How to do things with Kant: conscientiousness in information management

David Sanford Horner


What does it mean to do one’s duty in the design, implementation and management of information systems? The purpose of the present paper is to propose the continuing relevance of a Kantian approach to this question. I will argue, following Kant, that duty has a central place as the practical and unconditional necessity of action which has its origins neither in empirical motives or laws. At the core of this analysis is Kant’s distinction between categorical and hypothetical imperatives. In particular I will argue the significance and usefulness of Kant’s further distinction between two types of hypothetical imperatives namely ‘rules of skill’ and ‘counsels of prudence’. Kant’s concept of ‘rules of skill’ can be interpreted as referring to imperatives of a technical kind. ‘Rules of prudence’ refer to pragmatic issues of interest and the achievement of desired ends. Hypothetical imperatives thus imply that actions are defined as ‘good’ in relationship to the technical and pragmatic achievement of particular purposes and involve the deployment of specific forms of knowledge. In contrast the categorical imperative implies that conscietientious action arise from a sense of duty, not from any inclination, not even from a neutral desire to enhance human welfare or technical competencies. I will suggest ways in which these different imperatives give rise to competing claims and the awareness of these competing claims can lead to a clarification of the meaning of conscientiousness in professional practice. The Kantian framework, I argue, can be thus put to work to sorting out a number of significant confusions which are evident, for example, in the attempt to derive professional codes of conduct. Similarly such an approach can be fruitful in clarifying issues and principles at stake in decision making and information policy. The paper will, finally, challenge the view that ethical individualism and rationalism are necessarily implicated in rigid proceduralism or some ‘dialectic of enlightenment’.