There are a number of controversial claims being made about the foundation of computer and information ethics as a discipline of applied ethics or normative ethics. Some writers, like Walter Maner, believe that computing technologies instantiate unique properties that give rise to fundamentally different problems that constitute computer ethics as a distinct subdiscipline of applied ethics. Others, like Luciano Floridi, argue that information ethics constitutes a novel normative ethical theory; on his view, every existing thing in the world has intrinsic value “qua information object” – an information object being an abstract object that contains information that describes the properties, functions, and behavior of the relevant thing.
In this essay, I wish to consider the different issue of whether we have intuitive reason to think that information (as opposed to “information objects” – which is a very specific sort of set) has intrinsic value and hence gives rise in us to a morally protected interest in information. At first glance, the claim that every informative proposition has intrinsic value seems to have a strong intuitive foundation in the commonplace view that knowledge is valuable, not only for what it enables us to do in the world, but also for its own sake. It seems reasonable to think, on this line of analysis, that knowledge can be intrinsically valuable only to the extent that information is intrinsically valuable; after all, the objects of knowledge are informative propositions.
I argue that the claim that knowledge has intrinsic value will not support the claim that information has intrinsic value for two reasons. First, the most plausible construction of the claim that knowledge is intrinsically valuable holds that the intellectual activities involved in pursuing knowledge, rather than the propositional objects of such activities, are intrinsically valuable to rational beings like ourselves; this construction of the claim does not, however, imply that information is intrinsically valuable. On this line of analysis, it is a morally good that essentially rational beings like us pursue activities that enable us to realize our nature and to improve our rational faculties. The pursuit of information, then, resembles other activities that are pursued for their own sakes: it is the activity itself and not the objects of that activity that is valued for its own sake.
Second, and more importantly, it is probably false that most people regard information as having intrinsic value qua information. There are a variety of informative propositions that are not plausibly characterized as having any value, intrinsic or otherwise. For example, it is reasonable to think that knowing the number of hairs that George Bush has on his head at this moment in time would not make me even a slightly better person from the standpoint of morality. Such trivial information not only lacks any significant instrumental value (i.e., as a means towards some valuable end), but also lacks any intrinsic value at all. But if information as a kind of thing has intrinsic value, it must be the case that every piece of information is intrinsically valuable in virtue of having an informative nature. Since how many hairs George Bush has on his head lacks such value, it follows that information is not intrinsically valuable as a kind – though it remains true that some pieces of information may have intrinsic value because of their specific content (e.g., information concerning the meaning of life or God’s existence).
The foregoing suggests that the altogether intuitive claim that knowledge has intrinsic value is misleading in an important respect. While we tend to promote knowledge (and hence education) as being valuable regardless of whether or not it happens to conduce to the achievement of other values, we believe that this is true of only those areas of inquiry that have proven to have significant value as a means to other human ends. It is noteworthy in this regard that the proponent of such a claim usually has in mind mathematical, scientific, literary, philosophical and ethical knowledge – all areas of inquiry that have resulted in significant instrumental benefits to the human condition. This suggests that the very intuitive claim that knowledge is intrinsically valuable should be construed as including only certain areas of inquiry and hence as including only certain kinds of information – and not information in general.
The results of this line of argument is that the claim that we have a morally protected interest in information that is not derived from either its value as a means to other ends or from other morally protected interests, such as the interest in freedom of expression, is left without critical support. To the extent that human beings have a morally protected interest in information, it will be limited to those areas of inquiry that can potentially result in significant instrumental benefits. While this is consistent with the claim that information ethics is a distinct subdiscipline of applied ethics, it suggests that information ethics is not plausibly thought of as giving rise to (or presupposing) a novel general ethical theory. Information ethics, then, is perhaps unique at the level of application, but not at the level of general ethical theory.