Toward a Global Information Ethics: Some Confucian and Aristotelian Considerations

Jin Tong


Information technology is changing the world, and cyberspace crosses borders between countries and cultures. A number of ethical issues are raised by the border-crossing nature of cyberspace. To deal with this ethical challenge, new policies (including, perhaps, new laws) are needed. The necessary cross-border policies should be based upon a “global”, cross-cultural ethics, and recent computer-ethics research regarding “global information ethics” can be helpful. Because human beings share a common human nature, our understanding of human autonomy, and its dependence on the acquisition and processing of information, provides a good starting point for research on global information ethics. The present paper focuses upon the examples of Confucian ethics and Aristotelian ethics in the search for a global information ethics. The paper is part of a larger project to identify and explore a common ethical foundation, based upon human nature, for all the great ethical traditions around the globe, both East and West.

Confucianism presupposes that all human beings are similar in nature. The Confucian thinker, Mencius, for example, emphasized that all humans are potentially good because, by nature, they all have four “seeds” or “roots” of moral virtue. These common roots give humans the potential to (1) set their will to become virtuous, (2) train their emotions, (3) engage in appropriate reflection and thinking, and (4) engage in appropriate actions. The Confucian thinker Xunzi also recognized the potential of all humans to become virtuous, but he focused instead upon his concern that humans start with an animal nature that can make them evil unless they use the power of their will and appropriate education, habituation and ritualization to become good.

Aristotle’s account of human nature and human virtue has much in common with Confucianism. For example, Aristotle also believed that humans share a common nature that gives them the potential to be virtuous. In addition, Aristotle also assumed that humans are born with an animal nature (he defined man as “the rational animal”) that can lead to evil, unless a person is properly educated, habituated and enlightened.

The common underpinning of Confucian and Aristotelian ethics is the understanding of human beings as autonomous agents, taking responsibility for their own actions and thereby determining whether or not they will be virtuous citizens. In this information age, a global ethics based upon this common understanding of moral excellence can, perhaps, be the foundation of a global information ethics that enables a worldwide ethical conversation on the Internet among all the cultures of the globe.