Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is there a need for cyber-ethics?

The recent spate of events where governments, magazine-employees and various other social actors have acted in ways that have invited spirited debate about the justifiability of their actions, lead to an unavoidable question: Is there a need for cyber-ethics?

It all depends on what one means by “cyber-ethics”, of course. If this means the need to behave in a morally accountable manner in the cyber-domain — on social media sites, in email communications, on bank websites, and so forth — then it seems to me an unproblematical question to answer; in the affirmative, that is. Why would one’s virtual presence in cyber-space give you licence to behave any less morally than under the concrete conditions of the human, social life-world? In ordinary social and inter-personal interactions we expect people to behave in a morally “decent” manner; in cyberspace there should be no difference.

To try and give a culture-specific answer to the question, what such “decency” entails, would be to open an ever-multiplying can of worms, so — notwithstanding Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s ethical “formalism” (the claim that Kant’s categorical imperative is too devoid of cultural specificity to be of much help in guiding one’s actions morally), I am inclined to paraphrase Kant: moral “decency” implies acting in such a way that the motive of your action can be “universalised.”

“Universalisation” here simply means that, as common wisdom has it, “one should do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you don’t want others to steal from you, don’t steal from them; if you don’t want anyone to murder you, don’t commit murder yourself; if you disapprove of dishonesty, don’t be dishonest; and so on. It reminds me of that well-known poster one sometimes sees on school notice boards, and occasionally even in tea-rooms at various institutions, which says something like: “Everything about behaving decently towards others I learned in Kindergarten.”

Too bad so many people forget what they learned “in Kindergarten” when they grow up. One does not grow up in a vacuum; the cultural circumstances in which you live, exert a formative influence on you, which one can either assimilate uncritically, or appropriate critically. In the present world, where financial wealth is valorised above everything else, this perverse ethos shapes the behaviour of a great many people — people who don’t seem to have the moral compass (of the kind I alluded to above) to resist the greed that it inculcates in them.

This is one of the major sources of ethical/moral transgressions, or arguably even more seriously, of cyber-crime, in virtual space, and assumes the form of hacking into people’s bank accounts and stealing their money, or defrauding people in a myriad of ways, some more direct than others. Such behaviour may occur in cyber-space, but it is in principle no different from robbing a person at gunpoint.

There are many kinds of ethically or morally reprehensible behaviour, and of cyber-crime, in the space opened up by the internet — from actions involving people’s financial status, through hate-speech or — writing regarding gender, race, culture, and a host of other morally dubious (if not constitutionally illegal) actions such as governments or corporations spying on individuals, individuals spying on governments or corporations, and so on. I am certain that most people can easily think of instances of this in the recent past, such as the firing of employees by a racy magazine for overstepping the bounds of “decency” in what they wrote on social media sites (which surfaced despite the claim that their “privacy controls” had been activated at the time; a painful lesson that NOTHING in cyberspace is guaranteed to be private).

But this is not the only meaning of “the need for cyber-ethics” — the obligation to act ethically towards others, just as one is implicitly expected to do so in ordinary, everyday social space; an obligation that is impossible to enforce, by the way, as we all know. The most one can expect is that other people will follow the “live ethically and expect others to do the same” principle.

The other sense of this question presupposes such an obligation, but seems to me to suffer from the conceit, that it is indeed possible to produce a cyber-ethical “code” or set of guidelines that would potentially be capable of regulating people’s behaviour on the internet. This is as impossible as it is to guarantee that everyone who has been raised on the basis of ethical or broadly “civilised” behaviour will in fact always act in accordance with it.

But would it therefore be a waste of time to embark on the formulation, or negotiation, of a “cyber-ethical code”? Probably not — even if it would merely serve the purpose of conscientising social actors in the domain of cyber-space (who might otherwise not have been conscientised), it would be worthwhile. As long as such a code would not come across as an attempt to police individuals’ actions in a Big Brother manner, it would probably do more good than harm.

The difficulty would be similar to the one Kant faced when he set himself the task of formulating his “categorical imperative”, given what Hegel later raised as criticism of his excessive or empty “formalism,” namely that, the more morally “universalist” the formulation is, for the sake of inclusivity, the more one would risk people reading it as not applying to their concrete, culturally (and ethically) articulated actions.

Someone who has addressed this problem in his philosophy is Jürgen Habermas, who has tried to resolve the tension between Kant’s insistence on universalisation and Hegel’s criticism regarding cultural specificity by distinguishing between the moral and the ethical. The ethical concerns the cultural or traditional (or sometimes individualistic) values of particular individuals or cultural/social collectives, while the moral standpoint concerns what is right or just for everyone, universally.

Concerning moral questions, he has put forward two principles governing questions concerning moral norms for action — what he calls the “discourse principle” and the “universalizability principle”. It seems that he called the first one the “discourse principle”, because in order to arrive at some kind of agreement about valid moral criteria, people enter into dialogue, the point being to arrive at agreed-upon, valid norms for human behaviour, applicable to all people who might be “affected” by the norm or criterion in question. The second principle is more important, but builds on the first one, in as far as, following Kant, it requires that norms be intersubjective and “universalizable.”

It is these two principles that seem to me to offer some promise of finding a suitable formulation of a “code” for cyber-ethics. While Habermas appears to be aligning himself with Kant’s deontological (duty-) ethics via his requirement of universalizability of norms, he goes beyond Kant by adding something belonging to consequentialist ethics (judging moral worth by the consequences of actions), so that his universalizability principle not only requires a norm to be subscribed to by everyone, but links this with its “foreseeable consequences” for each individual.

Hence, a commensurate, valid code for cyber-ethics would likewise demand an acceptance by everyone affected, in so far as, in discussion, participants (here, in cyber-exchanges) can anticipate that the consequences, in the future, of such acceptance would be in everyone’s interest. (See Chapter 4 of Habermas: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Lasse Thomassen; Continuum).

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