Metaphysical Foundations for Information Ethics

Terrell Ward Bynum


In the current “Age of Information”, the field of Information Ethics is becoming vital to the preservation and advancement of human values, the understanding of human relationships and communities, the ethical development and control of new technologies, and the fostering of respect and cooperation among many diverse cultures and societies across the globe. The time is right, therefore, for rapid development and advancement in Information Ethics – a broad new field of research about ethical issues arising from the creation, transmission, storage and processing of information. Subfields of Information ethics include vital areas like Computer Ethics, Internet Ethics, Agent Ethics, Journalism Ethics, Library Ethics, the Ethics of Genetic Engineering, the Ethics of Nanotechnology, and others.

An important prerequisite for the advancement of Information Ethics is the provision of a philosophical/metaphysical foundation. Happily, major steps in the development of such a foundation were taken decades ago by Norbert Wiener in his books Cybernetics (1948), The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954) and God and Golem, Inc. (1964). In addition, beginning in the late 1990s, Luciano Floridi (with some of his colleagues at Oxford University) initiated a rigorous and ambitious program to advance the field of Information Ethics. The present paper briefly explores (1) Wiener’s metaphysical foundation for Information Ethics, (2) some contemporary developments in astrophysics which reinforce Wiener’s achievements, and (3) an alternative metaphysical foundation offered by Floridi and his Information Ethics Research Group at Oxford University.

Wiener’s metaphysics assumed that information is physical – subject to the laws of nature and measurable by science. The sort of information Wiener had in mind is sometimes called ‘Shannon information’ – named for Claude Shannon, who had been a student and colleague of Wiener’s at MIT. Shannon information is carried in telephone wires, TV cables and radio signals. It is the kind of information that digital computers process and DNA encodes within the cells of all biological organisms. Wiener believed that such information, even though it is physical, is neither matter nor energy. Thus, while discussing thinking as information processing in the brain, he wrote that the brain

does not secrete thought “as the liver does bile”, as the earlier materialists claimed, nor does it put it out in the form of energy, as the muscle puts out its activity. Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day. (Wiener 1948)

According to Wiener’s metaphysics, matter-energy and Shannon information are different physical phenomena, but neither can exist without the other. So-called ‘physical objects’ – including living organisms – are actually persistent patterns of information in an ever-changing ‘flow’ or ‘flux’ of matter-energy. Every physical process is a mixing and mingling of matter-energy with Shannon information – a creative ‘coming-to-be’ and a destructive ‘fading away’ – as old patterns of matter-energy and information fade and new ones emerge.

Another aspect of Wiener’s metaphysics is his account of human nature and personal identity. Human beings are, according to Wiener, patterns of information persisting through changes in matter-energy. In spite of continuous exchanges of matter-energy in a person’s body, the complex organization or form of the person – the pattern of Shannon information encoded within– is maintained to preserve life, functionality and personal identity. As Wiener poetically said,

We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. . . . The individuality of the body is that of a flame…of a form rather than of a bit of substance. (Wiener 1954)

To use today’s language, humans are ‘information objects’ whose personal identity is tied to information processing and persisting patterns of information, rather than specific bits of matter.

Support from today’s physics – Wiener’s metaphysics anticipated recent developments in physics: According to the so-called ‘theory of everything’, which has emerged from physics during the past two decades, the universe is fundamentally informational. Every so-called ‘object’ or physical entity is, in reality, a persisting pattern of Shannon information. This account of the nature of the universe originated with Princeton physicist John Wheeler (1990), and it has been refined and supported by many scientific experiments during the past decade.

In recent years, an alternative metaphysical foundation for Information Ethics has emerged from the work of Luciano Floridi and his Information Ethics Research Group at Oxford. They have developed an approach to ethics that places at the center of ethics, not the actions, values, and characters of human agents, but instead the evil (harm, dissolution, destruction) suffered by the recipients of action. By interpreting every existing entity in the universe as an ‘informational object’, Floridi and his colleagues are able to shift the ethical perspective from an ‘agent-based’ (and human-based) theory to a ‘patient-based’, non-anthropocentric theory.

With this approach, every existing entity – humans, other animals, plants, even non-living artifacts, electronic objects in cyberspace, pieces of intellectual property – can be interpreted as potential agents that act upon (physically affect) other entities, as well as potential patients that are acted upon by other entities.

Unlike Wiener’s metaphysical foundation for Information Ethics, which is based upon Shannon-information and the laws of physics, Floridi’s Information Ethics presupposes a Spinozian metaphysics:

[Information Ethics] suggests that there is something even more elemental than life, namely being – that is, the existence and flourishing of all entities and their global environment – and something more fundamental than suffering, namely entropy. . . . [Information Ethics] holds that being/information has an intrinsic worthiness. It substantiates this position by recognizing that any informational entity has a Spinozian right to persist in its own status, and a Constructionist right to flourish, i.e., to improve and enrich its existence and essence. (Floridi 2006, p. 11)