Interactive Computer Ethics Explorer

Walter Maner


For almost all of recorded history ethical issues have been decided according to neighborhood, community, or national norms. Today the Internet breaks these geographic barriers and forces us, for the first time, to deal with information ethics on a global scale. Community standards still prevail; the difference is that the “community” has become the world.

Given this new reality, netizens may wish to explore ethical issues within a framework that will allow them to learn immediately how their own opinions compare to those of people from all over the world. This is the concept behind the Interactive Computer Ethics Explorer (ICEE).

The working prototype invites users to explore the ethical issues surrounding a selected case (e.g., Internet spamming), reveal their own opinion in response to one of twenty focusing questions, and then immediately discover the positions other world citizens have taken on the same question. Demographic data are presented in the form of a bar graph generated on-the-fly. Comparison data initially includes everyone but can be restricted by the user to include only males, females, people under 30, people over 30, US residents, or residents of other countries. Only the 100 most recent responses are saved to use as the basis for further comparisons, so visiting ICEE a second time will likely produce different results and give users even more to think about.

In a traditional scientific study, survey administrators would take steps to prevent survey takers from knowing how other participants have responded until long after the survey is complete. ICEE, on the other hand, does not aim primarily to generate statistics but rather aims to create an opportunity for reflective moral self-development. Because moral growth has always had a cooperative and social dimension, it is often important to explore ethical issues in real time, in interaction with other thoughtful persons. With ICEE, we can extend this social dimension to any corner of the world touched by the Internet.

ICEE establishes an interaction paradigm that has application well beyond computer ethics. Instead of an ethical case study, one might substitute the text of proposed legislation, a work of art, or a design proposal. Its domain includes any idea that becomes more meaningful when those exploring it are stimulated by the opinions of other people. Such stimulation is more directly relevant in ethics, however, since ethical positions must forever be tested against contrary and consistent positions held by other thoughtful persons.

Implementation Note

ICEE is currently implemented in HTML, JavaScript and Perl, and makes appropriate use of frames. Typically, the screen is divided into three panels. The large upper panel contains a miniature case study (ethical scenario). Various words and phrases contained in the scenario are hot-linked to pop-up windows containing additional explanatory information. The second panel, on the lower left, contains a focusing statement based on the scenario, to which the user responds by clicking one of the radio buttons in the third panel displayed on the lower right. Next users click the [Submit] button, whereupon they have a chance to see how the last 100 people responded to this particular statement, themselves included. Requested data are drawn in real time as a bar graph. Various demographic breakdowns are offered as options. Finally, the user moves on to the next statement in the series by clicking [Next Statement] or selects another case study to explore.

The current version of ICEE has undergone extensive usability testing. An improved version will debut at Ethicomp98. Most notably, the new version makes it easy for non-technical people to create new content for display within the ICEE framework.