Living with the digital dead

Photo of Patrick StokesHSV Public Lecture by Dr Patrick Stokes, philosopher, Deakin University, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 31 August 2017

Patrick has been interested in the ethical status of the dead for over six years and reminded us that the moral questions about how the dead are treated was discussed by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE.

About five years ago it was estimated, that there were at least 30 million Facebook accounts for dead people, and there are likely to be many more now. An engaging exercise has been to predict the point at which the number of dead users will exceed the living. The year 2060 is one estimate.

Sociologists, psychologists and lawyers have been interested in this phenomenon for quite some time. Philosophers have been rather late in coming to the party. The ethical answer to the question, “do we have a right to delete the account after someone dies?”, probably hinges on whether the problem is viewed from a consequentialist perspective or a deontological one. In other words, what risk of harm is there? What are the interests of the dead person that should be protected? Or is it an intrinsic question of right and wrong?

In some cases when someone dies, family members request that the Facebook account be deleted. In other instances the account continues to be actively used. Just as intimate friends might go to a gravesite to commune with the dead, some Facebook accounts are used to post ongoing conversation and memorial notes.

In general, we recognize an ethical obligation to remember the dead, to respect and honour them and not to slander them. By not speaking ill of the dead we are protecting their reputation from harm, recognising that this was valued by that person before death. New technologies have broadened the horizons for these moral questions. What should we do with the social media accounts of dead users? Patrick feels that there are moral arguments against deleting them, although he is also concerned that they are sometimes susceptible to abuse.

A general argument for remembering the dead hinges on the tenet that each individual is valuable and is owed remembrance or, as Jeffrey Blustein says, “to rescue them from insignificance”. Aristotle said that it was praiseworthy to remember the dead, as it was a voluntary gesture. Similarly, Kierkegaard considered that it was the purest act of love to remember the dead – requiring no coercion, risking no punishment and expecting no reciprocity. However, Taylor has queried whether remembering the dead is a duty or more of a societal norm.

There is an ambiguity about remembrance which C. S. Lewis lays out bleakly in A Grief Observed:

Will nothing persuade us that they are gone? What’s left? A corpse, a memory, and (in some versions) a ghost. All mockeries or horror. Three more ways of spelling the word dead. It was H I loved. As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind! It would be a sort of incest.

Patrick has analysed aspects of this ontological ambiguity in terms of self vs person. The self exists in the moment and is the subject of experience. In other words, the self is our identity in the first person. By contrast, the person is an intersubjective third-person object, with names and acquisitions. And the person encompasses a wide range of identities across a lifespan, including bodily, moral and social characteristics. A large body of literature in this area has been accruing since the 1970s, when Thomas Nagel started to write about it. Whereas Epicurus argued that death is nothing to us – since when we are, death has not come, and when death comes, we are not – Nagel emphasized that we care more about the future than we do about the past. He introduced the notion of a deprivation account, which totted up the loss to the individual of future assets and experience at the point of death.

What relevance does this have for Facebook and social media? We are relying more and more on technology for memory tasks. In fact, it is now easier and cheaper to store data than to erase or delete it. Because social media has become an increasingly important way for many people to communicate and shape an identity, continuity after death by memorializing their Facebook account may be important for them. So, if we have a duty to remember the dead, does this therefore mean that preservation of on-line artefacts is a moral right? It is one defensible argument for not deleting someone’s account post mortem. Or is the situation more analogous to their bodily corpse, in that while it is owed respect and dignity, it does not form part of their estate and no-one has ownership?

Artificial intelligence (AI) and voice recognition technology have spawned a number of programs offering avatars and programs promising to maintain the presence of the dead individual in perpetuity. Eternime and Tweetson are two of these, and there are several others. None has been very successful in a technical sense. They aim to analyse mannerisms and language patterns from the past in order to provide a facsimile response for future interactions. Tweetson promised, rather catchily, “when your heart stops beating, you keep tweeting”.

Charlie Brooker’s science fiction television series Black Mirror explores some of the pitfalls of relating to an avatar. But any avatar or technologically produced clone is based on an algorithm and of necessity cannot offer a surprising or unpredictable response. There is a lack of essential alterity or otherness. This was at the heart of C. S. Lewis’s grief,
that the other, his wife, was dead and what remained was his memory of her, which was merely the product of his own imagination.

In one sense this is a reassuring idea, that an algorithm is insufficient, that we are each unique. However, if we consider that marketing, which is based on algorithms, is undoubtedly successful, might it be that we are closer to algorithms than we recognize and that one day a more sophisticated AI program will be able to replicate us? In that case we will have slid from memorialization to replication.


Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics.
Kierkegaard, S., Works of Love, Hong Kong, (1847) 1995.
Lewis, C. S., A Grief Observed, Faber and Faber, 1961
Blustein, Jeffrey, The Moral Demands of Memory, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Taylor, J. S. (ed.), The Metaphysics and Ethics of Death, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Nagel, Thomas, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp 1–10.

Report by Jennie Stuart