Ethical Theories and Computer Ethics

Ethical Theories and Computer Ethics

Matthew Charlesworth (The Jesuit Institute, South Africa) and David Sewry (Rhodes University, South Africa)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-022-6.ch013
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The development of cybernetics and digital computers prompted the need for a greater exploration of computer ethics. Information ethics, as described by Floridi and Sanders (2003), offers a conceptual basis for such an exploration. This chapter provides an historical perspective on the development of a foundation for the study of computer ethics. A brief explanation is provided of a number of ethical theories (Divine Command; Ethics of Conscience; Ethical Egoism; Ethics of Duty; Ethics of Respect; Ethics of Rights; Utilitarianism; Ethics of Justice; Virtue Ethics) followed by a number of perspectives on the development of computer ethics. The Innovative Approach proposed by Floridi et al concludes the chapter.
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Ethical Theories In Brief

Often we have to make decisions when all the facts cannot be known with certainty. In such cases we have no choice but to rely on the best information we have, and when we are not experts ourselves, this means deciding which experts to trust. (The Elements of Moral Philosophy, p. 9)

Lawrence Hinman, Director of the Values Institute and Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego provides nine bases upon which moral or ethical decisions are made (Hinman, 2002, p.3-11).2

Divine Command Theories

Divine Command Theory is an ethical theory that states that to be good one must do what God commands you to do. Teachings from the Bible, the Qur’an or other sacred texts are considered to present authoritatively that which leads to what is right. The problem of the Divine Command Theory is summed up in the Euthyphro Dilemma – in short, is it right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right? With regards to the issue of piracy, one might say that in terms of the Judaeo-Christian commandment ‘thou shalt not steal’, piracy is proscribed.

The Ethics of Conscience

In this theory, what is right is defined by one’s ‘inner voice’. Whilst this can often have a religious source and operate out of a religious context, it may also be founded solely on human nature. However, in both cases the conscience must be properly formed. In its negative dimension, conscience tells us what is not right and makes individuals feel guilty, facilitating the possibility of atonement. With regards to piracy, our conscience would compel us to feel guilty for doing something that is immoral, provided we recognised that piracy is illegal and a form of theft, and that we accept that violation of this illegality does not serve a higher good.

Ethical Egoism

In this theory, each person ought to do whatever will best promote his or her own interests. Ethical egoism is often argued to be self-defeating in that, a society of egoists do worse for themselves than a society of altruists (see for example the classical philosophical game – the Prisoners Dilemma). Another fundamental objection is that it is inconsistent with the nature of trust and friendship that each party should be motivated solely by self-interest. With regards to piracy, an ethical egoist might pirate software because it would be in their own interests to acquire the software in the most expedient and efficient way to themselves (that is without paying for it). However, it could be argued that in the long-term, should one be caught, the consequences of pirating software are not in an individual’s own interests or indeed if pirating undermines the business it may undermine the egoists own interests in new up-to-date software.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Macroethics (opp. Microethics): Ethics seen in macrocosm (Macroethics) or microcosm (Microethics), and that a hierarchical relationship exists between them. A macroethics (e.g. concerning society) is more corporate, encompassing and general than a microethic (e.g. concerning an individual) which is more specific ( Spong 1977 , p. 1). Computer ethics is frequently simply taken to be what is called microethics, that is, the kind of ethics that relates to individual conduct, the rights and wrongs of it, and the good and bad. ( Ladd 1997 , p. 8). In this chapter information ethics is argued to be a macroethic.

WTO: An acronym for World Trade Organisation .

Software Piracy: “Software Piracy is the distribution of counterfeit software and/or use or distribution of authentic software constituting the intentional violation of intellectual property laws.” ( Scott 2007 , p. 1).

Applied Ethics: “ The term ‘applied ethics’ and its synonym ‘practical ethics’ came into use in the 1970s when philosophers and other academics began to address pressing moral problems in society and in professional ethics (especially medical ethics and business ethics). Prominent examples, then and now, are abortion, euthanasia, the protection of human and animal subjects in research, racism, sexism, affirmative action, acceptable risk in the workplace, the legal enforcement of morality, civil disobedience, unjust war, and the privacy of information.” ( Beauchamp 2003 , p. 1)

Right (opp. Wrong): “Rightness’ refers to the way of living and the specific acts that conform to the moral standard of the community. Moral theology is built on goodness and badness, not primarily on the rightness and wrongness of actions. This is because goodness and badness is concerned with the vertical relationship with God” ( Bunch 2005 , p. 2).

Computer Ethics: The area of ethics examining the use of computers on actions and operations that were possible before, or only possible because of, computers.

Ethics: The science, or philosophy, or more modestly, the study of moral conduct. By moral conduct in turn is meant conduct regarded as right or wrong, or as what “ought” or “ought not” to be done; or as involving deliberation and choice between ends viewed as “good”. (Mathews et al 1921, p. 152 AU32: The in-text citation "Mathews et al 1921" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ).

Good (opp. Bad): A term referring to the person who constantly strives to do right actions. Obviously, good persons may do wrong acts; we call these mistakes. But upon learning of the mistake, the good person will immediately admit it and attempt to rectify these mistakes because he or she is constantly striving to do right. In this line of thinking, a bad person is one who simply does not strive to do right. Calling a person good means that this person is striving to do the right; it does not mean that he or she has achieved it in every situation. The good doctor constantly strives to make the correct diagnoses and to develop the proper treatment plan. Unfortunately, the good doctor makes more mistakes than anyone would wish. But if they are good doctors, they will discover the mistakes and correct them ( Bunch 2005 , p. 2).

Metaethics: “Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves.” ( Fieser 2006 , p. 1)

ICT: An acronym for information and communications technology .

Information Ethics: The theoretical foundation of applied computer-ethics - a non-standard, environmental macroethics, patient-oriented and ontocentric, based on the concepts of data-entity/infosphere/entropy rather than life/ecosystem/pain. (Floridi 1998 AU33: The in-text citation "Floridi 1998" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ; 1999, p. 37 AU34: The in-text citation "Floridi 1999" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ; and Floridi and Sanders 1999 AU35: The in-text citation "Floridi and Sanders 1999" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ; 2001, p. 55 AU36: The in-text citation "Floridi and Sanders 2001" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. )

TRIPS: An acronym for the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights , negotiated in the 1986-94 Uruguay Round that introduced intellectual property rules into the multilateral trading system for the first time ( WTO 2007 , p. 1).

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