Philosophy Tries to Fill Ethics Vacuum in Cyberspace

By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Philosophy Tries to Fill Ethics Vacuum in Cyberspace


David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


To paraphrase Will Rogers, most philosophers never met a moral quandary they didn't like. After all, philosophers are beside themselves when pondering quandaries of the human race.

But until recently, in a swiftly moving technological society, most philosophers did their pondering under a bushel, mulling classical quandaries in university settings.

No more. A big techno-foot has kicked the bushel

aside. Standing over them is the grinning triad

known as information technology, computers, and (fierce growl) ... the Internet.

How philosophers shape the debate over the moral impact of computers on humankind could lead to a golden age of philosophy. Or, possibly neutralized by technology's alleged power of democratization, philosophy will remain background noise.

Philosopher Terry Bynum wants a foreground response. At the recent Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy held in Boston, he and five other philosophers, out of 3,000, gathered in a small conference room to grapple with the moral and ethical implications of information technology and the Internet.

"Technology information in all its forms is changing the meaning of the concepts upon which philosophy is built," says Professor Bynum of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

He cites the example of today's "knowledge engineering," a branch of information technology sometimes linked with artificial intelligence. "Knowledge engineering will change the very definition of what it is to know and what it is to make use of that knowledge," he says.

Further, as the flow of information on the Internet expands exponentially and across cultures, not only knowledge may need to be redefined, but also the "knower." What is a person's identity and responsibility as a collaborative participant on the Internet?

"Our classical notion of who is responsible is based on a natural person acting in a three-dimensional space where the causal context is clear," says Jeroen van den Hoven, a philosopher at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands. "On the Internet this is no longer the case. Where is he or she acting in space and time?" he asks. "And the causal changes are also somewhat difficult to trace."

What philosophers can offer in these new gray areas of behavior and collaboration in a digital world is the commitment of adhering to moral values, ethics, and individual worth.

"I think the problems today are so great, so overwhelming that we need all the assistance and intellectual resources we can avail ourselves of," says Professor van den Hoven.

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