Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 2 Computers and Ethics


There is something in the makeup of the species homo sapiens that has them make tools as but one expression of a drive to make improvements in their lives.  New technologies have been developed for as long as there have been humans.  Indeed one of the attributes or characteristics of the species is just that; the making of tools.  Humans have been described as homo faber; fabricators, makers.   Electronic technologies that are at the base of computing devices  or that have computers at their base have been with the human community for over a century and in that relatively short time they have produced remarkable advances in the physical environments in which most humans now live and in their social environment as well.

Computers, computer technologies, information technologies, information networks and the internet are the focus of this work and they as a group will often, but not always , be referred to using the more general phrase: computer technologies.

As humans make changes in their environments those changes in turn present situations with which humans must deal and take account, particularly if those situations present problems or conflicts that must be addressed and satisfactorily resolved in keeping with the basic values held by those seeking the resolutions.  This is not new at all.  The focus herein is with changes introduced by computer technologies. 

When changes take place as a result of the invention and use of technologies there is often an increase in the possibilities offered for human action within those changed environments.  Indeed this increase is one of the driving forces behind technological research, development and experimentation.  There are often times when the technologies have presented not only new situations with new  possibilities but situations with dilemmas and problems not previously encountered.  Indeed there are times when the situations are so new or novel that there would occur a loss of how to proceed. When there are not laws or customs to us as guides, such situations might be described as producing the result that humans proceed in a vacuum.  This is the view of James Moor who has introduced that phrasing of this situation "Policy Vacuum" (see below)   .

Where some of the dilemmas involve values held by human beings so then in resolving the dilemmas or problems there may be a role for ethical inquiry and moral deliberation.   Ethics become relevant when humans are living with other humans.  Ethics and morality appear to be thoroughly social phenomena.  Humans living in isolation both social and physical from all other humans may not have any ethical or moral concerns.  So Ethics arises out of human interactions and Ethics exist for use in human interactions.  Humans are social animals.  Aristotle describes the human species as being social animals, animals of the polis, of the society which makes them as they are: zoon politikon.  Ethics and moral concerns arise from this social nature and the incumbent moral sensitivity or impulse to sympathize or empathize (more on this in the next chapter).  Ethics deals with human interests and out of concerns for harm to humans and the desire to resolve human conflicts.   With ethics something of value is involved.  There is something that humans think of as important and that they desire when they enter into ethical inquiry.

The changes produced by the computer technologies have prompted ethical inquiry.  Computer technologies have been presenting humans with moral problems and dilemmas.

Here is one presentation on the the nature of computers and ethics. READ: Computer Ethics

An important work in setting out the new discipline is this work.  READ: What is Computer Ethics? James H. Moor

Back in 1982 Computer Ethics was a discipline of Philosophy still in its infancy and it had a far shorter range of concerns than will be found in this work being written in 2006: A Discipline in its Infancy Terrell Ward Bynum

So, Computer Ethics has come to take its place as one of a number of applications of ethics to different fields or areas of life.  As such it is a form of Applied Ethics.  For an account of the historical development of this new discipline in Applied Ethics  described in :A Very Short History of Computer Ethics  by Terrell Ward Bynum

Date:         Sat, 13 Oct 90 15:40:00 EDT
Reply-To:     Discussion of Ethics in Computing <ETHICS-L@DEARN>
Sender:       Discussion of Ethics in Computing <ETHICS-L@DEARN>
From:         BYNUM@CTSTATEU   Terrell Ward Bynum
Subject:      What is Computer Ethics?--Again!

The phrase "Computer Ethics" was apparently coined in the mid-to-late 1970s by Professor Walter Maner of Old Dominion U. (now at Bowling Green State).  At that time, he defined the field as the study of ethical issues that are "aggravated, transformed or created by computer technology" (see his, Teaching Computer Ethics: A Starter Kit, Helvetia Press, 1978). This was the phrase he used in his articles and conference workshops on Computer Ethics in the late 70s.  A few years later, he (and Philip Pecorino) defined Computer Ethics as a branch of "applied professional ethics" that studies "critical moral problems...which can be aggravated, transformed, created or alleviated technology." (Metaphilosophy,
October 1985)
In her book, Computer Ethics (Prentice-Hall, 1985) Deborah Johnson describes the field as one that studies "new versions of standard moral problems and moral dilemmas" exacerbated by computers, "forcing us to apply ordinary moral norms in uncharted waters."
In his prize-winning article, "What Is Computer Ethics?" (Metaphilosophy, October 1985), James Moor takes a different tack.  There he says that Computer Ethics is the field that identifies and analyzes ethical and social "policy vacuums" resulting from computer technology.
In their brand new book, Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing (MIT Press, 1990), Tom Forester and Perry Morrison define the field as one that  studies "ethical dilemmas for computer professionals and computer users" that result "from hardware and software malfunctions and from misuse by human beings."
No matter which of the above definitions you take to be the best, one thing is clear: the field of Computer Ethics now exists as a viable, growing and important field of research. There are journals, research centers, conferences, courses, textbooks and organizations devoted to the field.
To define Computer Ethics very narrowly as one devoted exclusively to ethical problems unlike any ever seen before computing is merely to introduce an odd definition or to play semantic games.  It would be just as easiy to argue that "human beings do not exist" simply by defining "human being" in an odd way (for example, as "an animal with five legs").  To do so, however, would  not advance our understanding of what a human being is.  Similarly, to define Computer Ethics in an odd and narrow way does NOT prove that computer ethics is an illegitimate field of research.  And it does not advance our understanding of Computer Ethics.  In the words of a logician, "it is merely to commit the fallacy of stipulative definition, then follow
it up with a fallacy of the straw man."

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents