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

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 2 Computers and Ethics

Presentation of  Issues

So for what computer ethics is and how it developed and its most popular topics please READ Computer Ethics: Basic Concepts and Historical Overview    Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Uniqueness Issue

Are issues present by the Computer Technologies unique in ay way that would be deserving of special attention through what would become a new branch of Applied Ethics?  This has been a question for some of those engaged in Computer Ethics.

Walter Maner maintains both a weak and a strong view which are as follows:

  • that certain ethical issues are so transformed by the use of computers that they deserve to be studied on their own, in their radically altered form,
  • that the involvement of computers in human conduct can create entirely new ethical issues, unique to computing, that do not surface in other areas.


Deborah Johnson has made a case that there is a sort of uniqueness involved.

--- Johnson, Deborah Computer Ethics, 3rd ed (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2001)

 She has made a case that there are a number of features that individually or together produce a set issues and concerns that do rise to the level of uniqueness.

In support of the idea that there is a uniqueness she has provided these contributing factors:

  • Computer technologies produce new entities of various sorts.  There are new devices being created at a regular pace and the production of software and programs has led to the creation of a new form of intellectual property as a result of decisions made by lawyers and judges and other social policy makers reflective of what are presumed as prevailing social values.

  • The computer technologies have been applied in a manner to significantly change the scale of many activities making things possible that were not before their creation and use.  Gathering large amounts of data and data concerning large numbers of people and sorting through it all in relatively short time are now possible.

  • The computer technologies now enable an incredibly large number of calculations to take place in unimaginably short periods of time.  This in turn make possible the processing of information of quantities so large and in times so short that facsimiles of human thought and decision making become possible.

  • The application of computer technologies to the human quest after knowledge has led to new knowledge of things on scales so large as to be astronomical and concerning matters so small as to be infinitesimal.  The physics of the universe and of the atom have now advanced as they could not have otherwise.

  • There is also the inherent unreliability of the computer technologies due to a number of factors staring with the complexity and scale of the calculations and of the programs and due to possible human error in entering data and setting parameters.

  • Finally the power and pervasiveness of computers has led to widespread changes in how humans do things and even how they think of things and of their futures.

So, one could look at the issues dealt with in this field as new species of a familiar genus of ethical arguments. Going further, after presenting the possibilities for a case supporting uniqueness she offers a deeper analysis and argument for uniqueness when presenting the case that computer technologies are a new order of change in the instrumentation of human action.  The changes produced by computer technologies have so changed the capacities of human for acting in such a wide variety of ways that this in and of itself has a moral significance.

Approaches to Ethical Issues Raised by Computer Technologies

When considering moral issues or problems that are presented to us by the computer technologies why would we not simply use the traditional approaches to moral dilemmas and issues that are already in place and used for other matters?  That is certainly tempting and seems straight forward but it might upon reflection present a few problems.  One would be to assume that there were no unique features of the moral issues arising from the computer technologies.  Applying well developed formulae to the new situations would suggest that moral decision making is simple and nearly mechanical and not involving appreciation for differences and subtleties.   There is certainly the possibility that applying the the customary approaches might cause humans to overlook or miss appreciating what the novelty may have introduced into the situation.  If the technologies provide new opportunities for human action and new possibilities to choose then it is possible that they bring new possibilities for moral reflection and ethical analysis as well.

As the technologies keep evolving and situations generated by their use keep emerging the situation is not at all static as so any approach to moral decision making should involve a process of analysis and reflection and consideration that takes this into account and is itself capable of dealing with the changing situations effectively.  Perhaps the approach to be taken for first consideration would be to take the norms and practices in current use and then apply them to new situations in some manner modified by the new elements introduced by the technologies.

Use of Analogical Reasoning in Computer Ethics

Another temptation when confronted by some situation posing a moral dilemma or question is to assume that one could simply reason using analogy looking for the similarities of the new situation presented by the technologies with other situations wherein moral problems have been confronted and fairly well settled.   The problem with such an approach would be that once again it might cause those who would use this approach to overlook the significant differences between the two situations being offered as similar enough  to warrant a similar mode of moral reasoning and resolution.

Future of the Field

For the time being we have this area of Philosophy known as Computers and Ethics or Computer Ethics to deal with a range of issues, problems and dilemmas arising from computer technologies.  These arise around the world and need to be thought through and conflicts resolved.  As computers become even more familiar and ubiquitous than they are now (hard to imagine) there are those who speculate that this recent branch of ethical inquiry might dissolve or develop into something else again.  Given the rapid rate of expansion and adoption of the technologies that might come soon.  READ  summary by Terry Bynum  of two speculations on these possibilities by Krystyna Gorniak-Kocikowska  (1996) and  Deborah G. Johnson, (1999) .

 Suggested Reading:

Computer Ethics--wikipedia

Norbert Wiener’s Foundation of Computer Ethics – Terrell Ward Bynum

Information Ethics: On the Philosophical Foundation of Computer Ethics Luciano Floridi, version 2.0

ETHICS IN COMPUTING  Edward F. Gehringer, North Carolina State University

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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