Information Ethics: ICT Professional Responsibility in the Information Environment

Karen Mather


When they claim professional status, ICT professionals implicitly acknowledge responsibility towards a range of different communities. For example, ICT professionals should ensure that their work does not harm their society at large, their user communities, their various clienteles, the ICT profession as a whole, and so on. It now appears that the emerging academic discipline of the Philosophy of Information and, in particular, the Floridian theory of Information Ethics, leads to the addition of yet another community to the list of ICT professionals’ stakeholders, and yet another dimension in which ICT professionals must move with care. This additional dimension embraces the whole information environment, the “infosphere”, together with its community of inhabitants, namely all entities that are constituted by information.

To be able to evaluate the Floridian view of Information Ethics, with its central proposition that minimal moral respect should be directed from human beings and other moral agents towards informational entities and the “infosphere”, it may be helpful to understand what that might mean, in a practical sense. The purpose of this essay is to explore the practical application of Information Ethics from the point of view of the ICT professional, after relaying the claims upon which Information Ethics is grounded.

Underlying this novel ethics of information is a new ontological perspective that is just as evolutionary for ethics as was the radical 1970s Naessian ontological view of humanity as inseparable from the natural environment. Callicott, a contemporary environmental philosopher, explains that Naess saw the natural environment as an extension of the human self, and thus inextricably valuable with the self. Similarly, Floridi sees humans as inseparably enmeshed in the information environment by virtue of an informational nature that is shared with every other entity in the universe.

However, this shared informational nature does not automatically establish a link from information to ethics. The step from ontology to normativity is a precarious one, as Hume’s is/ought dichotomy teaches. Nevertheless, others have claimed that it is logically valid to reason from what we believe to exist (what “is”) to what we hold to be valuable and thence on to what we ought to do. So, for Information Ethics plausibly to prescribe moral responsibility towards information, it must justify the claim that not only do all entities share an informational nature but also that this makes information valuable and therefore worthy of some basic normative attention. The intrinsic value of information could, perhaps, be derived from the same concept of axiological complementarity that Callicott employs to establish the intrinsic value of the natural environment. However, in the theory of Information Ethics, it is grounded on the claim that an entity’s information is its essence – information constitutes being, and being, as claimed by Spinoza, implies dignity. The dignity of existence is seen in Information Ethics as the basis for a moral claim for consideration, albeit minimal and overridable.

Other contemporary philosophers are contemplating the nature of information, at present. Notably for Computer Ethics, Bynum, in his recently unveiled theory of Flourishing Ethics, takes the line of thought that stretches from Weiner to Floridi in another new direction, proposing a dualistic, Aristotelian view, which sees information as eidos, the form that shapes ousia, the substance of matter or energy. The views of Bynum and Floridi are discussed in this essay, as part of the journey towards an understanding of the information environment and an ICT professional’s duties therein.

Since the work of Naess, environmental philosophers have examined many of the ethical questions which accompany the claim that an ecological entity is worthy of moral respect in its own right. Their principles, such as those developed to resolve conflict between responsibilities to various ecological wholes within the larger whole of the total natural environment, can also be applied in the information environment, for example, to justify allocating priority amongst conflicting demands for moral consideration in the work of the ICT professional.

The application of other ecological principles is of interest as being relevant to the infosphere. An ecological approach to the information environment necessitates an understanding of the components of the environment and their interrelationships, as well as what may be said to be “good” for that environment. In the natural environment, for instance, stability is not the “good” that it might appear to be at first glance – to manage a natural environment well, the ecologist must facilitate and encourage continual change. Floridi suggests that in the information environment the opposite of good, evil, can be defined as entropy, and this needs further analysis, at least so that ICT professionals can recognize entropy, if they wish to comply with the Information Ethics’ prescription that they should avoid, prevent or remove entropy in the infosphere.

The essay concludes with a recommendation on how ICT professional codes of ethics might be amended to take account of a normative approach to information and the information environment.