Moral Atrophy, Ethics, and the Panopticon


I have always found the idea of the Panopticon wildly fascinating as a practical concept and an exercise in game theory. For those unfamiliar, it was an architectural design drafted by Jeremy Bentham in the late 1700’s. The general concept is that an observer sits in the center of a ring full of columbarium style niches, and in each cell is one prisoner or worker. (There were various proposed applications) The inmates are unable to see the observer, so they must assume that they are being watched at every moment. He called it “A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” The observer cannot look at every inmate simultaneously, so an element of the unknown is introduced. The physical power of watching becomes transcendent and absorbed into the psyche of the inmate who will behave as though they are being always watched.

While on a phone conversation with Bellewether some months ago and talking about young people and students, he explained that he described to them maturity or adulthood as doing what is expected even when nobody is watching. I would tend to agree with that sentiment. Children behave not because it is in their nature but in order to stave off punishment. A child unobserved and left to their own devices is one of the most destructive forces in the universe.

I have been mulling these implications over for a while. In many ways we now live in a sort of Panopticon, although one we agree to by using the internet, having credit, and being a functioning American citizen in general. It seems nearly every day there is some new story about an arrest based on a person’s social media page or chatroom comments or even phone calls they assumed were private or secret. ( ( It would not surprise me if these narratives are just as much a formation of a much larger societal Panopticon in the modern psyche. When reading these articles we come away assuming for the most part that we are always observed. Obviously not everything posted online is run through with a fine toothed comb, but the concept lingers. This is the tinted window on the observer’s station, the element of the unknown. The desired result is good citizens behaving themselves all the time as though they were being watched. Can any of us honestly say for certain that we are not?

The child’s ethics can never be more advanced than reactionary, a cringe if you will, like a once beaten dog cowering. It is truly an animal morality. While I am at times reductionist, I cannot fully believe that animal necessity is the only ethics human beings can possess. There is a higher form, and there are people out there who do the right thing even when nobody is looking. This form of ethics comes through philosophy and strong ethos, a sense of pride and responsibility. It is no easy labor. I worry then, that the unknown watcher element of our contemporary world is keeping people in a perpetual state of child-ethics.

Let us parse it out a little more for the sake of discussion. What is the worry of the inmate in the Panopticon? Being seen, yes, but specifically because observation leads to judgement. What is our society told? Do not judge yourself. We are exhorted to not feel guilty and be free. This way of living shirks self-analysis and self-doubt which are important checks and balances on the rampant id aspect of the human mind. With those aspects numbed or ignored there can only be one way left to curb people’s behavior, and that is the hard-stop of external judgement. With no internal observer we must be controlled by the external, the person watching or perhaps not.

In conclusion, the Panopticon paradigm works best in a society without an inherent moral self-critical nature. Ethics become reaction to judgement, and those without ethics will have them supplied by the central observer. The longer this remains the case, the less individuals flex their own ethical muscles and the more necessary the Panopticon structure becomes.

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