Distraction is increasingly acknowledged as one of the greatest obstacles to the good life. Critics from all backgrounds—religious, psychological, neuroscientific—agree that we should strive to reserve our attention for objects worthy of our mental energy. This is already made difficult by the ubiquity of entertainment and advertising, which surround us with trivia. But it is made even more so by the task of discerning which non-trivial objects are worth paying attention to.
On one hand, it is easy to acknowledge that scrolling endlessly through social media feeds, idly surfing the web, and binge-watching television shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime are unhealthy, unproductive, and generally poor uses of mental energy. But what about religiously following the news? What about obsessing over the minutiae of national politics? What about compulsively reading all the latest opinion pieces?
At times, these activities, and others like them, feel just as distracting as watching YouTube or TikTok. At other times, however—especially when they give us advance notice of a breaking news story or provide unexpected insights—they may seem useful or even necessary: a social obligation. After all, unlike most of what is on the internet, content concerning world events, national politics, and cultural conversations ensures we remain well-informed. Are we really justified in occasionally tuning it out? Do the demands of citizenship not require us to do the opposite?
According to philosopher Matthew Crawford, the answer to both questions is a decided “yes.” In his book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Crawford urges us to focus our attention on our immediate surroundings: the physical objects, people, and tasks we encounter day to day.
Crawford argues that it is only by restricting our reception of “hyperpalatable stimuli”—words and images that overpower our conscious minds by direct appeals to neurological instinct—that we can maintain our individuality and agency. Otherwise, he says, we will become addicted to those stimuli and lose our psychological freedom, and with it, our coherent sense of self. At that point, the value of the content we consume will no longer matter, because our ability to respond to it rationally will be gone.
Crawford’s writing is compelling on its own merits. It is also bolstered by an abundance of scientific research indicating that what motivates our online habits is more often the pursuit of a dopamine “hit” than a noble desire for civic-mindedness. Nevertheless, Crawford’s argument may be strengthened through synthesis with another body of thought—the theory of subsidiarity.
Subsidiarity and the Life of the Mind
This theory found its first concrete expression in Catholic social teaching but has since been adopted by many secular philosophers and social scientists. It is typically characterized as a framework for political action, not for the actions of the mind. But, as Crawford points out, we are interdependent creatures who inhabit a shared “attentional environment.” As such, what goes on inside us affects the outside world, which then affects what goes on inside others’ minds.
“We’re in it together. This makes it political,” Crawford writes. If that is correct, then the principles of subsidiarity are as applicable to the ethics of attention as they are to national politics.
What are those principles? In brief, subsidiarity theorists believe that society flourishes when the people who compose it attend to the tasks they are uniquely suited to fulfill. They also contend that negligence and meddling in other people’s responsibilities are the greatest threats to the common good. This view is reminiscent of Book IV of Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates states: “Each one man must perform one social service in the state for which his nature is best adapted. . . . To do one’s own business and not be a busybody is justice.”
Applying that logic to the ethics of attention is relatively straightforward. If doing one’s own business is justice, then reserving one’s mental energy for that business is a social duty. In the same vein, if negligence and meddling are the greatest political vices, then we are obliged not to pay unnecessary attention to areas of responsibility that rightfully belong to others. This is not to say we should ignore others’ needs—to the contrary, caring for our neighbor is our highest moral duty, according to Catholic social teaching—but it is to say that we should not become mentally wrapped up in tasks outside our spheres of influence.
This perfectly complements Crawford’s conclusion, and it should give us pause before we let our minds wander into the online world of public affairs. A national leader, elected official, or widely read commentator may require a diet of mass media to fulfill his civic role. But most of us are none of those things, so we can easily slip into an unhealthy, unbalanced consumption of media that neither nourishes nor ennobles us.
Aside from voting once every two to four years, most of us wield no national authority. The world will go on virtually unchanged whether we have seen the latest segment on Fox News or CNN or read the latest tweet from our favorite pundit. Therefore, the principles of subsidiarity suggest we would be better off tuning that information out and focusing on what is in front of us: the responsibility—and opportunity—to do our work well, support our colleagues, build up our places of worship, strengthen our local municipalities, and nurture our circles of friends and family.
A Well-Ordered Attentiveness
The purpose of this reorientation is not to withdraw from politics or disclaim civic responsibility. The theory of subsidiarity considers political duties to be incredibly important, not just for men and women in power, but for all citizens. But the theory asks us to reassess which political duties are properly our own.
After all, no one has unlimited resources, and it stands to reason that we should allocate those resources strategically to maximize our positive impact. Otherwise, like those who abandon the good in pursuit of the perfect, we will give up our objective effectiveness for the subjective satisfaction of “fighting” for a noble cause: an ultimately selfish exchange in which we gain (apparent) moral currency at our neighbors’ (actual) expense.
If our immediate surroundings and concrete responsibilities constitute the arena in which we are most uniquely competent, then we should reserve our attention for those objects. The scope of our unique charges will doubtless contract and expand over time, as our abilities and others’ needs change. But though we must conform to our spheres of influence as they evolve, we may not willfully transgress their boundaries, because obedience to Providence only furthers the common good.
This posture is not quietism, but the pinnacle of activism. The problem with mass media’s “hyperpalatable stimuli” is not that they make us too political. Their problem is that they deceive us into feeling like we are being hyper-political while we are actually not being political enough. Both Crawford’s book and the principles of subsidiarity testify to this. Those of us who wish to be good citizens would be wise to hear them out.
The featured image is in the public domain courtesy of Adobe Stock.