Ethics and Technology

Article excerpt

In the classical definition of leisure as a state of mind, few would argue that the contemplation of the human condition is not a leisure pursuit. It is certainly an especially appropriate use of leisure on the eve of the 21st century. An overwhelming aspect of this end-of-century life is technology in all its myriad forms. The purpose of this article is to ponder the impact of several technological advances with special attention paid to their ethical aspects.

Ladd (1997) writes, ". . . new technology brings with it morally important changes . . . so, new ideas and ideals to replace traditional norms need to be developed" (p. 8). Many of the changes wrought by new technologies were unpredictable. "No one could have anticipated that . . . the advent of automobiles would lead to flourishing suburbs or that the jet airplane along with new information technology would bring about the globalization of the world's economy" (Ladd, 1997, p. 9). Just as the social and economic changes are unpredictable, so are the ethical considerations. Yet, it would appear that the users of new technology are little prepared to anticipate the resultant changes, let alone possess the compass necessary to weave through the ethical maze. In fact, Ladd argues that

. . . because a radically new technology makes certain moral practices (and inhibitions) out of date, that is, non-functional or even dysfunctional, we find ourselves presented with a sort of moral vacuum, inasmuch as traditional norms, principles and institutions lose their force and become "irrelevant" and new norms, principles and institutions to meet new conditions, opportunities and powers have not yet been developed. (p. 9)

A system of core values may provide some measure of guidance in an environment where technological advances emerge without ethics specific to their use. Consider, for example, some of the technological advances to be discussed below: computers, electronic data transmission and retrieval, telecommunications, and the V-chip. Granted, ethicists are grappling with many of the thornier issues presented by rapidly developing technologies, especially those involving bio-engineering and bio-technology; however, the speed with which new technologies are introduced means that ethical development lags far behind. Where then to turn? Populist ethicists such as Michael Josephson (1997) and others promote "Six Pillars of Character" - trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship - as a moral framework in an ethically uncertain time. These "pillars" can provide similar guideposts in the consideration of the ethical implications of the aforementioned technologies.

Consider first the ethical dilemmas posed by the range of technological advances that the personal computer has made possible, from transmission of information to the educational development of children. The nearly ubiquitous use of electronic mail in many professions provides a useful starting point for this discussion. Shapiro and Anderson (1985) in their seminal work on ethics and etiquette of e-mail discussed both; ethics, "because certain behavior in dealing with electronic mail can have useful or adverse effects on the society as a whole and its members [and] etiquette because certain standard social norms must be reinterpreted and extended to cover this quite novel medium" (p. 5). Among the aspects of e-mail from which ethical considerations can arise are the permanence of the message, distribution costs, organizational ability to control use, accessibility, security/privacy, and accountability/attribution.

Unlike phone messages, e-mail has permanence similar to written text. The message can be sent to a printer for a hard copy, saved to disk or forwarded to other recipients indefinitely. The ability to forward e-mail presents a clear ethical consideration. With the touch of a few keys or a couple of taps on the mouse, a message sent originally as a private communication becomes a public document. …