Hans Jonas’ Theory and Its Applicability For Teaching Computer ethics in the Information Age


Jesús Díaz del Campo and Porfirio Barroso, (Spain)


In the information era, the power of the so-called ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) has greatly increased the responsibility of each citizen within the global society. Information professionals are not unaware of this fact. We have always defended the need to include humanistic courses, and, specifically, professional ethics and deontology, in the curricular content of future information specialists. In today’s world, with the challenge of globalization, in order for us to respond as individuals and as a society, that need has grown. The work of information professionals has an impact on all systems, whether social, economic or political. Thus, they must be conscious at all times of the implications of every type derived from their activities.

The aim of this paper is, first, to stress the fact that universities continue to be the setting for the preparation of the human resources that our society needs, and that this, and this alone, remains their basic task, despite their often having opted for a criteria of technical training with a very scarce humanistic component and lacking in social consciousness. Looking toward the future, it is difficult to imagine that the ethical problems derived from the use of the ICT are going to disappear or even diminish over the coming years. Thus, the new information professionals of the 21st century will have to continue to address all these questions, making the presence of professional ethics and deontology in their curriculum nearly indispensable.

Moreover, we consider the teaching method known as “saturate the curriculum” to be positive but insufficient. It may prove highly beneficial that students of the information sciences reflect on ethical dilemmas or situations that arise in the course of their more technical subjects. They would thus begin to familiarize themselves with these questions. However, if this is not backed up later on by the inclusion of a more specific course, their ethical training at the time of graduation will clearly be deficient. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, the instructor of this more technical course probably lacks the necessary philosophical background to be able to properly explain to his or her students how to make an ethical decision, on what criteria to base it or which theories are more suitable in each case. In fact, an inadequate explanation of all these questions could even be counterproductive. On the other hand, the explanation of isolated cases without including them in a more solid theory and, ideally, a complete course, with sufficient time to develop a subject matter that provides a minimum knowledge of the most important ethical issues, might create a greater confusion among the students with regard to these matters.

This brings us to another important question, whether or not it is appropriate to include a section dedicated to ethical theory in the course subject matter. Opinions concerning this point range from proposals to reduce the course to lessons on applied ethics, completely ignoring philosophical theory, to others supporting a program based on the ideas of the major philosophers, keeping the elements of informatics deontology to a minimum. We consider an intermediate pathway to be the best, dividing the program into two part to include both aspects, necessary, in our opinion, for the student of information engineering to achieve the proper ethical training. As would appear to be obvious, the only way to accomplish this goal is to offer a course devoted to this topic.

We analyze here the theory of one of the authors whose inclusion in our pedagogical proposal we consider most suitable because of the emphasis he has placed on the power of the ICT and on the responsibility derived from this circumstance for mankind. We refer to Hans Jonas who, in his work The principle of responsibility states, among other things, that wherever there is power, there is also responsibility. His affirmation is based on a reflection on the relationship between man and nature, a relationship that had not previously been considered in an ethical context. However, with the arrival on the scene of the ICT, nature, which we had exploited uncaringly until now, has been rendered fragile, vulnerable. This signifies that man himself is vulnerable. Therefore, our obligation is to conserve it; that is our responsibility, a responsibility that is indefinite. Given the material power conferred by the ICT on the individual even to destroy humanity, he must feel responsible not only for his own behavior and its most direct consequence, but for possible indirect and much more distant effects and consequences as well.

Thus, we consider Jonas’ work to be especially applicable for teaching a course on professional ethics and deontology within the framework of the present information era. After analyzing his theory, in the final section of our paper, we propose several ways of applying it to the course, especially with regard to case studies and the explanation of some of the topics that are most frequently included in the study program and in informatics deontological codes.

The ultimate objective is to establish a new approach, a new teaching model adapted to the present circumstances, and we think that Jonas offers an ideal one.