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Modern social media apps are built and continuously optimized for engagement. The makers of these apps do their job so well that it gets people to spend time on the apps instead of spending it with their kids, spouses or friends. It gets people to check their phone hundreds of times a day, instead of being focused on whatever they do.

Is it wrong to build such apps?


I'd welcome answers from any moral framework. If you can provide multiple viewpoints in your answer, even better.

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  • Many different moral frameworks have been devised by philosophers through the ages. You might get better, more focused answers by specifying your framework(s) of choice.
    – armand
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 2:13
  • Yes, "it" gets people to spend time on apps instead of their families, not the people themselves. Because people, naturally, have no will of their own, and are not responsible for what they do. It's the apps' fault, or apps' developers'. Apps aren't nicotine or heroine, they do not chemically alter brain function. Developers do try to make them as appealing as possible, but if we stretch "addiction" to everything appealing then what will be left for people to be responsible for?
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 13, 2021 at 10:03
  • "they do not chemically alter brain fonction" actualy, they do. Addiction to processes releasing endorphines and other pleasure hormones are a thing, for example addiction to sex.
    – armand
    Commented Feb 14, 2021 at 0:55
  • @armand They, the apps, do not do the releasing, it happens after people choose to peruse them to no end. Opioids, on the other hand, affect neuron receptors directly.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 6:13
  • @conifold opioids and nicotine too affect neuron receptors only after people choose to peruse them. Outside of the case of medical use (not applicable to nicotine or heroine), there is no difference.
    – armand
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 7:59

4 Answers 4

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For me, the definition of "good or bad" (morality) is both simple but at the same time a central critical but hard position in any useful sensible philosophical framework. This world perceived and thus reflected in our human mind is nothing but metaphors. And since they're just metaphors, no two persons will share EXACTLY same view about a common real world existence judged from their own experience, thus there'll always be dispute and disagreement about a universal moral criterion.

But lack of this universal criterion, by no means we should not pursue "morality" ethics for ourselves as an individual. On the contrary, it's the most precious key element to help oneself to attain a more closer metaphorical knowledge about this elusive unknowable ontological real world. Because metaphors reflected in our mind are full of confusions to different degrees, for math concept like "2", the confusion is much less, but for a social concept like "this app is good", its much much more confused and not clear-cut for various people. However, no matter what the degrees of confusions about a statement, the final criterion for individual either as a academic researcher or a social engineer, is to be "completely honest" to thyself and also extend your same "completely honest" views to others (even though it's not the case, but chances are if you're honest enough, it will be the case most likely). Only through this "complete honesty" morality like an innocent child, one can have a criterion to improve his or her previous formed views and thus opinions, otherwise no progress will be made. Everyone just continues to live his or her original confused world forever.

Sounds simple, however unfortunately, in reality many people will not or cannot face and claim full honesty to themselves due to lots of other pressures or reasons... Developers who intentionally develops an addictive app to target certain consumer group will claim how big their Total Addressable Market is and how much growth their app will reach in 5 years. They're probably right in this regard, but are they completely honest to themselves? Are they recommending their own children or relatives to use the app first, all day long? My bet is some of them are not totally honest, but you can hardly prove so in a strict scientific manner. At these social levels, estimation and certain speculation are always a critical skill to have any valuable aggregate judgement.

Same philosophical logic and views can be applied to end consumers. Is a consumer totally honest when evaluating this seemingly addictive app? Is this really the priority he or she must engage now? Is there any alternative app or other activity more valuable for the consumer right now? I bet some of the consumers are also confused and have not fully honestly evaluated his or her goalpost and meaning of limited life.

In conclusion, this surely looks like a very confused world full of confused minds, and not sounds very "good"... Hope you now understand my position on this question.

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  • It's wrong to build something you wouldn't recommend to your children or relatives. Is that a good summary?
    – Draex_
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 15:21
  • Yes. From the producer side, I can also think of whether the app is really what the developer honestly wish to create per his or her own values as a product founder, or simply morph other existing trendy apps for profit which is the main weight in his or her own calculations. As I said, on these social levels, it's not easy to find the answers... Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 23:15
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If you accept a moral generalization like, "Addictive things/causes of addiction are bad," and if badness is tied to wrongness in the right(!) way, then the deduction is relatively straightforward. If you specify, "Addictions are bad if they are harmful," things get trickier. People have indeed died or suffered health problems in strong relation to video game playing (foregoing food while drinking caffeinated beverages to excess, say), texting can make driving more dangerous, mental disorders might be triggered by Facebook ostracism or the urge to get as many Likes as possible, etc. so addictive forms of these programs would be so much the more questionable.

This all assumes that the concept of addiction is fairly well defined, at least as something in the vicinity of chemical dependency (say), and applies to at least some possible apps as such.

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This should be a comment, but I can't comment.

Is selling/producing alcohol/drugs/cigarettes/porn/tv content/anything potentially addictive wrong because people will (and do) misuse it? I'd say no, and I'd place the burden always on the end-consumer. After all, to live our lives in a balanced way (whatever that means to us) is our responsibility.

The one exception I'd make to this is when companies target a very vulnerable segment of the population who are not equipped to deal with very advanced/borderline disingenuous marketing campaigns, but I don't think this is what you're asking.

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    This answer seems to be based primarily on a personal philosophy/views. It would be better to bring in more specific philosophic points of view.
    – Dave
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 18:39
  • My question is not about building something potentially addictive, but rather about deliberately building something to be as addictive as possible. Do you still hold your view that the burden lies with the consumer to use the product in moderation? If yes, why?
    – Draex_
    Commented Feb 12, 2021 at 16:55
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According to the categorical imperative, morals are relative, and based on the maxim of the action. So an action itself cannot be judged right or wrong, instead the person/entity must be judged in light of their reasons. It seems likely that reasons can be found that make this behavior not morally wrong in the eyes of some people.

As others have pointed out, the consumers are free in this case to abstain from such products, or to seek help in case they are already addicted. Since the product is not guaranteed to produce an addiction, the fault is not with the producer. Additionally in capitalism, producers in competition with other producers have no choice other than using the most profitable means, let a competitor breast then by doing so, and the law would be required to create a level playing field.

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