Foundational issues in information ethics

Publication Date13 Mar 2007
AuthorKenneth Einar Himma
Foundational issues in
information ethics
Kenneth Einar Himma
Department of Philosophy, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, Washington, USA
Purpose – Information ethics, as is well known, has emerged as an independent area of ethical and
philosophical inquiry. There are a number of academic journals that are devoted entirely to the
numerous ethical issues that arise in connection with the new information communication
technologies; these issues include a host of intellectual property, information privacy, and security
issues of concern to librarians and other information professionals. In addition, there are a number of
major international conferences devoted to information ethics every year. It would hardly be
overstating the matter to say that information ethics is as “hot” an area of theoretical inquiry as
medical ethics. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview on these and related issues.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper presents a review of relevant information ethics
literature together with the author’s assessment of the arguments.
Findings – There are issues that are more abstract and basic than the substantive issueswith which
most information ethics theorizing is concerned. These issues are thought to be “foundational” in the
sense that we cannot fully succeed in giving an analysis of the concrete problems of information ethics
(e.g. are legal intellectual property rights justifiably protected?) until these issues are adequately
Originality/value – The paper offers a needed survey of foundational issues in information ethics.
Keywords Ethics, Philosophical concepts
Paper type Research paper
Is information ethics theoretically unique?
A number of theorists have attempted to justify the study of computer ethics as a field
by arguing that computer ethics is unique in some theoretically significant sense. On
this line of analysis, the use of computing technologies gives rise to unique
meta-ethical, ethical, or epistemic difficulties that warrant treating those problems as a
theoretically unified class that requires specialization. While a number of authors
argue that computer ethics is distinct in some theoretically significant way (henceforth
the uniqueness thesis), they differ with respect to the sense in which they think it is
Interpreting the uniqueness thesis
There are a number of different interpretations of the uniqueness thesis[1]. First, one
might argue that computer ethics is unique in the sense that some acts involving
computers possess ethical qualities not possessed by any other type of act. Since the
existing concepts of obligatory, permissible, good, and supererogatory (i.e. good
involving a sacrifice that is beyond the call of duty) purport to adequately describe all
existing ethical qualities of acts, this interpretation can adequately be expressed as
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Issues in
Received 2 April 2006
Revised 18 October 2006
Accepted 1 November 2006
Library Hi Tech
Vol. 25 No. 1, 2007
pp. 79-94
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/07378830710735876
The meta-ethical thesis. There are acts in computer ethics that cannot adequately be
characterized by the traditional concepts of obligatory, permissible, good, and
The meta-ethical thesis, then, makes the very strong claim that the very
meta-ethical foundation for general and applied ethical thinking is inadequate[2].
Second, one might hold that existing ethical theories (or so-called “first principles”)
might be adequate to resolve problems in other areas of applied ethics but are
insufficient to resolve certain problems involving computer use[3]. Computer ethics,
according to this view, is unique in the following sense.
The normative thesis. Computer technologies present ethical problems that cannot,
as an objective matter, be adequately resolved by recourse to existing ethical theories.
The normative thesis, then, states a claim about the objective coverage of the
existing set of first-principles – and not about our abilities to apply those principles. In
particular, it asserts that not even a perfectly intelligent observer could corr ectly
evaluate certain ethical issues solely by recourse to existing first-principles because
those principles do not fully cover those acts.
Third, one might argue that certain types of reasoning useful in other areas of
applied ethics are of limited utility in the context of computer ethics. Walter Maner
(1996, reprinted in Hester and Ford, 2001) argues, for example, that we lack the
resources to build analogical bridges that would link certain problems involving
computer use to problems in other areas in applied ethics and asserts that problems in
computer ethics are epistemically indeterminate (Maner, 1996, reprinted in Hester and
Ford, 2001).
The epistemological thesis. Computer technologies present ethical problems that
resist the analogies that enable us to see how ethical theories and first-principles apply
in other areas of applied ethics.
The epistemological thesis, then, asserts no more than that the techniques that
frequently help us in seeing how existing normative materials apply to specific
problems are inadequate to help us with problems in computer ethics. While it might
be that existing theories and principles are logically adequate to address these
problems, we lack sufficient epistemic resources to determine how they apply.
Finally, some writers argue that computing machines instantiate properties that are
ethically unique among members of some class of entities. The idea here is that
computing machines instantiate ethically significant properties (i.e. properties that are
relevant in evaluating acts involving computers) that are instantiated by no other
non-living artifact.
The property thesis. Computer technologies possess moral properties that are unique
among non-living artifacts (though such properties might be possessed by living
Thus, for example, one might argue that computers are unique among machines in
instantiating some form of moral standing (e.g. moral personhood)[4].
Evaluating the uniqueness thesis
The meta-ethical thesis can pretty much be rejected at the outset. There is little reason
to think that existing ethical categories are insufficient in the way described by the
meta-ethical thesis. Our set of existing categories can be inadequate only if either there
is more than one ethically significant class of wrongful acts or there are more than the

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