Norbert Wiener’s Foundation of Computer Ethics

By Terrell Ward Bynum

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, visionary mathematician/philosopher Norbert Wiener founded computer ethics as a field of academic research. In his groundbreaking book, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954), Wiener developed a powerful method for identifying and analyzing the enormous impacts of information and communication technology (ICT) upon human values like life, health, happiness, security, knowledge and creativity. Even today, in this era of “global information ethics” and the Internet, concepts and procedures that Wiener developed in the 1950s can be used to identify, analyze and resolve social and ethical problems associated with ICT of all kinds. Wiener based his foundation for computer ethics upon a “cybernetic” view of human nature that leads readily to an ethically suggestive account of the purpose of a human life. From this, he derived “principles of justice” upon which every society should be based, and then he followed a practical strategy for identifying and resolving computer ethics issues wherever they might arise.

Wiener’s cybernetic view of human nature emphasized the physical structure of the human body and the tremendous potential for learning and creative action that human physiology makes possible. To underscore this fact, he often compared human physiology with that of less intelligent creatures like insects:

Cybernetics takes the view that the structure of the machine or of the organism is an index of the performance that may be expected from it. The fact that the mechanical rigidity of the insect is such as to limit its intelligence while the mechanical fluidity of the human being provides for his almost indefinite intellectual expansion is highly relevant to the point of view of this book… man’s advantage over the rest of nature is that he has the physiological and hence the intellectual equipment to adapt himself to radical changes in his environment. The human species is strong only insofar as it takes advantage of the innate, adaptive, learning faculties that its physiological structure makes possible. (Wiener 1954, pp. 57-58, italics in the original [see endnote*])

On the basis of his “cybernetic” analysis of human nature, Wiener concluded that the purpose of a human life is to flourish as the kind of information-processing being that humans naturally are:

I wish to show that the human individual, capable of vast learning and study, which may occupy almost half of his life, is physically equipped, as the ant is not, for this capacity. Variety and possibility are inherent in the human sensorium – and are indeed the key to man’s most noble flights – because variety and possibility belong to the very structure of the human organism. (Wiener 1954, pp. 51)

A good human life, according to Wiener, is one in which “great human values” are realized – one in which the creative and flexible information-processing potential of “the human sensorium” enables humans to reach their full promise in variety and possibility of action. Different people, of course, have various levels of talent and possibility, so one person’s achievements will differ from another’s. It is possible to lead a good human life in an indefinitely large number of ways: as a public servant or statesman, a teacher or scholar, a scientist or engineer, a musician, an artist, a tradesman, an artisan, and so on.

Wiener’s view of the purpose of a human life leads him to adopt what he calls “great principles of justice” upon which a society should be built – principles that, in his view, would maximize a person’s ability to flourish through variety and flexibility in human action. To highlight Wiener’s “great principles of justice”, let us call them “The Principle of Freedom”, “The Principle of Equality” and “The Principle of Benevolence”. (Wiener himself does not assign names but merely states them.) Using Wiener’s own definitions for these key ethical principles, we get the following list (1954, pp. 105-106):

The Principle of Freedom – Justice requires “the liberty of each human being to develop in his freedom the full measure of the human possibilities embodied in him.”

The Principle of Equality – Justice requires “the equality by which what is just for A and B remains just when the positions of A and B are interchanged.”

The Principle of Benevolence – Justice requires “a good will between man and man that knows no limits short of those of humanity itself.”

Wiener’s cybernetic account of human nature leads to the view that people are fundamentally social beings who can reach their full potential only by actively participating in communities of similar beings. Society, therefore, is essential to a good human life. But society can be despotic and oppressive, and thereby limit, or even stifle, freedom; so Wiener introduced a principle to limit, as much as possible, society’s negative impact upon freedom. (Let us name it “The Principle of Minimum Infringement of Freedom. ”)

The Principle of Minimum Infringement of Freedom – “What compulsion the very existence of the community and the state may demand must be exercised in such a way as to produce no unnecessary infringement of freedom”. (1954, p.106)

If one accepts Wiener’s account of human nature and the good society, it follows that many different cultures, with a wide diversity of customs, religions, languages and practices, can provide an appropriate context for human fulfillment and a good life. Indeed, given Wiener’s view that “variety and possibility belong to the very structure of the human organism”, he presumably would expect and encourage the existence of a broad diversity of cultures in the world to maximize the possibilities for choice and creative action. The primary restriction that Wiener would impose on any society would be that it should provide the kind of context in which humans can realize their full potential as sophisticated information-processing agents; and he believed this to be possible only where significant freedom, equality and human compassion hold sway.

So-called “ethical relativists” often point to the wide diversity of cultures in the world – with various religions, laws, codes, values and practices – as evidence that there is no “global ethics”, no underlying universal ethical foundation. Wiener, on the other hand, has a powerful and creative response to such skeptics. His account of human nature and the purpose of a human life can embrace and welcome the rich diversity of cultures and practices that relativists are fond of citing. At the same time, though, Wiener can advocate an underlying ethical foundation for all societies and cultures.

Wiener’s suggested methodology for analyzing and solving computer ethics questions is one that, essentially, assimilates new ethical judgments and new cases into the existing cluster of laws, rules, practices and principles that govern human behavior in the society in question. The key elements of this approach are the following:

Human Purpose – Ethical judgments and practices must be grounded in the overall purpose of a human life: a society and the rules which govern its members must make it possible for people to flourish – to reach their full potential in variety and possibility of action.

Principles of Justice – The Principle of Freedom, the Principle of Equality and the Principle of Benevolence should guide and inform every person’s judgments and practices; and society must neither permit nor impose unnecessary limitations upon individual freedom.

Clarity of Concepts and Rules – The meanings of ethical concepts and rules, in a given situation, should be clear and unambiguous. If they are not, one must undertake to clarify their meanings to the extent possible.

Precedent and Tradition – New ethical judgments and cases should be assimilated, where possible, into the existing body of cases, rules, laws, policies and practices.

For any given society, there will be a “cluster” of existing laws, rules, principles and practices to govern human behavior within that society. These form a complex and extremely rich set of overlapping, crisscrossing policies that constitute a “received policy cluster” (see Bynum and Schubert 1997). This received cluster of policies should be the starting point for developing an answer to any computer ethics question.

If a given case or question does not fit easily into the existing set of rules and policies in one’s society, then one must either (1) make adjustments in the old policies and rules to accommodate the new case, or else (2) introduce a totally new policy to cover the new kind of case. Presumably, if such a new case were to arise, one would have to use the overall purpose of a human life, together with the fundamental principles of justice, to create and justify new laws and policies consistent with the old ones. Such a case would be an example of James Moor’s classic “policy vacuum” for which one must formulate and justify new policies. (See Moor 1985.)

Given these elements of ethical analysis, Wiener’s methodology can be construed as including the following five steps:

Step One: Identify an ethical question or case regarding the integration of ICT into society.

Step Two: Clarify any ambiguous concepts or rules that may apply to the case in question.

Step Three: If possible, apply existing policies (principles, laws, rules, practices) that govern human behavior in the given society. Use precedent and traditional interpretation in such a way as to assimilate the new case or policy into the existing set of social policies and practices.

Step Four: If precedent and existing traditions are insufficient to settle the question or deal with the case, revise the old policies or create new ones, using “the great principles of justice” and the purpose of a human life to guide the effort.

Step Five: Answer the question or deal with the case using the revised or enriched policies.

It is important to note that this method of doing of computer ethics need not involve the expertise of a trained philosopher. In any just society, a successfully functioning adult will be familiar with the laws, rules, customs, and practices that normally govern one’s behavior in that society and enable one to tell whether a proposed action or policy would be considered ethical. Thus, all those in society who must cope with the introduction of ICT – whether they be public policy makers, ICT professionals, business people, workers, teachers, parents, or others – can and should engage in computer ethics by helping to integrate ICT ethically into society. Computer ethics, understood in this very broad way, is too vast and too important to be left only to academics or to ICT professionals.

Wiener makes it clear that, in his view, the integration of ICT into society will constitute the remaking of society – “the second industrial revolution” and “the automatic age”– destined to affect every walk of life. It is bound to be a multi-faceted, on-going process, which will take decades of effort and will radically change the world. In Wiener’s words, we are “here in the presence of another social potentiality of unheard-of importance for good and for evil.” (1948, p. 27) The defining goal of computer ethics, then, is to advance and facilitate the good consequences of ICT while preventing or minimizing the harmful ones.

Today, the ethical importance of the computer revolution – stressed by Norbert Wiener more than fifty years ago – has become obvious. The “information age” is emerging, and the metaphysical and scientific foundation for computer ethics that Wiener laid down decades ago can still provide effective tools and guidance as we confront a wide diversity of challenging new ethical issues.

*Quotations from Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings are all from the 1954 Second Edition Revised.


  • Terrell Ward Bynum (1999), “The Foundation of Computer Ethics”, Keynote Address at AICEC99 (The Australian Institute of Computer Ethics Conference 1999), Melbourne, Australia, July 1999.
  • Terrell Ward Bynum and Petra Schubert (1997), “How to Do Computer Ethics – A Case Study: The Electronic Mall Bodensee” in Jeroen van den Hoven, ed., Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiry, Erasmus University Press, 1997, pp. 85-95. (Proceedings of CEPE 97)
  • James H. Moor (1985), “What Is Computer Ethics” in Terrell Ward Bynum, ed., Computers and Ethics, Blackwell, 1985, pp. 266-275. (Published as the October 1985 issue of Metaphilosophy.)
  • Norbert Wiener (1948), Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, John Wiley, 1948.
  • Norbert Wiener (1950, 1954), The Human Use of Human Beings, Houghton Mifflin, 1950. Second Edition Revised, Doubleday Anchor, 1954.