What does it mean to transform an institution in morally hazardous way?


Wojciech Jerzy Bober (Poland)


1. Two opposite views

From the beginnings of computer ethics, transformation of institution by IT (information technology) serves as a proof of ongoing computer revolution. We owe this account to James H. Moor who has presented it in his widely-known 1985 paper (“What is computer ethics?”). However, this view is challenged by an earlier insight, made by Joseph Weizenbaum in his influential book of 1976 (“Computer Power and Human Reason”), stating that computers serve as a conservation tool rather than as a revolutionary tool: their main impact on institutions consists in preserving their habits and not transforming them.

On the first glance these views seems contradictory. But it is so only if we hold them as general propositions. Weizenbaum had in mind that computer technology reinforced bureaucracy which in other case would have to resign from extensive data collection whereas Moor’s view was particularly based on his example of presidential elections. In this example, computer technology made that an important principle was put into question. Of these researchers, the former put stress on new methods of doing something that had been being done before whereas the latter on transformation of principles. So these two views are hardly contradictory. However, the transforming effect of IT can be different in different institutions.

2. Three examples

In this section three examples of institution transformation are analysed. The question is: what makes that some transformation of an institution may be regarded hazardous from moral point of view? Conclusion is that transformation of an institution need not to involve any morally important question and that when moral hazard is reported it is due to undermining or abandoning of some important norm, rule or value that was inherent in institution in question.

It is widely recognized that introduction of computer technology had an impact on some concepts such as freedom, property, or privacy. Therefore, some institutions must have been transformed as a result of this conceptual change. For example, if software piracy is forbidden by law and respective institutions tend to eliminate it as a crime, we can conceive it as a kind of transformation. In this case, however, the impact of IT was mediate rather than immediate and so the moral reason for the transformation.

3. Creation of new institutions

The other side of transformation is creation of new institutions. In this section I analyse what new institutions did evolve as a result of computer technology. The most important examples arise from the introduction of computer networks. Examples of these new institutions are such as e-mail, e-business, or discussion groups. The question arises whether such new institutions may pose important moral hazard. This problem leads toward the question of uniqueness of moral problems caused by computers.

4. Transformation of institutions and the uniqueness debate

In computer ethics, the so-called ‘uniqueness debate’ served as the main forum for establishing the boundaries of the discipline. In his keynote to Ethicomp 95, Walter Maner proposed a set of features, that make computer technology different from any other technology, and a criterion for establishing the set of unique moral problems. The criterion consists in seeking an analogy with a situation without serious involvement of computer technology.

In this section, the Maner’s proposal is analysed. One must notice that transformation of institution is a different problem than establishing the boundary between unique and non-unique moral problems caused by computers and that Maner’s criterion cannot be simply applied in this context. However, his proposal to seek analogy may be applied for establishing if there are some special institutions that are essentially based on use of IT (that do not resemble any institutions working without that technology).

5. Other moral risks caused by transformation of institutions

IT may have still more deep and more profound impact on social life through institutional transformations. Some consequences may not be seen if single examples will be considered. When we take into account e.g. broad perspective proposed by philosopher Hans Jonas, we may see that cumulative effect of massive transformations can lead us toward quite different social structure. These transformations may put into question our very concept of society and idea of good life.

6. Conclusions

Two opposite views may be held: that computers transform some institutions and that computers conserve some institutions. The transformation thesis puts stress on change of rules of an institution whereas conservation thesis puts stress on techniques and methods applied in respective institutions.

Transformation of an institution need not to involve any morally important question. Walter Maner’s criterion (lack of analogy) can hardly serve as a criterion of institutional transformation in a morally important way (institutional transformations may be result of a unique moral problem, and not form such a problem itself). The analogy, however, may be important when we consider new institutions.

If there are some moral problems with institutional transformation it is due to violation of some important moral norm, rule or value.

Massive institutional transformations may pose quite new questions and cause quite new social problems.