How can people who do not know each other live together?

Nevertheless, many people take a 'moral distance' to their own actions. Information and communication technologies facilitate a position of 'moral distance'. Hamelink defines moral distance as the distance between a human action and its possible victims. The more distance one achieves, the easier it is to harm other people, which would not be possible when in direct confrontation with these other human beings (Hamelink, personal communication, January 2006). With this definition Hamelink argues that being present in natural presence triggers moral behaviour, which resonates with the findings of Damasio: in order to take care of the self, people also take care of others. Harming other people will backfire and only make the environment unsafe.

According to Hamelink morality is more complex than receiving feedback. Morality is learned and is also to be found in the intentions of an actor. Even though it is hard to prove, people understand that there is a causal relationship between propaganda and an evolving war. People learn morality and can understand the consequences of their own and other people's actions (Hamelink, personal communication, January 2006).

Hamelink raises an issue I have not yet addressed, which is the issue of 'learning morality'. I have focused in my research on the moment of social interaction, I have acknowledged that previous experiences influence how an actor understands the clash between intention and realisation, but I have not addressed the 'learning effect', which takes place via natural, witnessed and mediated presence. I did conclude in chapter 5 that to be able to address issues of an ethical nature, people have to gather in 'natural presence', which resonates with the definition of moral distance as Hamelink formulates it. I have also learned from the work of Damasio that emotions and feelings are crucial indicators of where 'good for life and bad for life' is to be found and that these feelings and emotions involve all layers of consciousness a human being possesses. In this sense, feelings that are triggered by mediated presence can only inspire limited ethical behaviour. Damasio argues that when people grow up they learn to handle and understand their feelings and emotions according to the cultures they live in and develop 'social feelings' like compassion, shame, guilt, gratitude and more. I suppose that the development of "social feelings' plays a crucial role in what Hamelink formulates as 'learning morality'. The development of social feelings requires certain neurological conditions of the brain, but is far more complex than that according to Damasio. Insights derived from anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis and evolutionary psychology as well as findings from studies in the fields of ethics, law and religion are all necessary to understand the evolution and development of social feelings. From his perspective Damasio concludes that "the grounding role of feelings is tied to their natural life-monitoring function" (Damasio 2004, 165).

Learning morality is a very complex process in which many contributing factors can be distinguished. It is a very important process for the shaping of communities and for the realisation of human rights as formulated in the UDHR. However, in this study I will not elaborate further on the concept of 'learning morality' and will limit my analysis to the moment of social interaction in which the possibility to act and the possibility to receive feedback appear to be crucial to be able to feel and know what happens in order to be capable of acting accordingly. Therefore I will focus on the moment a human being is inclined to take a moral distance. In the context of this exploratory study I can only highlight some issues that may be of relevance when trying to understand why people take a 'moral distance'. Hopefully, further research into 'learning morality' may benefit from the findings of my analysis of what happens in moments of social interaction in natural, witnessed and mediated presence.

I have chosen the UDHR as reference point for 'morality', for 'ethical behaviour', out of pragmatic reasons. The UDHR is an attempt to create a common ground for all the moralities humankind has invented, on a global scale. Written just after World War II, the UDHR has been subject to cross-cultural and transformative dialogues that have affected international politics. But the realisation of the UDHR in the many nations that signed it is far from being achieved (Falk 1999, Weston 1999). In his book "The Ethics of Cyberspace" Hamelink raises the following question:
"The adoption of human rights as normative guidance for social ethics is founded upon a global social contract that the international community has concluded. The notion that common moral standards can be based upon a social contract already occurs in biblical thinking, in Aristotle's Politics, in Roman law and in the eighteenth-century philosophies of Locke, Hume and Rousseau. article 597 The social contract is essential to the thinking of a contemporary philosopher of law and politics, John Rawls. The common question is how can people who do not know each other live together? This is an extremely urgent question in societies that are increasingly anonymous, complex and multicultural. "(Hamelink 2000, 74).

The question "How can people who do not know each other live together?" sounds simple, but reflects a world of complexities. Does 'living together' refer to being gathered in natural presence? Do we also live together with people we only know through mediated presence? Does 'living together' refer to being present at the same time on the same planet? Or does 'living together' include living together across generations? And how long does living together last?

The other confusing element of the question is the "people we do not know". Do we know people with whom we occupy the same place at the same time? Do we actually meet via mediated presence? When do we start to know each other? Should our actions be influenced by the knowledge that people exist whom we do not know and who are somewhere else and may live in other times? How can we know what the effect of our actions will be, if we do not know them? How can we learn in such a case? And who are the other people?

Through the confusion that arises when taking all these other questions into serious consideration it becomes apparent that the idea of what a human being is, is not clear at all. As Hamelink points out, the actual concept of a human being, which inspired the UDHR, is a vague constellation of ideas that can be traced back to the Enlightenment. But all these ideas are also 'cultural constructs' (Hamelink, personal conversation January 2006). Damasio grounds the idea of a human being, and of the human being's ethical actions, in the biological reality. Damasio describes his work and the work of Spinoza as that it "contains the foundation for a system of ethical behaviours and that foundation is neurobiological. The foundation is the result of a discovery based on the observation of human nature rather than the revelation of a prophet." (Damasio 2004, 171). Even though I realize that modern western science possesses its own assumptions and takes them for granted, I prefer this approach and will continue to use it as a foundation for understanding the design of presence in the light of the UDHR.

Discussing the realisation of the UDHR, Upendra Baxi states that one of the major issues in people living together is how 'voices of suffering' can be heard (Baxi 1999). With 'voices of suffering' Baxi refers to other people we may know but often do not know and who are suffering pain. We can see people suffering from hunger on television far away, but in any environment there may be people who do not have enough money to feed their children good food every day. Hunger, no shelter, (fear of) violence, no home, no education, no political rights, no expression of religion, and many more reasons create many voices of suffering in this world as well as in our own environments. And also inner voices, psychological voices, of suffering require attention. The way presence is designed influences how voices of suffering can express themselves and how voices of suffering can be heard. When a human being does hear such a voice, he or she will want to steer clear of it and do something to restore 'homeostasis'. Social feelings will evolve and these will influence the thinking actor provided he or she is aware of the possibilities of action.

Moral distance is created by a variety of factors. In this study I argue that one of the reasons for taking a moral distance is not being able to hear the voices of suffering as well as not being able to act upon them. Moral distance increases because of the mediation of presence. I will discuss below how we take up moral distance in relation to mediated 'voices of suffering'. We take a moral distance to ourselves, to others and to our own actions. I argue that taking moral distance is not good for our survival and well-being. Even though media schemata help people to know and to learn how to deal with certain forms of mediated presence, taking moral distance confuses the ethical drive that is part of every human being.

Below I will sketch how moral distance towards oneself, to others and to one's actions is taken up. This is only a sketch, which is an exploration along the borders of this study. Moral distance as a concept needs further research and input from many disciplines, as I argued before. In order to create this sketch I will write in the 'we' form, emphasizing the exploratory nature of these thoughts. It is also important to realize that I write this sketch from the particular perspective of the Dutch Amsterdam environment, in which this research has been based.