10th FIS Discussion Session:


Rafael Capurro
University of Applied Sciences
Stuttgart, Germany

Michael Nagenborg
University of Karlsruhe


Dear FIS colleagues,

Our next topic is information ethics. We suggest to discuss first the matter of ethics and then go into the specific ethical questions raised particularly by modern information technology.

Ethics is, like any other field of scientific and philosophic research, not only controversial concerning its methodology and goals but also concerning its very nature. Philosophers have been developing ethical theories for thousands of years in different cultures. One starting point for our discussions could be the difference between "life" in a biological sense and "life" or "human existence". This difference was basic in Greek philosophy. The ancient Greek used two different words for life, namely "zoe" and "bios". Ethics is basically about "bios," i.e., about the 'design' of human existence or of the place where we live ("ethos"). This presupposes that we do not only live within open possibilities (this is the case of other living beings too), but that we are aware of them. In classic terms, this is the question of freedom in the sense not only of freedom "from" but of freedom "for". But things are of course more complex, since we are not only living beings in the sense of "bios" but also of "zoe" so that our options for "good life" are intertwined with the possibilities given by nature as well as with the ones we artificially create by ourselves.

Ethical questions concern then:
- what does it mean to set rules for regulating our possibilities of action in order have "good life" (Aristotle9),
- how such rules have been developed and applied (for better for worse) so far,
- how can they be changed,
- how can they collide or not with natural laws.
We usually make a difference between ethics and morality, where ethics (or "techne ethiké") is the science of morals ("ethos"), morals being the phenomenon we study. This is an important difference because in normal life people use both words (and even both concepts!) as synonyms. It is also important to grasp ethics as the place where morality can be (theoretically) questioned. In other words, an ethical discussion arises when given moral laws governing our behavior are not any more obvious.

As you know, Kant suggested that moral laws should be conceived in analogy to natural laws from a formal standpoint. Kant also made a strong difference between human beings as far as they belong to nature and as far as they are "ends in themselves." These (and other) Kantian are part of our Western culture, including our legal norms. They were Kant's answer to Newton, i.e., to a universe conceived as deterministic in which there was no place for freedom. We have not a similar fundamental philosophic answer to modern science (evolution, quantum physics, molecular biology etc.). So, our suggestion is to start discussing this matter.
Honoring the tradition started in this list by Peter Erdi, quite many discussions ago, we formulate the following questions:
Q1. What is the philosophic and ethical challenge of the physical, chemical, biological... sciences today with regard to human freedom and the 'laws' (?) that should regulate our actions? What is the meaning of 'natural law' today and can we take it as an analogy (?) in the field of morality? are there other alternatives?
Q2. What is the philosophic and ethical challenge of modern information technology with regard to human freedom? How far do we conceive the 'cyberspace' or, more generally speaking, the potential digitization of all phenomena (human and non human) as a (the?) condition for understanding them, and what does this mean with regard to human behavior? More specifically: do we conceive ourselves eventually as information processing devices?, and if yes, what follows with regard to artificial digital devices that we are creating now and in the future?
Q3. What does it mean for human beings to be able to behave in a global digital world in which time and space seem to disappear? What are the consequences of our doing for the whole planet? How can we create rules of action that are accepted by all human beings in order to achieve a global sustainable (physical and cultural and economic...) development without deleting all differences that makes human life worth living?

On a second step we can switch into Information Ethics. The recent history of information ethics arises as a process of problematization of behavioral norms of communication in societies shaped by mass media particularly since the second half of the last century. This situation took a dramatic twist with the rise of the Internet as a horizontal or non-hierarchic, interactive and global medium for message production, storage, distribution, and exchange.

Information ethics understood in a narrower sense deals with ethical questions of the Internet. It arises because this new medium created problems that could not be solved on the basis of traditional rules and roles of hierarchical generation, distribution, storage and exchange of messages under the premises of mass media in democratic societies. What do truth telling mean in this new situation? We ask this question when we debate for instance about privacy. What can I say to whom?  In which medium? A book, a newspaper, the TV, the radio, a blog, a mailing list, a personal e-mail?

But the question underlying information ethics is, I believe, of a broader nature than the problems generated by the Internet. In this broader sense information ethics deals with questions of the digitalization, i.e., the reconstruction of all possible phenomena in the world as digital information and the problems caused by their exchange, combination and utilization. More on this at: http://www.capurro.de/oxford.html

You will find a comprehensive view of the field (including bibliography, etc.) at the website of the International Center for Information Ethics at http://icie.zkm.de
For recent contributions to special fields such as Search Engines or E-Games please see International Review of Information Ethics IRIE http://www.i-r-i-e.net
Some specific questions for our discussion could be:
Q4. What does it mean that knowledge should be free? is it only a problem of freedom of access? And what does it mean for scientific communication? How does this principle collide with, for instance, the economic principles underlying a market economy?
Q5. What does it mean that not only information distributed in a one-to-many structure (like the case of the mass media of the 20th century) but also that everybody is able to communicate with everybody including also the possibilities of one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, some-to-many? Are there ethical and legal regulations for this process? If legal regulations presuppose central power and this is not desirable at a global level, what are the alternatives? Can we learn from nature in this regard? and if yes, how far?

We are pleased to moderate this discussion.

kind regards,

Rafael Capurro
Michael Nagenborg

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