A META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS

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A META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


Charles R. Crowell

Department of Psychology and Computer Applications Program

University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556

Phone: 574
-
277
-
4774

Fax: 574
-
271
-
2058

Email:
ccrowell@nd
.edu


and


Robert N. Barger

Computer Applications Program

University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556

Phone: 574
-
289
-
8939

Fax: 574
-
289
-
2039

Email:
rbarger@nd.edu



Running Head: META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS

META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


1

A META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


Abstract


This article describes how a person's view of reality (i.e., one’s metaphysics or worldview or
Weltanschauung) influences that person's view of morality (i.e., one’s ethics). This possibility
has broad implicati
ons for understanding personal ethics in general and computer ethics in
particular. Four worldviews were revealed in a survey of college students: They were Idealism,
Realism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism. Idealism is the view that reality is ultimatel
y
grounded in the perfect, abstract, ideal world

the world of spirit and ideas. Realism
emphasizes the ultimate importance of the natural world, that is, the physical, material, sensible
universe. Pragmatism suggests that reality is not static in the sen
se of depending on absolute
ideas or matter, but rather is ultimately "in process" and must be constantly probed and
determined by social experimentation. Existentialism holds that reality is not objective, rather it
is subjective and must be constructed
by each individual. The implications of these worldviews
for three examples of ethical dilemmas relating to information technology, those concerning
piracy, privacy, and authority
-
deception are described and discussed.


Keywords: Metaethics, Information
ethics, Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, Existentialism,
piracy, privacy, authority
-
deception


META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


2

INTRODUCTION

"Metaethics" is a term subject to potential misunderstanding. Halverson (1981) regards
metaethics as the generic name for inquiries that have as thei
r object the language of moral
appraisal. This definition reflects the viewpoint of a branch of philosophy known as Linguistic
Analysis. It does not, however, reflect a universal understanding of the term. Consistent with the
tenants of systematic philosop
hy, metaethics can be defined more broadly as the generic name
for inquiries about the source of moral judgments (i.e., about their basis) as well as about how
such judgments are to be justified (Barger, 2001a). Taken in this sense, metaethics is not about

isolated individual judgments concerning whether certain actions are right or wrong. It is about
how a particular worldview


or more precisely, a Weltanschauung


is propaedeutic to the
formulation of such ethical judgments.

The essential idea here is t
hat before one can make a judgment on whether a particular
action is right or wrong, one must have adopted a basic understanding of what reality is about.
Morality then becomes a question of whether or not the action in question is in harmony with
that und
erstanding. In philosophy, one’s understanding of reality is called metaphysics. A
person's preferred metaphysics is basically a statement of belief about fundamental reality. It is a
"belief" because it cannot be proven or verified. Rather, one’s metaphys
ics is simply a
fundamental assumption one makes about how things are (Barger, 2001a).

Aristotle called metaphysics "first principles" (McKeon, 1968) in deference to the notion
that a foundation of meaning is prerequisite to the interpretation of any part
icular events or
actions within the larger universe of that meaning. The reason more than one metaphysics exists
is that different people adopt different personal explanations of reality. Once a personal
metaphysical worldview is adopted, that view inevit
ably influences, if not governs, personal
META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


3

decisions about ethical matters (Barger, 2001a). It is in this sense, then, that a person's view of
reality is propaedeutic to one’s stand on value questions.

OBJECTIONS FROM LING
UISTIC ANALYSIS

It is here that pro
ponents of Linguistic Analysis (e.g., Wittgenstein, 1961) might take
issue with our more liberal interpretation of metaphysics. Adherents to Linguistic Analysis
believe (and we again use the word “belief” in the sense noted earlier) that statements about
r
eality can be verified or validated in only one of two ways. Those ways are by application of the
rules of logic, or by application of sense observation. Thus, from this standpoint, anything not
open to logical analysis or to observation by the senses is n
ot meaningful.

Linguistic Analysts argue that, by definition, a Weltanschauung or worldview is an
interpretation of ultimate reality and is not subject to examination by logic or sense observation
(Barger, 2001a). Adherents to this view argue that ethics,
the moral implications

for action

of a
metaphysical worldview, also are not subject to verification and therefore cannot be talked about
in any reasoned or meaningful way. Linguistic analysts would admit that there are indeed
questions of morality, but su
ch questions are purely emotional and subjective in nature. Thus, for
these thinkers, no determination is possible about whether something is objectively good or bad.
As Wittgenstein (1961) himself has said: "The solution of the riddle of life in space and

time lies
outside space and time, (6.4312)" and further, "We feel that even when all possible scientific
questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched" (6.52).

THE MAJOR METAPHYSIC
AL POSITIONS AND THE
IR RESULTANT ETHICS

Ho
wever, even if one grants that the basic tenets of any particular metaphysical
worldview cannot themselves be verified objectively, the existence of different metaphysical
positions across people can be documented and catalogued. For example, in some rese
arch done
META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


4

on a random sample of 347 students at a Midwestern regional/comprehensive university, Barger
and Barger (1989) found that that there were a limited number of distinguishable metaphysical
positions among the students despite their diversity of maj
ors and backgrounds. The worldviews
revealed in this research largely were the traditional, systematic philosophies of Idealism,
Realism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism (some might argue that Existentialism cannot be
described as either "traditional" or "s
ystematic," but for present purposes we will consider it so).
Idealism and Realism might be characterized as absolute or objective philosophies, while
Pragmatism and Existentialism could be described as relative or subjective philosophies. The
description
s of these positions below follow the treatment of this matter by Barger (2001a).

Idealism

The metaphysical position of Idealism, dating back to the Greek Philosophers Socrates
and Plato, holds that reality is more about the spiritual than the physical. Th
e Idealist derives
greater meaning from ideas than things and, since ideas are thought not to change, reality is
considered to be essentially static and absolute.
It follows, then, from an Idealist perspective that
the originally intended purposes of thing
s (i.e., the ideas upon which they were based) should
weigh heavily in ethical judgments and actions.

Perhaps the most famous modern Idealist philosopher, Immanuel Kant, used what he
called the “Categorical Imperative” to assess the ethics of any action. T
he first form of his
Categorical Imperative states: "Act only on that maxim by which you can at the same time will
that it should become a universal law" (Kant, 1933). In other words, if you wish to establish (or
adhere to) a particular moral or ethical s
tandard, you must be willing to agree that it would also
be right for anyone else to follow that standard.

META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


5

Once it is assumed that reality is to be found in the realm of ideas, the resultant ethical
position must be that goodness represents the extent to
which the ideal is achieved. Thus,
goodness exists only on the immaterial level: that is, within the perfect realization of an idea.
Conversely, evil consists of the absence or distortion of the ideal.

Since the Idealist believes ideas do not change (beca
use they are a priori and absolute),
moral imperatives concerning those ideas do not admit of exceptions. Thus, these imperatives are
stated in terms of "always" or "never." For example: "Always tell the truth" or (put negatively)
"Never tell a lie." Since

truth is the knowledge of ideal reality, while a lie is a distortion of that
reality, truth must always be told and lying can never be justified.

Realism

This position holds that reality is basically matter, rather than spirit. For the Realist,
things tak
e precedence over ideas. Whatever exists is therefore primarily material, natural, and
physical. As such, reality is quantitative and measurable. It exists independently of any spirit or
idea, is governed by the laws of nature, and is subject to the operat
ion of cause and effect. The
universe, according to the Realist, is one of natural design and order. Aristotle was an early
representative of this view, while B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist, was a more modern
representative.

The resultant ethica
l position that flows from a Realistic metaphysics holds that goodness
is to be found in conformity with nature. Since nature is good, one need not look beyond it to
some immaterial ideal for standards of right and wrong. Rather, goodness is achieved by li
ving
in harmony with nature. Evil, on the contrary, is a departure from this natural norm either in the
direction of excess or deficit (i.e., having, or doing, too much or too little of something which is
naturally good).

META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


6

Pragmatism

Within a Pragmatic meta
physics, reality is not so easily localized as it is for the Idealist
and Realist. The Pragmatist finds meaning neither in ideas nor things. This view suggests it
would be a mistake to think of reality as either a spiritual or a physical "something." Rathe
r, the
Pragmatist believes that reality is a process, a dynamic coming
-
to
-
be rather than a static being.
Reality is to be found in change, activity, interaction

in short, in experience. In this sense,
Pragmatic reality is more like a verb than a noun. It i
s flux and flow where the focus is not so
much on the events that happen or the things that exist as on the relationship between those
events and things. Since everything changes


indeed, the Pragmatist might say change is
everything


nothing can have an
y permanent essence or identity. The well
-
known observation
of Heraclitus, an ancient Greek Pragmatist, that “you can't step in the same river twice" was
intended to convey the notion that the only constant is change, and the only absolute is that there
ar
e no absolutes! More modern representatives of this view would be Charles Sanders Pierce,
William James, and John Dewey.

Given its de
-
emphasis of absolutes, Pragmatism could be viewed as a more expedient
worldview than, say, Idealism. Since change is the n
orm for a Pragmatist, there is no permanent
essence or ideal. In relation to ethics, this outlook implies that all moral values must be tested
and proven in practice since nothing is intrinsically good or bad. If certain actions work to
achieve a socially
desirable end, then these actions are ethical and good. Consequences therefore
dictate good and evil.

In the Pragmatist's view, then, actions themselves are value
-
neutral. No course of action
is always good, or always bad. Moral value is assigned based o
n utility for achieving some
particular end. The famous Pragmatic maxim that follows from this notion is “the end justifies
META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


7

the means.” That is, if an act is useful for achieving some laudable goal, then it becomes good.
In other words, a means gets its p
ositive value from being an efficient route to the realization of a
valued outcome. Accordingly, a means has no intrinsic absolute value, but only gains value
relative to its usefulness for achieving some desired result.

Results or consequences are the u
ltimate “measure” of goodness for a Pragmatist since
the usefulness of a means to an end can only be judged after the fact by the effects of that means.
Thus, for the Pragmatist, there can be no assurance that any action is good, at least until it is
tried
. Even then, an action resulting in positive effects would only be viewed as good tentatively
,

subject to the proof it
will continue

to work.

For the Pragmatist, just as the goodness of an act is relative to the consequences it
produces, so, too, the degr
ee of goodness is relative to the extensity of those consequences. This
means that should there ever be a dispute about which means are more effective for achieving an
end, the Pragmatist looks for guidance from the group. Reality is experience, both indi
vidual and
group. So, in the realm of value judgments, the group's experience is more highly esteemed than
the experience of any individual within the group. This accounts for the Pragmatic emphasis on
“the greatest good for the greatest number” (Barger (
2001a).

Existentialism

The Existentialist joins with the Pragmatist in rejecting the belief that reality is
a priori

and fixed. But, unlike the Pragmatist who believes that reality is a process whose meaning is
defined primarily by the controlling group, t
he Existentialist holds that reality must be defined by
each autonomous individual. The Existentialist notions of “subjectivity” and “phenomenological
self” imply that the meaning or surdity of an otherwise "absurd" universe is individually
determined (Sar
tre, 1992). Any meaning attached to the world must be put there by the
META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


8

individual and it will be valid only for that individual. Thus, each person's world and self identity
is the product of that person's own choices. In a sense, each person can be defined

as the sum of
his or her choices. It follows, therefore, that reality is different for each individual. We each live
in our own world and are determined/defined by our choices. Soren Kierkegaard and Jean
-
Paul
Sartre are well
-
known representatives of this
Existentialist viewpoint.

An Existentialist worldview leads to an ethics in which moral values are individualized
through a person’s choices. Each personal choice reflects a preference for one alternative over
others. Anyone who makes a choice freely and “
authentically” (Sartre, 1992) is therefore acting
in a good and moral fashion. This aspect of Existentialism is reminiscent of Polonius’s advice to
his son in Shakespeare’s
Hamlet
: “To thine ownself be true” (Act I, Scene iii). As some have
suggested (e.g
., Onof, 2004), Existentialism, especially as presented by Sartre (1992), may lend
itself to a moral imperative with the same kind of universality that characterizes Kant’s
Categorical Imperative.

If personal choices are freely made, then according to the
Existentialist viewpoint
responsibility for them must be accepted by the choice
-
maker. This means that individuals
cannot deflect praise or blame for personal choices onto others. While groups might influence
what choices someone makes, there is a zone of

freedom within each person that cannot be
conditioned or predetermined. On this view, morality is clearly an individual matter, but an
Existentialist may freely choose to adopt or embrace moral standards shared by groups or
societies.

BLENDED WORLDVIEWS

T
he above summary of metaphysical views might appear to oversimplify the basis for
ethical decision
-
making attendant to these positions. No doubt such decision
-
making is a much
META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


9

more complex process in real time than the above characterizations imply. For i
nstance, in their
research Barger and Barger (1989) found that while most of the students surveyed had primary
leanings toward one of the four worldviews described above, students also had simultaneous
secondary leanings toward one or more of the other thr
ee positions. In other words, nobody in
their sample was fully and completely an Idealist, Realist, Pragmatist, or Existentialist.

Such “blended” metaphysics means that simply knowing a person's primary metaphysical
position will not guarantee accurate pre
diction of how he or she might behave in response to a
given ethical dilemma. Actually, this predictive inaccuracy happens for at least two important
reasons. The first, as just noted, is that people may have strong sympathies with other
philosophical pos
itions besides their primary view, which can influence action in any particular
case. But, a second reason derives from the fact that people do not always act in a manner
consistent with their beliefs, no matter how primary or dominant those views may be.

That is, for
various reasons, people will fail to follow through with what they believe is the right thing to do
in any particular situation.

The possibility of blended worldviews may have led some writers to posit guidelines for
dealing with ethical dile
mmas that appear to be derived from multiple metaphysical positions.
Parker (1991), for example, offers several “rules for action” that seem at first glance to include
both Idealistic and Pragmatic elements. Parker’s seemingly Idealistic guideline is some
thing he
calls the "Kantian Universality Rule," which states: "If an act or failure to act is not right for
everyone to commit, then it is not right for anyone to commit" (Parker, 1991). Of course, this
Universality Rule is just an alternate formulation of

the Categorical Imperative discussed above.
Another of Parker’s guidelines is called "The Higher Ethic,” which states: "Take the action that
achieves the greater good" (Parker, 1991). This maxim appears very much to be an instance of
META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


10

the Pragmatic motto w
e discussed earlier: "Do the greatest good for the greatest number.” Thus,
Parker’s proposed guidelines may indeed be a hybrid offspring of differing worldviews, or it
may be, as Rashdall (1907) has argued, that the moral imperatives of Idealism and Pragm
atism
are not really so disparate after all. Rashdall has attempted a synthesis of Idealism and
Pragmatism in suggesting that the ideally right action is always that which will produce the
greatest amount of good on the whole. Whatever the exact philosop
hical analysis of Parker's
guidelines may prove to be, the fact that they are in sync with seemingly different worldviews
could enhance their practical usefulness for ethical decision
-
making among those with “blended”
metaphysics.

METAPHYSICAL IMPLICA
TIONS

FOR THREE COMPUTING
-
RELATED ETHICAL
DILEMMAS

The different worldviews noted above seem to offer divergent solutions for many
possible ethical information
-
technology
-
related dilemmas. We select but three hypothetical
dilemmas for purposes of illustration.

They have to do with piracy, privacy, and authority
-
deception. Our argument here is that any divergence in the “ethically correct” solutions to these
dilemmas can be traced rather directly to the seemingly different ethical standards associated
with each

separate worldview. In the interest of brevity, we will consider only two worldview
alternatives for each dilemma: an "absolutist" type of solution which is characteristic of the
Idealist and Realist views; and a "relativist" solution which is characteri
stic of the Pragmatist and
Existentialist views. Finer distinctions could be made within each of these main solution
categories to separate the four distinct worldviews.



META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


11

Piracy

First consider piracy, a common ethical dilemma in today’s digital world
,

in
volving
wrongful appropriation of computing resources. As an example, suppose someone uses a
personal account on a university's mainframe computer for something that has no direct relation
to University business. Such use could involve anything from sendin
g a personal e
-
mail message
to a hometown friend, to conducting a full
-
blown private business on the computer (billing,
payroll, inventory, etc.). Is there anything unethical about such computer usage?

An absolutist position would likely say that the abo
ve
-
described activities are indeed
unethical

whether only the e
-
mail message is involved, or the larger
-
scale business activities
(although an absolutist might recognize a difference between the two in the degree of wrong
being done)

provided that such use

is prohibited by the University’s published computer
utilization policies. The guiding principle here would be based on the purposes for which the
University (i.e., the computing
-
resource owner) intended the computer to be used. Any
utilization for purpo
ses other than what was intended, as specified in the usage policy, would be
unethical. A similar argument would apply to the “misuse” of any other computing resource or
digital property for which ownership and an owner’s wishes for those resources/materi
als could
be established, explicitly or implicitly.

On the other hand, a relativist might say that only the full
-
scale business activities really
were unethical because they tied up too much memory and slowed down the machine's
operation, thereby depriving

other legitimate users of access to, or reasonable performance of,
the computing resources in question. However, the personal e
-
mail message might not be
unethical because it represented no significant drag on operations or no deprivation of
META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


12

services/per
formance for other legitimate users. The guiding principle here is consequences or
harm: no harm, no foul.

Privacy

Next consider a dilemma having to do with privacy. Suppose Student A enters a public
computer lab on campus and encounters a machine still l
ogged into Student B’s account
(presumably Student B forgot to log off when she left the lab). Student A then decides to get
nosey and accesses the personal files that are available on the system belonging to Student B. Is
this behavior unethical?

An abs
olutist position would maintain that the behavior was unethical because the only
person who is entitled to access someone’s personal files is the owner of those files, unless the
owner knowingly grants permission to others. This is of course based on the
notion that the
original purpose of any personal file is to serve the sole needs of the owner until that owner says
differently.



A relativist position would be based on the consequences. If Student A logged Student B
off the system after snooping around

and never revealed to Student B or anyone else any
confidential information he or she may have seen, then no harm would accrue to Student B from
Student A’s intrusion. So, it could be argued that Student A’s
snooping

was not unethical. But,
if Student A

passed on any personal or confidential information about Student B, or failed to log
Student B off after looking at the personal files, then unethical action could be involved since
potential harm might result.

Authority
-
Deception

Finally, let’s look at a

dilemma involving what may arguably be regarded as an abuse of
power by authority, but certainly involves an instance of deception. A student is strongly
META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


13

suspected by his u
niversity of a major “fair
-
use” computer
-
policy violation involving a hoax
email a
llegedly being sent by the student under the name of a prominent administrator. This
email proved to be exceedingly disruptive to student affairs until it was identified as being
fraudulent. The student suspect, though not a professional hacker, was adep
t enough to cover his
electronic tracks well. However, the administration decided to confront the student and falsely
inform him that they had hired an outside expert whose skills were sufficient to uncover
electronic evidence of the student’s perpetratio
n of the hoax. The suspect thus was being
deceived in an effort to force an admission of responsibility, which the student eventually
did
provide
. Did the administration behave unethically in this instance?

An absolutist position would maintain that lyin
g under any circumstances is wrong. This
follows, of course, from an Idealist emphasis on the universal importance of truth. A relativist
could argue, however, that the “end justified the means” in this case. The “greater good” was
being served by any m
eans used to identify the perpetrator, dispense a severe penalty, and
hopefully deter future instances of similar computer
-
use violations.

CONCLUSIONS

AND

FUTURE

TRENDS

The skeletal cases we have just presented are not meant to suggest that ethical solutio
ns
to computing dilemmas are easily forthcoming. Indeed, just the opposite likely is true. In the
present world of computing and information technology, where ethical dilemmas are becoming
ever more complex, the
prospect

of
finding a single normative code

containing standards
with
which everyone would agree

seems
difficult at best. However, this

does not mean

that such
effort
s

are futile. For example, it is possible for people of different philosophic worldviews t
o
agree upon the same standards,
although pe
rhaps for different reasons.

Also, as noted above,
Parker’s (1991) “blended” approach may have some promise in this regard.

META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


14

There is little doubt that technology use will continue to escalate. As it does, so will the
potential for ethical dilemmas arising

from such use. While there is some controversy about
whether technology
-
based ethical dilemmas are unique, or merely instances of age
-
old moral
questions (Barger, 2001b; Barger & Crowell, 2005), it is clear that morality and ethics must be
an ever increa
sing focus of our educational system at all levels.

The field of Moral Psychology may have much to offer in this regard. As those who
study the process of moral development formulate and test theories about the various
psychological and behavioral
facto
rs contributing to ethical decision making, it becomes possible
to consider whether or not and to what extent and technology may impact those factors (cf.
Crowell, Narvaez & Gomberg, 2005). Such efforts may help to illuminate the educational
practices and

tools that will be needed to effectively prepare students to understand and resolve
technology
-
related ethical dilemmas. Moreover, it is import
ant to continue to explore how
m
etaethical analysis may be helpful in understanding and promoting moral educati
on and
personal development.

META VIEW OF INFORMATION ETHICS


15


References

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Wide Web: http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/philblfs.html

Barger, R. N. (2001b). Is computer ethics unique in relation to other

fields of ethics? Retrieved


January 25, 2006, on the World Wide Web: http://www.nd.edu/~rbarger/ce
-
unique.html

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.
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