The Nature of the Universe, Human Nature and Contemporary Information Ethics

Terrell Ward Bynum


In the history of human thought, conceptions of human nature have typically provided a philosophical foundation for ethics. This has been true in the East as well as in the West. In ancient China, for example, Confucian and Taoist views of human potential and the place of humans in Nature provided philosophical underpinnings for Confucian virtue theory and Taoist accounts of a good life. In ancient Greece, Aristotle’s virtue ethics was derived from his biological and psychological theories of human nature; and in Europe during the Enlightenment age, renewed interest in the view of human beings as rational agents in charge of their own actions provided philosophical grounds for Kantian and Utilitarian ethics.

Contemporary information ethics theories, like those of James Moor and Luciano Floridi, are no exception. They also receive significant support from new accounts of human nature, and even from broader scientific theories about the nature of the universe. Of special interest in this regard is the view of modern physicists that the universe is made out of information and human beings are, therefore, exquisitely complex “information objects”. The beginnings of this “21st-century account” of human nature can actually be traced back to Aristotle’s theory of perception and human thinking.

The present paper briefly reviews Aristotle’s theory of perception and thinking, with special emphasis upon perception as a process in which animals – including human beings – take in information from the outside world by means of their sense organs, process that information within their bodies and, on the basis of such processing, initiate interactions with the world. Human beings have a special capacity to use information from their perceptions to form concepts, beliefs and knowledge about the world. This knowledge, in turn, enables them to envision alternative possible futures, favor some futures over others, and engage in actions chosen to bring about the kind of future that the person desires. Practical reasoning and ethical virtues are the results of special kinds of information processing within the human body.

The discussion of Aristotle is followed by an account of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic theory of human nature. Wiener’s view of human nature is presented, in the present paper, as a 20th-century update of Aristotle, replacing Aristotle’s physics and biology with contempory biology, thermodynamics, and astrophysics. In Wiener’s view, a person’s body constantly exchanges matter/energy with the outside world; but it is the information encoded and processed within that body which constitutes human identity and thinking. People, said Wiener, are more like whirlpools or flames than static physical objects.

James Moor’s information ethics theory – including consideration of computer ethics, nanotechnology ethics and the ethics of genomics – is strongly supported by Wiener’s view of human nature, as well as the contemporary astrophysics account of the universe. The same can be said about Luciano Floridi’s theory of information ethics, including the ethics of artificial agents like robots, softbots and cyborgs. The present paper concludes with a discussion of the information ethics theories of Moor and Floridi and demonstrates the strong support that they receive from the cybernetic account of human nature.