Ethical Theories and Computer Ethics

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Ethical Theories and Computer Ethics
Chapter · January 2008
DOI: 10.4018/9781605660226.ch013
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Chapter XIII
Ethical Theories and Computer
Ethics
Matthew Charlesworth
The Jesuit Institute, South Africa
David Sewry
Rhodes University, South Africa
Copyright © 2009, IGI Global, distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.
abstract
The development of cybernetics and digital computers prompted the need for a greater exploration of
computer ethics. Information ethics, as described by Floridi and Sanders (2003), offers a conceptual
basis for such an exploration. This chapter provides an historical perspective on the development of
a foundation for the study of computer ethics. A brief explanation is provided of a number of ethical
theories (Divine Command; Ethics of Conscience; Ethical Egoism; Ethics of Duty; Ethics of Respect;
Ethics of Rights; Utilitarianism; Ethics of Justice; Virtue Ethics) followed by a number of perspectives
on the development of computer ethics. The Innovative Approach proposed by Floridi et al concludes
the chapter.
INtrODUctION
The origins of computer ethics can be traced to
the 1940s to the time at which cybernetics and
digital computers were frst developed. These developments prompted Wiener (1948) to recognise
both the good and evil inherent in these artifcial
machines. Since then, attempts have progressively
been made to explore computer ethics from a
variety of perspectives including that of computer
ethics as not a real discipline, as a pedagogical
methodology, as a unique discipline, as applied
ethics, and as employing information ethics as
the foundation of computer ethics.
The increasing integration of information and
communication technology (ICT) into society


Ethical Theories and Computer Ethics
has driven the need to understand and develop
foundations for computer ethics.
This chapter provides an historical perspective on the development of a foundation for the
study of computer ethics. A simple case study
(software piracy) is used throughout the chapter
to illustrate points.
EtHIcaL tHEOrIEs IN brIEF
Often we have to make decisions when all the facts
cannot be known with certainty. In such cases we
have no choice but to rely on the best information
we have, and when we are not experts ourselves,
this means deciding which experts to trust.
(The
Elements of Moral Philosophy, p. 9)
Lawrence Hinman, Director of the Values
Institute and Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego provides nine bases upon
which moral or ethical decisions are made (Hinman, 2002, p.3-11).
2
Divine command theories
Divine Command Theory is an ethical theory
that states that to be good one must do what God
commands you to do. Teachings from the Bible
,
the Qur’an or other sacred texts are considered to
present authoritatively that which leads to what
is right
. The problem of the Divine Command
Theory is summed up in the Euthyphro Dilemma
– in short, is it right because God commands it,
or does God command it because it is right? With
regards to the issue of piracy, one might say that
in terms of the Judaeo-Christian commandment
‘thou shalt not steal’, piracy is proscribed.
the Ethics of conscience
In this theory, what is right is defned by one’s
‘inner voice’. Whilst this can often have a religious
source and operate out of a religious context, it may
also be founded solely on human nature. However,
in both cases the conscience must be properly
formed. In its negative dimension, conscience tells
us what is not right and makes individuals feel
guilty, facilitating the possibility of atonement.
With regards to piracy, our conscience would
compel us to feel guilty for doing something that
is immoral, provided we recognised that piracy
is illegal and a form of theft, and that we accept
that violation of this illegality does not serve a
higher good.
Ethical Egoism
In this theory, each person ought to do whatever
will best promote his or her own interests. Ethical egoism is often argued to be self-defeating in
that, a society of egoists do worse for themselves
than a society of altruists (see for example the
classical philosophical game – the Prisoners
Dilemma). Another fundamental objection is
that it is inconsistent with the nature of trust and
friendship that each party should be motivated
solely by self-interest. With regards to piracy,
an ethical egoist might pirate software because
it would be in their own interests to acquire the
software in the most expedient and effcient
way to themselves (that is without paying for it).
However, it could be argued that in the long-term,
should one be caught, the consequences of pirating
software are not in an individual’s own interests
or indeed if pirating undermines the business it
may undermine the egoists own interests in new
up-to-date software.
the Ethics of Duty
The ethics of duty begin with the conviction that
ethics is about doing what is right, about doing
one’s duty. Duty can be defned by a classical
Kantian appeal to universal reason (our duty is
to follow rules that we could consistently will to
be universal laws – that is, rules that we would
be willing to have followed by all people in all

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