is greatly enhanced if a selfie is attached, as one adage would say: “A picture is worth a thousand words!”

Selfie as a Social Action

To the German sociologist Max Weber, an action is a ‘social action’ if it is intentionally done by an actor with a purpose and meaning and oriented towards the other. Taking a selfie is a social action, that is, an action that is strategically oriented towards the other. It is not a selfish act. A selfie is always sent or shared to a recipient, not kept by the sender for self adoration like Narcissus. Thus, a selfie is not egoistic in nature but social. In some occasions, Pope Francis was photographed having a selfie with other people. President Obama too was caught by the media having a selfie with other world leaders. Would these make them selfish or narcissistic persons?

Selfie as a Byproduct of Technological Progress

Taking a selfie to be posted online is difficult with the older analog technology with requires various and heavy devices with limited features such as big cameras, dark rooms, big tripods, etc. And above all, one needs a photographer who will take the picture. So taking a selfie only becomes possible and easy with the advancement and convergence of technologies in the smart phone or other high-tech gadget. So if one looks at the act of taking a selfie objectively, without first passing moral judgment, the act is not actually selfish but a byproduct of the improvement of technology which enables the self to be the photographer and the subject of the photography at the same time.

The Problem of Semantics

The source of the problem why selfie is associated with selfishness or narcissism seems to be term itself. Probably for lack of appropriate and shorter term to label for self-photography, the word “selfie” is used by many. The new dictionaries have now included the term selfie in their list of words and meanings. Indeed, the term “selfie” can easily be associated with selfishness or vanity since the act is done by the person himself/herself; and thus prone to misunderstanding by some conservative moralists and uncritical moral entrepreneurs who may not be familiar with the dynamics of online social interaction and digital technology.

Act-Oriented vs. Person-Oriented Morality

The act-oriented morality separates the external acts from the motivation and the overall life orientation of the person. In this case the moral fiber of the person is judged merely on his/her external acts, disregarding his/her motives as well as the overall orientation of his/her life–whether s/he is basically a good or bad person.With the advent of the social sciences and research findings on social behavior, the approach of Catholic morality today is person-oriented. The motivation as well as the basic moral orientation of the entire person must be considered, not just his/her few external acts, before judging whether a person is moral or immoral, selfish or generous. It is difficult to see how a good person who has been doing good in most of his/her life becomes, in an instant, a bad or selfish person just because s/he takes some selfies or self-photographs.

A sound moral judgment and evaluation must be based on a reliable empirical study of the moral situation. Therefore one must first evaluate the empirical and sociological meaning of taking a selfie and understand the real motives of actors of this act before passing a moral judgment whether the act is a form of selfishness or not.++++++

*This is a re-post of my LinkedIn article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20140903032719-215520107-is-taking-a-selfie-a-form-of-selfishness/

Photo credits: Shutterstock, article.wn.com (Pope’s selfie), en.wikipedia.com (Narcissus), georgecouros.ca (people in front of Internet screen).