During the past several decades, the robust and rapidly growing field of computer and information ethics has generated university courses, research professorships, research centers, conferences, workshops, professional organizations, curriculum materials, books and journals. The founder of this new philosophical field was the American scholar Norbert Wiener, a professor of mathematics and engineering at MIT.
During the Second World War, together with colleagues in America and Great Britain, Wiener helped to develop electronic computers and other new and powerful information technologies. Even while the War was raging, Wiener foresaw enormous social and ethical implications of cybernetics combined with electronic computers. When the War ended, Wiener wrote the book Cybernetics in which he described his new branch of applied science and identified some social and ethical implications of electronic computers.
Two years later he published The Human Use of Human Beings , a book in which he explored a number of ethical issues that computer and information technology would likely generate.
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The issues that he identified in those two books, plus his later book God and Golem, Inc. See Bynum , , , a, b. These terms came into use decades later. See the discussion below. His thinking, however, was far ahead of other scholars; and, at the time, many people considered him to be an eccentric scientist who was engaging in flights of fantasy about ethics. Apparently, no one — not even Wiener himself — recognized the profound importance of his ethics achievements; and nearly two decades would pass before some of the social and ethical impacts of information technology, which Wiener had predicted in the late s, would become obvious to other scholars and to the general public.
In The Human Use of Human Beings , Wiener explored some likely effects of information technology upon key human values like life, health, happiness, abilities, knowledge, freedom, security, and opportunities. The metaphysical ideas and analytical methods that he employed were so powerful and wide-ranging that they could be used effectively for identifying, analyzing and resolving social and ethical problems associated with all kinds of information technology, including, for example, computers and computer networks; radio, television and telephones; news media and journalism; even books and libraries.
In laying down a foundation for information ethics, Wiener developed a cybernetic view of human nature and society, which led him to an ethically suggestive account of the purpose of a human life. These powerful ethical concepts enabled Wiener to analyze information ethics issues of all kinds.
While explaining human intellectual potential, he regularly compared the human body to the physiology of less intelligent creatures like insects:. Given the physiology of human beings, it is possible for them to take in a wide diversity of information from the external world, access information about conditions and events within their own bodies, and process all that information in ways that constitute reasoning, calculating, wondering, deliberating, deciding and many other intellectual activities.
Wiener concluded that the purpose of a human life is to flourish as the kind of information-processing organisms that humans naturally are:. Everything in the world is a mixture of both of these, and thinking , according to Wiener, is actually a kind of information processing. Consequently, the brain. Living organisms, including human beings, are actually patterns of information that persist through an ongoing exchange of matter-energy.
Thus, he says of human beings,. We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. Wiener , p. The individuality of the body is that of a flame…of a form rather than of a bit of substance. According to Wiener, for human beings to flourish they must be free to engage in creative and flexible actions and thereby maximize their full potential as intelligent, decision-making beings in charge of their own lives.
This is the purpose of a human life. It is possible, nevertheless, to lead a good human life — to flourish — in an indefinitely large number of ways; for example, as a diplomat, scientist, teacher, nurse, doctor, soldier, housewife, midwife, musician, tradesman, artisan, and so on. Society, therefore, is essential to a good human life. For this reason, Wiener explicitly adopted a fourth principle of justice to assure that the first three would not be violated. Sometimes ethical relativists use the existence of different cultures as proof that there is not — and could not be — an underlying ethical foundation for societies all around the globe.
Those principles offer a cross-cultural foundation for ethics , even though they leave room for immense cultural diversity. The one restriction that Wiener would require in any society is that it must provide a context where humans can realize their full potential as sophisticated information-processing agents, making decisions and choices, and thereby taking responsibility for their own lives.
Wiener believed that this is possible only where significant freedom, equality and human compassion prevail. Because Wiener did not think of himself as creating a new branch of ethics, he did not provide metaphilosophical comments about what he was doing while analyzing an information ethics issue or case. Instead, he plunged directly into his analyses.
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In any given society, there is a network of existing practices, laws, rules and principles that govern human behavior within that society. In this way, he achieved a very effective method for analyzing information ethics issues. Note that this way of doing information ethics does not require the expertise of a trained philosopher although such expertise might prove to be helpful in many situations.
So those who must cope with the introduction of new information technology — whether they are computer professionals, business people, workers, teachers, parents, public-policy makers, or others — can and should engage in information ethics by helping to integrate new information technology into society in an ethically acceptable way.
Information ethics, understood in this very broad sense , is too important to be left only to information professionals or to philosophers. It would affect every walk of life, and would be a multi-faceted, on-going process requiring decades of effort. Sometimes the addition of computers, it seemed to Maner, actually generated wholly new ethics problems that would not have existed if computers had not been invented. He concluded that there should be a new branch of applied ethics similar to already existing fields like medical ethics and business ethics.
He developed an experimental computer ethics course designed primarily for students in university-level computer science programs. His course was a success, and students at his university wanted him to teach it regularly. It contained curriculum materials and pedagogical advice for university teachers.
It also included a rationale for offering such a course in a university, suggested course descriptions for university catalogs, a list of course objectives, teaching tips, and discussions of topics like privacy and confidentiality, computer crime, computer decisions, technological dependence and professional codes of ethics. Meanwhile Maner continued to conduct workshops and teach courses in computer ethics. While Maner was developing his new computer ethics course in the mid-to-late s, a colleague of his in the Philosophy Department at Old Dominion University, Deborah Johnson, became interested in his proposed new field.
As a result, Maner and Johnson began discussing ethics cases that allegedly involved new problems brought about by computers.
The resulting Maner-Johnson discussion initiated a fruitful series of comments and publications on the nature and uniqueness of computer ethics — a series of scholarly exchanges that started with Maner and Johnson and later spread to other scholars. For some example publications, see Johnson , , , ; Maner , , ; Gorniak-Kocikowska ; Tavani , ; Himma ; Floridi and Sanders ; Mather ; and Bynum , By the early s, Johnson had joined the staff of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and had secured a grant to prepare a set of teaching materials — pedagogical modules concerning computer ethics — that turned out to be very successful.
She incorporated them into a textbook, Computer Ethics , which was published in Johnson For more than a decade, her textbook set the computer ethics research agenda on topics, such as ownership of software and intellectual property, computing and privacy, responsibilities of computer professionals, and fair distribution of technology and human power. They are not , she insisted, wholly new ethics problems requiring additions to traditional ethical theories, as Maner had claimed Maner There Moor provided an account of the nature of computer ethics that was broader and more ambitious than the definitions of Maner or Johnson.
He went beyond descriptions and examples of computer ethics problems by offering an explanation of why computing technology raises so many ethical questions compared to other kinds of technology. The logical malleability of computer technology, said Moor, makes it possible for people to do a vast number of things that they were not able to do before.
Since no one could do them before, the question may never have arisen as to whether one ought to do them. In addition, because they could not be done before, perhaps no laws or standards of good practice or specific ethical rules had ever been established to govern them. He added additional ideas in the s, including the important notion of core human values : According to Moor, some human values — such as life, health, happiness, security, resources, opportunities, and knowledge — are so important to the continued survival of any community that essentially all communities do value them.
The third step is accomplished by combining deontology and consequentialism — which traditionally have been considered incompatible rival ethics theories — to achieve the following practical results:.
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Beginning with the computer ethics works of Norbert Wiener , , , a common thread has run through much of the history of computer ethics; namely, concern for protecting and advancing central human values, such a life, health, security, happiness, freedom, knowledge, resources, power and opportunity. Thus, most of the specific issues that Wiener dealt with are cases of defending or advancing such values.
For example, by working to prevent massive unemployment caused by robotic factories, Wiener tried to preserve security, resources and opportunities for factory workers. Similarly, by arguing against the use of decision-making war-game machines, Wiener tried to diminish threats to security and peace.
In the early s, a different emphasis within computer ethics was advocated by Donald Gotterbarn. He believed that computer ethics should be seen as a professional ethics devoted to the development and advancement of standards of good practice and codes of conduct for computing professionals. Throughout the s, with this aspect of computer ethics in mind, Gotterbarn worked with other professional-ethics advocates for example, Keith Miller, Dianne Martin, Chuck Huff and Simon Rogerson in a variety of projects to advance professional responsibility among computer practitioners.
These and many other projects focused attention upon professional responsibility and advanced the professionalization and ethical maturation of computing practitioners. See the bibliography below for works by R. Anderson, D.