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

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 2 Computers and Ethics


What is so unique or interesting or threatening about computers and information networks that we should want to think about it so carefully and have books and societies and college classes about it?


What is the truly unique element in this issue of digital games in so far as ethics are concerned?  Is it the mass availability of the product and its impact on a generation of children and society?  Is this made more serious because of computers and the internet?




Think about this case focusing upon what new possibilities have been created by computers and information networks and then the risks and threats posed by them.  Is this case an entirely new sort of situation or is it simply an old situation with new elements in it due to the computers?



The following are remarks, reflections and responses to issues and questions related to this matters in this chapter.  Each offering is proceeded by the authors name and institutional affiliation.

What is unique about computers as far as ethical issues? 


How should the ethical problems presented by Computer Technology, Information Technology, Information Networks and the Internet be approached?

Marie Lafferty, CUNY, SPS, 2007

What is unique about computers as far as ethical issues?  How do policy vacuums come about?  

Terrell Ward Bynum in “A Very Short History of Computer Ethics” 1 quotes Gorniak from a 1995 Ethicomp paper:  

“The very nature of the Computer Revolution indicates that the ethic of the future will have a global character. It will be global in a spatial sense, since it will encompass the entire Globe. It will also be global in the sense that it will address the totality of human actions and relations.” (p.179)   

The above hypothesis is one that stands out as unique when looking at ethical issues as they relate to computers.  Never before has the world been in such close communication on a person-to-person basis.  A nation’s leaders may have been required to entertain ethical issues and shape policy in relation to what others around the globe do, but computers, and in particular the internet, draw each of us personally into a global society, a society that may exhibit very different old values, and which is in the process of creating new ones.   

In addition, the computer itself presents us with unique situations related to the function and functioning of computers.   Walter Maner2 leads us to conclude this by listing eight ways that computers differ from other inventions of the past. They are:

While Maner goes into some detail on each of the above, we can summarize these qualities briefly: The manner in which computers store data presents its own limits and sometimes creates unanticipated problems, in addition the data is discrete. A small error or change can have larger consequences, and lastly the unique form of coding has already been shown to become obsolete in some cases and unreadable, perhaps causing lost information to future generation.  

With regard to usage, other issues are unique: computers generate data faster than humans have ever had the ability to do and perhaps faster than we can respond, data is easily duplicated (increasing potential for theft), and possibilities for manipulation are uniquely cheap (one example given is theft of a fraction of a cent goes unnoticed but rapidly adds to millions.)   

When we add to those issues, the complexity of the programming, with few known rules (I say few because some groups have established some rules in the intervening years since Maner’s paper) and the logical malleability that James Moor3 speaks of, i.e., computers can be molded to do any activity, and their universality may present unique requirements to provide access.     

All together these qualities of computers, the uses to which we put them, and the global scale in which they operate all add up to a unique set of circumstances that ethicists have never had to address within this particular set of parameters.  Maner 2 puts it this way:


“Lack of an effective analogy forces us to discover new moral values, formulate new moral principles, develop new policies, and find new ways to think about the issues presented to us. For all of these reasons, the kind of issues presented deserves to be addressed separately from others that might at first appear similar. At the very least, they have been so transformed by computing technology that their altered form demands special attention:”                

Policy vacuums occur in large part because the technology vastly outdistances humans’ ability to keep up.  Deborah Johnson4 references Moor (1985) to describe policy vacuums:   

“Thinkof the ethical questions surrounding computer and information technology as policy vacuums. Computer and information technology creates innumerable opportunities. This means that we are confronted with choices about whether and how to pursue those opportunities, and we find a vacuum of policies on how to make those choices… Since the early day, computer technology has been far from stagnant, and with each new innovation or application, new policy vacuums have been created”

                        As Johnson notes, there is a never-ending supply of these questions, each one bringing forth new potentials for response.



1.         A Very Short History of Computer Ethics – Terrell Ward Bynum

2          Unique Ethical Problems in Information Technology by Walter Maner Science and Engineering Ethics, volume 2, number 2 (April, 1996), pages 137-154.  

3.         What is Computer Ethics? – James H. Moor

4.         Johnson, Deborah.  Computer Ethics, 3rd ed. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2001

How should the ethical problems presented by Computer Technology, Information Technology, Information Networks and the Internet be approached 

Like any ethical questions, ethical issues in computer technology and IT must be approached from a rational and questioning beginning.  Knowledge of the technology itself: We must realize from the outset that we are at the beginning of the technology and we simply don’t’ yet know that  what computers will be capable of doing in the future.  That being said, the only place to start in discussing ethical issues is from where we now stand.  Deborah Johnson  in Computer Ethics (p.7) labels this a traditionalist account but from where else would we begin?   

There is a long history of thought and reasoning on well-known ethical issues, and a large variety of approaches to solving new ethical problems.  These are already well established. In some ways, ethical issues involving computers are the same or related to these previously discussed issues.  We have established moral values on such matters as stealing, privacy, ownership and responsibility. We can and should use these values as a guide in looking at the new issues that arise over computer usage and creation. But we also have to recognize two things: first, the old is only a starting point, and computer ethics cannot be a formulaic re-hash of the old without consideration of the differences inherent in the new; secondly, computers form a unique set of circumstances that we haven’t faced before. New circumstances have already arisen and will continue to become known. New ethical approaches will come about, and perhaps new outcomes.


Jack Friedman, CUNY, SPS, 2007

The ethical problems presented by Computer Technology, Information Technology, Information Networks and the Internet should be approached with an open mind. Being stuck in today’s paradigms will never lead us to answering the moral problems related to computing. I believe there needs to be international convention on policies and protocol related to computing and the internet. The best analogy I can think of is the World Court. Though not respected by many, it is still a useful tool in reducing lawlessness and anarchy. Like any convention dealing with computer ethics, it will not be errorless and flawless. Because of the fluidity of the technology, it must be adaptable and amendable. I think a good approach would be for nations to find the issues we can all agree upon and later tackle the more difficult ethical issues which may divide us. Like any meaningful law, the issue of enforcement must be addressed. That may be the larger problem. Even if we formulate a code of ethics and standards, it can only be as good as the enforcement tool that goes with it. Clearly, there is no simple answer to this question. However, the lack of an easy answer is in no way an excuse not to look for one. As I stated before, failure to address these issues and fill these policy vacuums will certainly have dire costs.

Richard Vida, CUNY, SPS, 2007

I have no specific answers on how to ethically approach the many computer technological quandaries we face at this time.   Nor how we determine and elaborate on which of Fairweather’s “Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics” we are going to be able to uphold.  But I do believe that to construct a completely safe cyber environment, a code of computer ethics will need to be taught in grade school as a part of our civics, social studies classes.  Not to regulate and control ones use of the technology, or to impose a nations belief system, but simply to educate individuals on the consequences attached to this cyber freedom.  Discipline and responsibility is most important as Terrell Ward Bynum mentions in his article “Discipline in its Infancy.”  Ultimately it is up to us as a society to take on the responsibility and demand of the creators and regulators of this technology what we will and won’t accept.  To become apathetic in the infancy of this new age will unfortunately bring about more confusion and more negative results to an amazing technology that must continue to grow.  But as with any garden we shall reap what we sow.

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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