Ethics of Information Societies


Wojciech Jerzy Bober


In last decades, new ethical concerns arose from few various fields of social life. The development of technology, globalisation processes, and digitalisation, all prompted new moral problems and fear about the future of our moral condition and cultural heritage. Development of technology caused important changes in medicine as well as in thinking about the border between death and life, in weapons as well as in perspectives of destruction of the whole world, and – in recent times – enabled rise of biotechnology as well as fear about human attempts at manipulating evolution of life. Globalisation caused world unification as well as fear about the future of local communities and about homogenisation of the people of the world and their loss of identity, diversity, and individuality. Last but not least, digitalisation, with computer technology at its core, proved to form another challenge to our ethical theories and common moral beliefs and caused another fear about the future.

From 1960s, ethical considerations more and more oscillate around these problems and new branch of applied ethics has been founded. In this same vain, computer ethics started from mid-1980s as a branch concerned with those moral problems that were brought into being by massive digitalisation. Although many important and valid ethical theories and moral beliefs of religious origin existed before, this development of digital technology uncovered many moral problems that were both uncommon and unpredicted and proved that these general theories and beliefs can hardly handle and solve them. In computer ethics, many authors argued with great evidence that some features of computer technology make that some problems caused by its use and dissemination may turn unattainable by traditional moral views.

At the same time information and communication technologies (ICT) started to penetrate social structures, accelerating globalisation processes within highly developed countries. New kinds of crime, new kinds of moral problems and new kinds of communities were formed. Some users of computer networks started to view as more important their position within virtual groups and communities than that in real life. At the same time, these new communication tools were regarded as a possible danger for local communities, imposing imperialism of opinions, views, and manners of people from developed countries over those from the rest of the world. On the other hand, contrary view has been raised that global communities, brought into existence by new ICT, may form a new kind of ethics different from traditional thinking of the West. The aim of this paper is analysis of this claim and arguing about possible transformation of contemporary ethical positions due to use of computer-mediated communication within global computer communities. In my opinion, using ICT may prove to be very beneficial for moral discourse.

In favour of this opinion, following argumentation is developed:

  1. Many claims overestimate destructive impact of globalisation processes, particularly those that predict moral changes in small communities. It is not to be denied that the global communication process may certainly cause some cultural changes, particularly in small, distant, and close communities, which are not involved in global processes yet. But these changes will be rather cultural than moral: even if some customs, languages and manners would be destroyed, it need not to lead toward some moral and ethical destruction: if ethics is to be perceived as a universal mode of attitude between people, destruction of some diversity need not to be treated as an evil – at least moral evil.
  2. Emergence of problems discussed in computer ethics proved that traditional moral stances were badly suited for facing new kinds of crime and dishonesty. Solving these problems – as in case of other problems addressed in applied ethics – must appeal rather to human rational abilities and knowledge about facts than to emotions, traditional moral beliefs, or religious prejudices. Doing in that manner we act more as impartial moral agents than as members of some particular community.
  3. Existence as human beings in normal, social life on the one hand and as actors of communication in cyberspace on the other may be helpful for people of the future in separating of what is mere individual, local, or important for some group from what is actually global, universal, and applies to all humanity. Therefore, for people involved in global communication process the realm of ethics could be more easily distinguishable from customs, manners, and life-styles. The possible global agreement upon ethical matters could – with time – reinforce social and individual liberties. Traditionally, we grow within some kind of society and adopt many customs and manners as well as opinions and superstitions of people that live around us. Disputes about food, nudity, or sex may be as fiery as those about murder, theft, or capital punishment. Involvement into global communication process may put these matters to the right place.