Some Perspectives Concerning Two Elements of Computer Ethics

Mikko T. Siponen and Jorma Kajava


This paper will identify the various dimensions of the components of computer ethics in order to formulate them more clearly. All our conclusions on the subject are based on IT security related research combined with a moral philosophical survey. In addition to our empirical research work relating particularly to awareness and education, we are currently doing empirical research on morality and IT and giving courses on computer ethics and IT security.

We argue that the components of computer ethics play a significant role in the overall ethical comprehension of information technology, a fact that should be stressed when striving to develop a holistic view of an ethically more relevant society. Currently, there seems to be no holistic view and no appropriate methods and approaches to cope with the ethical challenges presented by information technology. Indeed, as our empirical research on computer ethics shows, if the elements of computer ethics are not perceived correctly, the mission of computer ethics, as we interpret it, may be based on inadequate premises.

We propose that computer ethics consists of the following elements: multiple decision-making stages and levels of awareness and a thorough understanding of dimensional factors including different methods, theories and education. Some examples of these will be given in the actual presentation.

In this paper, we preliminarily divide the issues we want to discuss to ethical and moral (e.g., hacking, virus creation) ones. Varying levels of awareness and diverse educational strategies come in handy, for instance, when dealing with problems such as so-called conceptual muddles and lack of awareness. We argue further that there is no appropriate definition of computer ethics demarcating its scope and content. Thus, one of the main problems in the field is in fact the undisciplined nature of the whole field of study. To remedy the situation, the most relevant issues should be put into some kind of preference order. For this reason, we have put forward some preliminary ideas about delimiting the scope of ethics. This has helped us to solve some dilemmas. The field of computer ethics is rife with misunderstanding and misuse of terminology even with respect to such key terms as ethics and morality. We will try to sort out the differences and assess their real value for computer ethics.

Moreover, we will apply the dimensions of morality (overriding, prescriptive, autonomous and universal) borrowed from moral philosophy to computer ethical issues. This is because our empirical studies show that it is important to bring the real nature of normative ethics under study. Their meaning within the framework of IT is not properly understood even though they constitute a key factor within the realm of ethics. We shall also explore a problem mentioned earlier on in this paper; namely, the definition of computer ethics. We claim that it should cover the whole area of ethics exhaustively, as in this paper, and that the inadequate, trivial and absurd must be separated from the appropriate. In addition to this, the definition should be based on such aspects as enable harmonious human life in general, because we are not isolated individuals and the coherence of human life must be emphasised.

Furthermore, the indirect relation between morality, habits and laws will be explored. In spite of the self-evident differences between these aspects (e.g., the difference between the legal and moral aspects of an action), we maintain that they intermingle and permeate the field of computer ethics, because they play a part in our conception of what constitutes use or abuse of information technology. Our empirical research supports the view that this aspect must be taken into consideration. If the dimensions of the other two functions to computer ethics and moral conduct particularly are not taken into account, we have difficulties dealing with people who may inadvertently undertake some action that comes under the area of computer ethics in a moral sense. In addition to covering holistically the area of computer ethics, the different dimensions of the components of computer ethics are also designed to cover the possible lack of moral behaviour and the vulnerabilities of computer ethics.