A Brief Comment on the Complexities of Sharing

Sharing is caring my friend used to say. As a fairly liberally minded University student studying moral ethics, I tended to agree. Although I was not particularly able to donate money earlier in life, I certainly donated considerable amounts of time. There were early volunteer positions for student bodies and later for the United Nations and for the Liberal Party of Canada. Now, my volunteer activities are largely done through my commitment to Rotary International.

It’s always nice to share. We grow up sharing with our siblings and a house with our parents. We share in school and the ball during recess. Sharing is a trait which on the surface is not only seen as highly ethical, right, and good, but it is a trait which is instilled in us early on in life. But is sharing always a good action? Sometimes we think we do not want that shared, whether it is a downloaded song or video, or in more real terms information about ourselves which we have chosen to keep private. So what is it that makes sharing sometimes good and sometimes bad, and what examples can be said to clearly offer delineation of this difference in moral judgment of the act of sharing? In the following short post, I aim to discuss that question as a starter for perhaps future thinking.

When thinking of perhaps a common example of sharing, we can think of passing the person in hardship taken to a life on the streets. As we see the same person day-in and day-out, we think increasingly of sharing enough change for a coffee or bagel. A coffee or bagel will minimally help the individual on the street living a life unlike ours, whose dedicated to finding help in the only way society has offered, but it is a nice gesture which provides limited happiness and some hope. Both the one on the street and the one providing the coffee know this act alone will not alleviate the situation. Really what is needed is for employment in a position they perhaps were in before the troubles began. Even with a coffee shared or a bagel bought for a lunch, the underlying issue remains. Devoid of alternatives and governments underfunded to help, or too slow to help before a crisis happens, the basic act of sharing does provide limited benefit. It is in this immediate benefit and the generated happiness created that the act of sharing is thought to be good and right to do. This is what is meant when it is said something is on the surface good or right.

So it seems that sharing change for a coffee or bagel is helpful and in that regard a good thing to do. What if however, we thought in longer terms though. A month, two months, four months, five years. Now we ask the question, is this fixing the situation. Is the individual getting richer or in more practical terms, better off from the day before? Well no. The same individual cannot buy their own coffee or purchase their bagel, and so nothing is fixed. Nothing is fixed but now let’s go a step further and ask is it actually indeed harmful? Are we perpetuating and offering an answer that is preventing progress? Time has shown that this is a complex problem and really beyond the scope of this post. There are proponents on both sides. What is shown though is that an act of sharing which seems prim facia good, can be said not to be when adding an extended time period on it, or even just a few additional variables.

From the fact that an act of sharing even in its most good manner may not be such a good thing, does that imply there are no instances of an always good act of sharing? Let us assume an expert has a grand volume of knowledge obtained over many years of study and practice in his or her field. Not only would we think such knowledge should be shared, but some might say there is a duty to do so. This speaks not only to the value placed on information and teaching but also on building the capacity of others so that the entire community e.g. professionals, progresses forward. Going about and sharing knowledge is a fundamental element of the human experience. Communities are shaped by the sharing of knowledge. It is known, that for people to thrive and flourish discussions and a sharing of knowledge must happen, and we know it has happened, increasingly in new ways.

Again the question will be asked though, with all of the benefits sharing of knowledge generates, and a duty for some to do so, should it always be shared and there be in one sense full transparency and flowing of knowledge? Great examples some readers may know well is with gossip and at a higher level, confidential business information. Gossip is a part of life and not the type of knowledge we are discussing. Everyone knows that is childish behaviour and not one that should be done as an adult or to worry oneself with. Confidential business information though is more serious and can be far more harmful. So why is it in one instance sharing of knowledge is beneficial while in another it is not? It is from exactly the fact that in one instance sharing of the knowledge is beneficial while in the other instance it is not. We as a society have developed the word private and confidential for the very reason to label information not as beneficial but as harmful if shared.

There are those though who say there is a right to know and that they are mature enough to deal with the information. While a person may be mature enough to deal with the information that has been labeled harmful if shared and thus confidential or private, the notion that there is a right to information is mysterious. It is certainly not amongst a Universal Human Right, and those working in the private sector know full well there are good reasons why people are not allowed to know the inner workings of a company. There is no right to information or knowledge, and especially that which is labeled as private or confidential.

In both the sharing of change for a coffee to the person in the streets, and knowledge to help progress a community, we can see reasons to think that the act of sharing is a good thing. When thinking of sharing change and of knowledge though we can think of reasons not to do so because it would be wrong. In all instances, we are thinking of the benefit in each example as a determining factor in its normative nature. The difference is utility and how much good is generated. When making the decision to share, we must avoid what we were always taught, that it is an automatic plus, someone who had nothing before now has something. We must begin to think in terms of utility. Is this act of sharing really benefiting all involved and for an overall increase in utility?