Ethics and Information Technology 4: 71–78, 2002. © 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
The role of metaethics and the future of computer ethics Antonio Marturano Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy, Furness College, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YT, UK E-mail: [email protected]
Abstract. In the following essay, I will discuss D. Johnson’s argument in her ETHICOMP99 Keynote Speech (Johnson 1999) regarding the possible future disappearance of computer ethics as an autonomous discipline, and I will analyze some likely objections to Johnson’s view. In the future, there are two ways in which computer ethics might disappear: (1) the rejection of computer ethics as an aspect of applied ethics, or (2) the rejection of computer ethics as an autonomous discipline. The first path, it seems to me, would lead to the death of the entire field of applied ethics, while the second path would lead only to the death of computer ethics as a separate subject. Computer technology is becoming very pervasive, and each scientific field includes some disciplinespecific computing. For the likely foreseeable future, disciplines such as bioethics and engineering ethics will have to deal with ethical issues involving the role of computers. I will argue that computer ethics in this sense is unlikely to disappear, even if computer ethics ceases to be considered as a separate discipline. In order to understand which path will be followed by computer ethics, I will compare Johnson’s argument with ideas of earlier thinkers like N. Wiener (1950) and B. Russell (1932). Although Russell did not specifically consider computer technology, he had some good intuitions about the development of societies by means of technology. My conclusion will be two-fold: (1) that applied ethics will not die, but it may make no sense in the future to talk about computer ethics as a separate field; and (2) that computer ethics will not simply become “ordinary ethics”, contrary to Johnson’s view. Key words: applied ethics, Bertrand Russell, Deborah Johnson, ordinary ethics, technology Introduction Computer Ethics studies the ethical implications of Information and Communication Technologies. Canonically Computer Ethics as a discipline borns in the early ’80 with the well-known paper by James Moore (Moore 1985). It’s a field of applied ethics although, many scholars prefer to define Computer Ethics as a field of professional ethics. According to Floridi (1999), “most philosophers look down on [Computer Ethics] as on a practical subject (“professional ethics”), unworthy of their analyses and speculations. They treat it like Carpentry Ethics, to use a Platonic metaphor”. In the following I will discuss Deborah Johnson’s (one of the most eminent scholars in this field) point of view about the disappearance of Computer Ethics as an autonomous discipline, and I will argue against her position influenced by the theoretical background shown above and by a bad use of metaethical concepts. The present essay is a revision of the paper presented to
the CEPE 2000 Conference held at the Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (USA) July 14–16, 2000.
Johnson and the disappearance of computer ethics as an autonomous discipline According to Johnson (1999), computer ethics has followed computer technology in its evolution, and for the same reason computer ethics as a separate discipline will disappear in the near future. In fact, when computing becomes a mature technology, the problem of its (urgent) ethical and social impacts due to policy vacuums (according to Moor 1985) will diminish, and using computers as a means of achieving some goals will become part of ordinary human action. According to Johnson: Once the new instrumentation is incorporated into ethical thinking, it becomes the presumed background condition. . . . What was for a time an issue of computer ethics becomes simply an ethical issue. Copying software becomes simply an issue of intellectual property. Selling software involves certain legal and moral liabilities. Computer professionals understand they have responsibilities. Online privacy violations are simply privacy violations. So as we come to presume computer technology as part of the world we live in, computer ethics as such is likely to disappear (Johnson 1999).
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It is unclear what Johnson means by this last remark. Probably she means that computer ethics will cease to be a specific discipline, and it will be absorbed into a wider discipline, namely, Ethics of Technology. I agree with this conclusion, but I don’t agree with the reasons supporting her thesis. In fact Johnson’s thesis about the disappearance of computer ethics as a discipline faces several possible objections. I discuss them in the following section. Two possible objections to Johnson’s thesis Consider two possible objections to Johnson’s thesis. The first is the most obvious, and a computer scientist might express it, or perhaps a computer ethics practitioner who worries that his discipline is in trouble. If computer technology will continue to exist, why would computer ethics disappear? Another possible objection comes from a more theoretical perspective: Computer ethics has its place in applied ethics, it shares some ethical problems with other applied ethics disciplines. Why would computer ethics disappear, while environmental ethics, for instance, would not? Moreover, if computer technology will continue to be used in all scientific fields – and if computing will be integrated into scientific practice so that it would be impossible to say, for example, whether we are talking of biology or computing1 – why should computer ethics disappear, but not the whole of applied ethics? First objection: Computers will not disappear, why should computer ethics? Computer technology seems to be growing robustly. It is being used more and more. In the near future, for example, we will have biochips, bionic interfaces, virtual reality, and so on, with growing applications in business. Obviously a computer scientist could say to Johnson: “If computer technology is a growing field, why should computer ethics disappear?”. This objection may seem to be very trivial, but it could be important if we think of science (as well as technology) as a strongly conservative system of beliefs as described in the works of Kuhn (1970) or Lakatos’ (1978, chapter 6). If we assume that computing technology will continue to grow, there is strong reason to believe therefore, contrary to Johnson, that computer ethics will persist. A “conservative” computer scientist could certainly makes such a point. In my opinion, there are two possible responses that Johnson could make, one of which seems right to me and the other seems to be mistaken. The one that I think is 1 M. Kaku agrees with this idea. See for example Kaku
(1998, pp. 156–159).
right is this: Computer technology is becoming very pervasive; no science can succeed in the future without using such technology.2 In addition, computer technology is likely to become so thoroughly integrated into each science that we cannot talk any more about computer ethics as a separate discipline, but rather about certain problems regarding the use of computing in medicine, or in engineering, or in the various other branches of science and technology. If this was correct, computer ethics as a separate discipline would “disappear”, but it would have a new “form of life” inside other branches of applied ethics. Johnson does not take this approach, but rather she says: “Copying software becomes simply an issue of intellectual property”, i.e. something regarding general questions of ethics (namely, the problem of intellectual property as such), rather than some specific field of applied ethics (the problem of intellectual property in the business). Computer ethics will dissolve into questions of “ordinary” ethics. Thus, she says, “We will be able to say both that computer ethics has become ordinary ethics and that ordinary ethics has become computer ethics” (Johnson 1999). Second objection: If computer ethics will disappear, why not applied ethics? The above claim about “ordinary ethics”, in my opinion, is very controversial. I have some concerns about Johnson’s use of the words “ordinary ethics”, as well as her idea of the taxonomy of ethics. Let us start with the taxonomy of ethics, because it is very important to our understanding of the concept of “ordinary ethics”. Ethics as a field of study is a multi-level discipline consisting of (a) metaethics, (b) normative ethics and (c) applied ethics. According to McNaughton (1988, p. 16) “These three areas are not, of course, entirely separate; someone’s opinion in one area cannot be isolated from his views in the other two”; but such a division is still an important tool to do ethics. Metaethics is about semantical and logical notions in ethics. It pertains to ethical analysis in general 2 Several authors talk about the integration of computing
with other several areas of science and technology. M. Kaku talks about the integration with devices we use in everyday life (see Kaku, cit., pp. 23–69) and the integration between medical research and informatics (i.e. bioinformatics) Kaku (id.). F. Dyson (1999, chapter 2) shows how computing is becoming important for astronomic research. J. Rifkin (1998, chapter 6) talks about relationships between applied biotechnology research and Information and Communication Technologies. Finally, P. Virilio (1998) talks about the integration between mature media, new media and biotechnology as creating a “Virtual Reality” we need facing with.
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and to the analysis of particular normative theories (like Kantianism, utilitarianism, and so on) to test the soundness of ethical reasoning or to clarify the meanings of words used in ethics. Normative ethics is “the subject that deals with substantive issues such as what ends are good, what acts are right, what policies are just, and for what actions a person should be held responsible” (Hospers 1997, p. 253). Kantian ethics and utilitarian theories, for example, provide systematic answers to such questions. Applied ethics, very broadly speaking, is the application of normative theories (in a sense that doesn’t involve the idea of “mechanical decision procedure”3) to a particular field of knowledge or practice.4 Bioethics, for instance, is the application of one 3 In the sense used by T. Dare (1998, p. 189). 4 There is no agreement about how to apply ethics: some
scholars, as R.M. Hare (1986, pp. 1–13), maintain the fundamental role of theory in doing applied ethics; theories help us in making rational moral deliberation. On the contrary, if we don’t use any theorical equipment, we can only use our ethical intuitions, which will not support us in any moral reasoning and controversy: Hare concludes that “In default of (any ethical theory), all we can do is exchange intuitions from our pluralist armoury; but then there is no reason why, failing any way of testing the intuitions in argument, the exchange should ever stop” (Hare, cit., p. 2). On the other hands, MacIntyre (1984) claims that theory and moral principles are not useful in applying ethics (even if “applied ethics” exists) because, theories don’t take into account historical and social changes: they claim for being timeless. It is “because these principles or rules are historical and independent of social change, that the changing realm of the social and historical raises problems about their application problem specific to particular sets of social institutions in particular times and places” (MacIntyre, cit., p. 508). What happens when we have an agreement in applied ethics than? MacIntyre says that is not a rational procedure but, instead, is “a nonrational social transaction (that) is being presented as thought it were a process of rational argument” (ibid., p. 501). Finally, Toulmin (1981), claims that the fundamental appeal in applied ethics is not on rules but on cases. In other words, Toulmin rejects the top down application of theoretical principles and rules that is typical of much ethical theorizing. In his opinion, indeed, such methods neglect differences in context and setting. In my opinion, Dare is right when he says: “If a position of mine is to count as an ethical position I must produce reasons for it. This is not say that I must articulate a complex moral theory or even state a moral principle that I am following for my position to count as moral” (ibid., p. 185). He concludes, “theories and principles are used as one part of a process of approaching moral problems. They are tools in moral reasoning rather than self-contained machines for the generation of moral answers” (ibid., p. 188). Hence, the right conception of ethical theory and practice is the one which depicts ethical deliberation “not as a matter of simply applying decision procedures, consisting of lists of easy-to-
or more normative theories5 to the medical or biological sphere (for example, questions about abortion, euthanasia, genetic screening, and so on); it pertains not only to professionals, but also to individuals facing practical moral dilemmas. Given this taxonomy, computer ethics is a branch of applied ethics as just like bioethics, environmental ethics, and so on. And computer ethics shares many theoretical notions with other branches of applied ethics. For instance, problems regarding human rights or future generations are important for computer ethics as well as for bioethics and environmental ethics; and problems of intellectual property are applying both to software and to new proteins. So if computer ethics disappeared because its questions had become matters of “ordinary ethics”, doesn’t this entail the disappearance of the entire field of applied ethics? We can distinguish between ethics and morals. The term “morals” refers, accordingly to Bernard Gert,6 as to the whole set of norms and values effectively (or really) governing the behavior of individuals (or classes of individuals). “Ethics”, on the other hand, can be broadly defined as all normative theories about norms and values governing human actions or judgments.7 It is not clear whether Johnson uses the notion of “ordinary ethics” in the first sense or in the second sense. Where does Johnson place the concept of “ordinary ethics”? Does she mean “ordinary morals”, in the sense of the set of norms and values commonly accepted by a particular community or society? In that case, the disappearance of computer ethics will achieve nothing. The problem of the adequacy of norms and values of “ordinary morals” when dealing with computer technology will remain a problem to be addressed. follow rules, but as involving consideration of particular cases in the light of general and perhaps competing theories and principles, of previous relevant deliberations and of knowledge of the particularities of the case” (ibid., p. 189). 5 In other words, we don’t need to be strictly related to just one theory in doing applied ethics. We can use different ethical theories in judging different concrete cases. My approach is often called “theory pluralism” (see, Dare, cit., p. 188). 6 Gert (1998, p. 3), states that moral system or morality is “the moral system as the people use, often unconsciously, when they are trying to make a morally acceptable choice among several alternative actions or when they make moral judgments about their own actions or those of others.” 7 R.M. Hare (1972, p. 39) has pointed out that on this topic “No generally accepted terminology, for making the necessary distinctions has yet emerged”, and modern writers trying to avoided it. Anyway, several authors mean “ethics” in the way here is intended “morals” (see, for example, McNaughton, cit., p. 15), others don’t care about such a distinction (see also Hare, cit., pp. 39–40).
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On the other hand “ordinary ethics”, for Johnson, might mean the typical kind of general or normative theories usually studied: general theories not facing with specific questions about particular real phenomena, but concerned instead with establishing universal principles to be applied to every aspect of reality. But, how can today’s computer ethics, which is very much concerned with particular real phenomena, be absorbed into general theories that do not specifically address such phenomena? If “ordinary ethics” is intended as Johnson’s broad term for applied ethics and all its branches then Johnson’s thesis seems very acceptable; since it can be reduced to the view – mentioned above – that computer ethics “will be absorbed into a wider discipline, namely, Ethics of Technology.” On this interpretation, Johnson’s thesis seems interesting and reasonable, but it may not necessarily be fulfilled. Who could prevent others from thinking about computer ethics as that field which studies all the various computer-related problems in every scientific and technical sphere? In this sense, we can say that anything which is valid for applied ethics is also valid for computer ethics, which is a branch of applied ethics. There are good reasons to say that, if every other branch of applied ethics will persist into the future, then computer ethics will persist too. Johnson needs to show some particular reasons why this is untrue, and she does not offer such reasons in her paper. Johnson seems to identify ordinary morals with ethical theory (or normative ethics). But such identification, in my opinion, is incorrect. More importantly, she seems to identify applied ethics with tout court professional ethics or professional deontology (such an opinion seems to be supported by Johnson (1994) and Bynum (1999), seems to agree with this interpretation). Even though professional ethics is part of applied ethics, the reverse is not true. In fact, we can find some problems in applied ethics that do not exclusively concern actions by specific professionals, but do concern actions in situations resulting from the emergence of new technologies. Finally, it is interesting to point out that Johnson thinks of professional ethics as based on “exceptions to ordinary morality” (Johnson 1994, p. 40)8 (“ordinary morality” as we have already seen is different from 8 Johnson (1992, p. 23) still supports this idea. Indeed she
says “For all three of these types of professionals – journalism, professors and clergy – there has been some social recognition of the need for autonomy and a granting of special privilege to accommodate this need. American clergy have the privilege of confidentiality with those who come to them for help; professors have academic freedom”. In my opinion is not very clear what Johnson means with “academic freedom” as a professional privilege.
ethical theory or normative ethics). Professional ethics as well as applied ethics is not an exception to normative theory, but instead concerns the choice of the most suitable actions with respect to a particular situation – actions intended to fulfill the principles of normative ethics. In particular, the identification, in my opinion very arbitrary, of applied ethics and professional ethics seems to be the main reason for Johnson – starting from the thesis of the pervasiveness of information and communication technology in every social context – to argue that computer ethics will be absorbed into “ordinary ethics”. On the contrary, the distinction between applied ethics and professional ethics lends support to the view that, in the future, computer ethics will remain as a branch of applied ethics. It is better to preserve ethical theory applications to social circumstances that result from the emergence of information and communication technologies, even though such circumstances pervade the whole social context. In any case, in my view, it is possible to have another, more limited, version of Johnson’s thesis; namely, that computer ethics will be absorbed into the much wider ethics of technology. This point of view could be supported by using some of Wiener’s arguments, which are analogous to some of Russell’s general intuitions about technology and its use in human society. Let us turn our attention to such ideas.
Wiener and Russell on the social implications of technology Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings and Bertrand Russell’s The Scientific Outlook (nothing to do with Microsoft Outlook© ) are very similar books. They were written in different periods, the second during the growth of Hollywood industries in the 1930s, and the first during the growth of the first generation of computer industries. Russell’s and Wiener’s worries about the use of computer and communication technologies are similar, probably because both Russell and Wiener shared part of their life in Cambridge (1914) where Wiener attended Russell’s lectures. Both Russell and Wiener express their opinions very broadly. Their starting point is similar to Johnson’s; indeed, their view is that information and communication technologies raise new species of old moral questions. Wiener and the future of mankind In chapter II of Wiener’s The Human use of Human Beings, (but also his posthumous book Invention: The Care and Feedings of Ideas, 1954 – see in particular
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chapters 7 and 8) he analyzes a lot of ethical issues concerning the use of computers, the development of medicine, and the use of modern technology for the exploitation of natural resources. Interestingly, the difference between Wiener (1950) and Wiener (1954) is the changing political scenario. Behind his views, in fact, there is not the ghost of the Cold War (and the problems of USA national security) but the birth of big multinational firms and their increasing power in scientific funding. In 1954, Wiener is interested in the implications of “businessoriented” scientific and technological research that is no longer “mission-oriented”. Wiener seems to find two general ethical questions that cut across various disciplines: human rights and the rights of future generations. In particular Wiener says that there is a commonly accepted, but mistaken, view of progress (due to scientific and technological development) as a spontaneous process of transformation which is ethically good and is the basis for assuring that future generations will have a heaven on earth. Wiener believes that, on the contrary, the period in which we live is the age of persistent unlimited scientific exploitation of natural resources, primitive populations, and everyday citizens (Wiener 1950, chapter II). The common view of progress therefore is mistaken; we cannot assure a better future to our posterity because we are squandering our natural, intellectual, and economic resources. In this sense, Wiener (unlike Bynum’s interpretation of Wiener’s view; see Bynum 2000) does seems not agree with Deborah Johnson’s opinion that Computer ethics is a branch only of professional ethics. Computer ethics has a wider range than professionalism, including for example, bioethical problems (see, for example, Marturano 19989 ), ethics of genetics (see for example ethical problems regarding the Human Genome Project – see before), environmental ethics (e.g. computers are now important for the control and the supervision of complex systems like as artificial waterfalls; who is responsible for possible computer errors?) (for some other examples see Wiener 1950, chapter X), problems involving future generations and medical ethics (e.g., should a database of medical records be accessible to future generations if it allowed them to gain specific information regarding their own health or roots), and so on. For Wiener, computer ethics raises old ethical problems 9 In such paper I mapped a series of ethical problems arising
from Bionics. Bionics is the science of replacing parts of human body with electronics counterparts. Ethical problems arising from bionics are about personal identity, privacy, the legal status of cyborgs (which are humans who have most of their body replaced artificially), the ethical boundaries of human interfacing with computers.
with a new light, but these renewed and subtler problems are matters not only for professionals but for the common man as well. The most important concerns for Wiener is the birth of the automatic factory (see Wiener 1950, chapter X): he foresees the possibility that such a factory could promote generalized unemployment and simultaneously increase the power of tycoons and multinational corporations. Exploited citizens are the ones who will pay a price for this. Russell and scientific technique Although he wrote twenty years before Wiener, Russell had the same worries and he envisioned a scenario very similar to Wiener’s. His book A Scientific Outlook is well known as a precursor of better-known science fiction books like 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.10 In the society described by Russell, information technology (Russell means the press, radio and movies, but his views can be applied to information and communication technologies as well), biotechnologies (he was concerned with genetic engineering and food technologies), engineering, and so on, would be used to regiment that society. Nature would be entirely subdued and exploited by means of such technologies; few people will rule over the whole society (he had in mind an oligarchy of opinion similar to organized religion), who would use technology to advance and defend their own power. Technology, for Russell, is a shift from the contemplation of nature to its manipulation by human beings, and such a shift contains risks. In the last chapter of The Scientific Outlook (1931, chapter 17), Russell says that nature’s laws have dominated mankind, but because humans are becoming emancipated from this “slavery”, they are showing some of the faults of a slave who has become the master. The culture of the exploitation of nature needs to be replaced by a new culture (and also a “new ethics”) where the main value is respect for what is best good for mankind. What is such an ethics? Probably, in Russell’s view, it is a kind of utilitarian ethics, which is Russell’s favorite kind of ethical theory. In The Scientific Outlook, there are places where Russell talks in terms of negative utilitarianism (see the last two pages of the book). Russell returns on this topic, and, in my opinion, also clarifies his idea of new ethics, in chapter XXI 10 Regarding this latter book, Russell himself complained to
Stanley Unwin, because he felt that Huxley had plagiarized his own book, The Scientific Outlook, which depicts a society that is regimented by means of “scientific technique” (today we would say “technology”).
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of his History of Western Philosophy11 (Russell 1946). He thinks XIX century had been characterized by four elements of novelty compared to the past: the contribution of extra-European countries to the world development, the robust growing of science, the altering of the social structure from machine productions, and, importantly, “a profound revolt, both philosophical and political, against traditional systems in thought, in politics and in economics – which – gave rise to attacks upon many beliefs and institutions that had hitherto been regarded as unassailable” (Russell, op. cit. p. 691).12 For Russell reasons for this “attack” to earlier beliefs is due to “the effect of machine production on the imaginative picture of the world – which is –an immense increase in the sense of human power” (idem, p. 699). Such idea arises from “the power of man in his conflicting with nature, and then the power of rulers as against the human beings whose beliefs and aspirations they seek to control by scientific propaganda, especially education. The result is a diminution to fixity; no change seems impossible. Nature is raw material; so is that part of human race which does not effectively participate in government” (ibid.). In the past, there were some conceptions, which represent humanity’s belief in the limits of human power: God and Truth. Today, Russell explains, these ideas tend to melt away even if explicitly negated. This scenery is absolutely new in the history of mankind; and it is impossible to say how mankind will adapt itself to it. Russell concludes “To frame a philosophy capable to coping it with men intoxicated with the prospect of almost unlimited power and also with the apathy of the powerless is the most pressing task of our times” (idem, p. 700). We know the imagination of modern people is deeply influenced by the pattern of social organization suggested by the organization of the industry in the XIX century, which is essentially undemocratic; but this idea is likely not yet acknowledged by ordinary citizens in democratic countries. Hence, Russell says, to build any satis11 Moreover, Russell shows similar arguments to Wiener’s we
have seen in the previous paragraph. 12 For Russell, this revolt had two different forms, one romantic and the other rationalistic. The romantic (which passes from Byron, Schopenauer and Nietzsche to fascism and nazism), is characterized with a profound hostility for machine productions; in fact Russell says, they “noticed and hated the ugliness that industrialism was producing in places hitherto beautiful, and the vulgarity (as they considered it) of those who had made money in ‘trade’.” The rationalists (which begins with the French Revolution passes on to the philosophical radicals in England until to Marx and Soviet Russian thinkers), instead, “welcomed industrialism, but wished to free industrial workers from subjection to the power of employers” (Russell, idem, p. 699).
factory modern ethics of human relationship, “it will be essential to recognize the necessary limitations of men’s power over the non-human environment and the desirable limitations of their power over each other” (ibid.); purpose explored before only by Bentham who attempted a reconciliation of conflicting interests. Conclusions The reflections by Deborah Johnson raise problems on two distinct levels. The first is about the Computer Ethics is a discipline which faith is to revolutionize the ethical theories. The second one is about the difference between professional ethics and philosophical ethics. In the following conclusions I will deal with such problems. Computer ethics and ethical theory If my interpretation of Johnson’s point of view is correct, Wiener, Russell and Johnson all seem to agree that Computer Ethics, rather than replacing theories like Bentham’s and Kant’s, will continue to presuppose them. Current ethical theories and principles . . . will remain the bedrock foundation of ethical thinking and analysis, and the computer revolution will not lead to a revolution in ethics (Bynum 2000). Given the above considerations, Johnson’s thesis that computer ethics will eventually disappear might be correct; but, since she uses general and ambiguous concepts (as we have seen, she is using some metaethical concepts in an imprecise way), her arguments for such a conclusion are unclear. Since information technology permeates every human activity – and since computer ethics, bioethics, engineering ethics and environmental ethics share many common ethical concerns – computer ethics might get absorbed into the more general field of the Ethics of Technology. If we look back to Wiener’s and Russell’s earlier works for guidance here, we can see that ethical problems arising from the use of computer technology are shared with other, more mature, kinds of technologies for managing information and communication – TV, radio, the press, and so on. Russell and Wiener’s thoughts can be viewed as a general overview of the ethical and social dangers of technologically oriented societies. They were worried about serious risks for the development and use of technologies that might enable economic and political powers to make the world worse for future generations – senseless exploitation of natural resources for business profits, impoverishment of human skills by means
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of computer and information technologies (automated factories, etc.), and damage to core values based upon human feelings and wishes. But these concerns are not confined to Information Technologies. They have been raised in the first instance, as we have seen before, by other kinds of mass media, and, in any case, Computer Ethics shares general ethical problems with other fields of applied ethics. The idea of Computer Ethics as the main tool which revolutionizes the ethical theories (also know as the Gorniak’s hypothesis,13 see Bynum 2000) is, in my opinion, senseless. Of course, applied ethics is challenging our previous beliefs and, therefore, slightly modifying our ethical theories; but this is a slow process involving each discipline in the applied ethics at the same speed. One last question on such a point remains: could the works of Russell and Wiener offer a solid theoretical background and a good starting point for a strong ethical program in computer ethics? (Floridi (1999), underlines such point when he says: “Behind CE’s foundationalist problem there lays a lack of a strong ethical program”. See, also, Bynum 1999). Professional versus philosophical ethics Another problem is raised indirectly by the Johnson’s paper. What is Professional Ethics, what is Philosophical Ethics? Is it useful to separate both? Can we sharply distinguish between the two? Let’s start from the last question. Unfortunately, it seems we cannot make such a quite sharp distinction. Codes of ethics, for example, which play an important rule within any professional category, have their own roots in the philosophical thought. Philosophical and Professional ethics in such sense are melting together. Instead, in another sense, there is a difference between Philosophical and Professional Ethics.14 Professionals are socially responsible as members of a particular community (such as the member of the Information Technology profession). On the other hands Philosophical Ethics is aiming, according to Darwall, “to discover which normative ethical claims and theories are best supported by the most adequate philosophical understanding of what ethics is itself fundamentally” (Darwall 1998, p. 12). Philosophical ethics is about questions issued by both metaethics 13 The Gorniak’s hypothesis, traditional ethical theories are
“local” (as the Utilitarian theory is European and Confucianism is from East-Asia); such theories will be superceded by a global ethics evolving from today’s computer networks which allow to people form all over the world to confront each others their own ethical beliefs (see Gorniak 1996). 14 Interestingly, Johnson (1994, p. 41), build a list of characteristics that define a professional.
and normative ethics independently from any specific point of view (as the professional do) and affecting any rational human beings. Questions like: “Is it right to replace unskilled workers with computer guided robots?” is a philosophical one but “Is it right to access a database in an unauthorized way?” belong to the professional. Finally, why is it useful drawing a demarcation line between “Professional Ethics” and “Philosophical Ethics”? My thesis is that, as we have seen before, computer technology is becoming very thoroughly integrated into each science. Are there rooms, than, for the Computer professional ethicist? It seems to me ethical questions are going to be matter of discussion for équipes of experts involved into a discipline. For instance, ethical questions in Medical Informatics involve or will involve: the computer professional (having his/her own ethical ideas), the expert in medicine (having his/her own ethical intuitions, too), the practitioners, and so on plus the expert in ethics.15 The ethical rational deliberation will be issued within such an interdisciplinary group.16 The needs for division of work (and thus the ratio for équipes of decision-makers) in any field of applied ethics, could be justified in accordance with the following passage by Kant (1785): All trades, arts, and handiworks have gained by division of labour, namely, when, instead of one man doing everything, each confines himself to a certain kind of work distinct from others in the treatment it requires, so as to be able to perform it with greater facility and in the greatest perfection. Where the different kinds of work are not distinguished and divided, where everyone is a jack-of-all-trades, there manufactures remain still in the greatest barbarism. It might deserve to be considered whether pure philosophy in all its parts does not require a man specially devoted to it, and whether it would not be better for the whole business of science if those who, to please the tastes of the public, are wont to blend the rational and empirical elements together, mixed in all sorts of proportions unknown to themselves, and who call themselves independent thinkers, giving the name of minute philosophers to those who apply themselves to the rational part only- if these, I say, were warned not to carry on two employments together which differ 15 This doesn’t mean, according to Gotterbarn (1995), that
“Moral philosophy is . . . an esoteric subject which is incomprehensible to the ordinary human beings”, but simply that the ethicist role is to guide in a rational way the ethical deliberative process involving all the professionals. 16 R.M. Hare (1989, pp. 11–13) shows clearly such a kind of idea.
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widely in the treatment they demand, for each of which perhaps a special talent is required, and the combination of which in one person only produces bunglers.
Acknowledgments I would like to thanks Carlo Dalla Pozza for his help in discussing with me some of the basic ideas of this paper, Terrell Ward Bynum for revising the paper sent to the CEPE 2000 Conference and giving me further useful suggestions, Ruth Chadwick for further suggestions on the final revision of the paper.
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