At the risk of sounding like a continental philosopher (a fate worse than death, in my view), I will say that I think confrontedness has great ethical importance.
What I mean by "confrontedness" can be well illustrated by the contrast between Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan and a contemporary misuse of it I happened to see on Facebook.
In Jesus' parable, the Samaritan actually comes across a man, a real, individual man, who has been beaten by thieves and left by the roadside. The Samaritan goes aside to check on him, finds that he is alive, puts him on his own donkey, and takes care of him. Jesus recommends his actions.
In the misuse of the parable (and I'm sure you've seen the like elsewhere), an enthusiastic and indignant person stated that, based on the parable of the good Samaritan, we have a right to judge someone as selfish who does not give of his time on a Saturday morning to work for a fund-raising event to help victims of trafficking, and who is not doing anything all that important instead on the Saturday morning.
The reasons why this application of the parable is wrong have to do with the concept of confrontedness.
When your friend calls you up, or posts on Facebook, seeking volunteers for the charity fund-raiser, you are confronted by your friend's enthusiasm and his recommendation of how you use your time, but you are not confronted by a specific, real person in need. In fact, there are layers between you and actual people in need, in any of which information loss is likely to occur. Has your friend rightly judged the probability that the fund-raiser will help the charity? Is working on this fund-raiser a more efficient way to help the charity than just making a donation oneself? Is the charity effective at helping trafficked women? Do the charity's activities have unintended consequences that are troubling? How efficiently does the charity use money donated to it?
No such layers intervened between the Samaritan and the victim. There were, of course, things the Samaritan didn't know until he stepped aside and investigated a bit, most of all whether the victim was alive or dead. But he did know that, if the man was alive and had been beaten and left to die, he had the wherewithal to help him--a specific, individual person, not an organization.
I do not mean to say that there is anything wrong with helping organizations. What I do mean to say is that a person does not have anything like the same responsibility to help when confronted by an attempted claim from an organization on his time or money as when confronted by a specific, needy individual whom he knows he can, without even harming himself or his own family, help greatly right now.
The Internet, however, complicates all of this, and that is only fair to admit. The problem is illustrated by the phenomenon of Facebook and of Facebook friends or "friends" whom one has never met.
Before all of that, there were always people known as "pen pals" (an archaic expression) whom one had not met but with whom one developed a relationship through long and detailed correspondence. At its best, Internet friendship, including social media friendship, recreates that experience and expands it. My own life has been greatly enriched by the friendship of people I have never met, some of them my co-contributors to this blog. For them, the word "friend" does not need scare quotes.
At the same time, the alarming expansion of social media does sometimes require scare quotes around the word. Not everybody who is your Facebook "friend" is your friend, sans phrase, and I usually, for reasons of clarity, will tell those to whom I'm speaking about someone whether that person is a Facebook "friend," an on-line friend with whom I've had more extensive contact, a person I know mostly on-line and have met once or twice, an acquaintance, or an in-person friend. I think it's important for accuracy.
What does all of this have to do with confrontedness? Just this: Social media allows us to feel as though we are confronted with the sorrows, griefs, and needs of people we have never laid eyes on, whose connection to ourselves may be only that they are one of two thousand other people on whom the name "friend" has been bestowed by Facebook after we agreed to a "friend" request but with whom we've had very little one-on-one contact of any kind. It is extremely easy to suffer from what feels like "confrontedness overload" when everybody is sharing about some friend of theirs who is sick and needs one's prayers or a donation, or about their own needs, and at a certain point one does sometimes need to stop and say, "You know, I don't actually know this person at all."
And I think it is legitimate for that to make a difference. Believe it or not, the old lady down the street, yes, just because of the sheer accident of physical proximity, probably has more of a claim on your time than the student across the country whom you've never met.
Can I come up with a principle about why this is so? To some extent, as my earlier discussion of the good Samaritan indicated, it's a matter of information. I can see the old lady for myself and see that she has a genuine need. I have other clues to this, not just her own word for it via an electronic medium. What else? Well, the help I give to her may be more concrete than what I can give to the student across the country. Maybe what the student needs is my take on a certain argument for the existence of God. That's fine, and as time permits, I'm happy to give it, and I know that it may be of help. But the old lady down the street may need someone to help her outside for some fresh air or someone to talk to her because she is shut into her house (she doesn't have Internet). Both of these are in many ways more fundamental needs than the need for philosophical conversation.
But there is the other side, and I want to give the other side its due: It actually is true that the Internet has caused me to be confronted, in a real sense confronted, with more people and their needs than I ever was before. Even when we have parsed all the distinctions between those you know in person and those you don't, between situations with lots of information and situations with little, between organizations or Causes and concrete individuals, the sheer force and speed of social media means that I now have real friends whose problems I should care about, whom I should try to help as appropriate if and when I can (by praying, if nothing else), even though I have never laid eyes on them, even though they live far away, and even though I may never meet them face to face.
This is odd. It is an expansion of confrontedness unprecedented in human history. And I think it requires careful handling.
I don't have a full set of brilliant advice for handling it, but I have a few ideas.
--Not everything that your friends are emotionally excited or upset about counts as something you are confronted with, even if that "something" is a person. This is true of both in-person friends and on-line friends, but it may be harder to keep in mind for on-line friends. If your on-line friend posts a picture of his nephew who has cancer, the nephew doesn't have the same claim on you as if he were your own son, your own nephew, or even the on-line friend himself. Don't try to gin up the feelings you think your on-line friend wants you to have about his nephew. All the more so if what your on-line friend posts and demands your attention to is a picture of an orphan in another country whom he doesn't even have a personal relationship with.
--Limit your number of Facebook friends, so as to retain some semblance of commonality and community. If you have 5,000 Facebook friends and call them all "my friends," you are really doing a number on your own sense of what friendship means.
--Unless you are actually isolated from the world in a way beyond your control (e.g., locked up in a nursing home), work to keep contact with people with whom you are physically acquainted. If you find yourself replacing in-person friends entirely with on-line friends, try to do something about that.
--Exercise restraint and self-limitation in emotional sharing in social media. The temptation is huge to "let it all hang out," and the prompt that says, "What's on your mind?" is insidious, but don't tell everybody all the time what's on your mind. It creates a false sense of intimacy, cheapens the value of sharing your emotions with someone else, overloads your friends, and in the end numbs everybody to some degree because too many emotional ups and downs are flying around. If a mother of four has to read the moment-to-moment anxieties of five hundred other people all over the world as they cope with their lives and their jobs, and if she feels some duty to empathize with these, chances are she will find it harder to empathize with her two-year-old who skins his knee. Yet her first duty is to her two-year-old, not to her Facebook acquaintance five hundred miles away who is going through a minor crisis on a particular day. If this sounds callous, I submit that that's because we've already adopted a social media ethos and no longer understand the notion of concentric circles of duty.
--Causes are not the same thing as people. See above. Don't allow yourself to be overwhelmed by all the charitable appeals in your newsfeed.
--Don't accept the philosophical position that you have no special duties to anyone and that a child you have never met has as much claim on you as your own child or your dearest friend. Or variants thereof. Be suspicious the minute someone refers to "our dollars," as though there is a big pot of dollars somewhere owned by the Collective which should be doled out by central planning. (But there I'm digressing.)
--Cultivate real mutual knowledge and friendship, via private communication, with a limited number of people you have encountered on-line. Make these the people to whom you tell more and to whom you are closer, because you have taken time, gotten to know each other, and developed mutual trust. That still doesn't give you leave to take even this "inner group" for granted or to overload them with confidences or demands, but it does mark a clearer sense of degrees of friendship than the Internet sometimes encourages.
--Allow yourself (in a moderate fashion) and your family to have your horizons widened and your perspective broadened. This may even mean judging that you should give financial help to someone far away whom you "know" only electronically instead of to an in-person friend, if you are justified in believing that the person far away has a greater need and/or, on balance, is a worthier recipient of your charity. It may occasionally mean telling your children that whatever minor privation they have to endure is nothing compared to what someone you "know" on the Internet is going through. (Though this sort of lecturing should probably be used sparingly, unless you have really spoiled kids.) It will certainly mean telling yourself from time to time that what you are going through is nothing compared with what old so-and-so is going through, pausing to pray for so-and-so, and humbly counting your blessings. In this respect, the effect of broadened friendships and sympathies and enlarged knowledge of the needs of others can be salutary.
The Internet has altered friendship and has required us to broaden and clarify our notion of what it means to be confronted by a person or a problem and to have a duty to help. Such questions will never admit of precise, formulaic answers, but it's just as well for us to recognize that the questions don't just go away because the Internet exists. It's not as though now there are no distinctions and everybody in the world has an equal claim on our time, sympathy, energy, and money. It can't be, because that would be impossible.
So now we have to work to come up with new rubrics for new technologies, while bearing always in mind that we are embodied and finite beings, with the providentially given duties of confrontedness proper to such beings.