Academic journal article Journal of the Association for Information Systems

Morality, Ethics, and Reflection: A Categorization of Normative IS Research

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for Information Systems

Morality, Ethics, and Reflection: A Categorization of Normative IS Research

Article excerpt


Moral views and perceptions, their ethical evaluation and justification, and practical concerns about how to incorporate them all play important roles in research and practice in the information systems discipline. This paper develops a model of normative issues ranging from moral intuition and explicit morality to ethical theory and meta-ethical reflection. After showing that this normative model is relevant to IS and that it allows an improved understanding of normative issues, the paper discusses these levels of normativity in the context of two of the most prominent normative topics in IS: Privacy and intellectual property. The paper then suggests that a more explicit understanding of the different aspects of normativity would benefit IS research. This would leverage the traditional empirical strengths of IS research and use them to develop research that is relevant beyond the boundaries of the discipline. Such broader relevance could be aimed at the reference disciplines. In particular, moral philosophy could benefit from understanding information technology and its role in organizations in more detail. It could, furthermore, inform policy makers who are increasingly called on to regulate new information technologies.

Keywords: Ethics, Morality, Norms, Normativity, Privacy, Intellectual Property.

1. Introduction

Humans are social beings. Because of their social nature, they need rules, norms, and conventions that allow them to co-exist and collaborate to survive and prosper. The information systems (IS) discipline is interested in the social and organizational role of information technology. Therefore, it needs to take this into account. Discussions of norms, acceptance, and acceptability of rules and conventions are central to understanding phenomena related to technology. They are similarly important if recommendations and policies are developed to influence practice.

However, there are different ways in which IS scholars can take normative issues into account. At a basic level, one rather functional way would be to recognize that attention to normative issues can contribute to user satisfaction and thereby reduce the chance of system failure.

At a higher level of abstraction, one can find normative assumptions in all IS research paradigms: Positivism has its roots in the enlightenment-based attempt to improve the human condition by applying scientific methods to understanding social life (Wynn, 2001); interpretivism implies a significance and equality of the other who is being investigated and has, therefore, been viewed as intrinsically ethical (Walsham, 1995a, 1995b, 1996); critical research has been traced to the ethical attempt to improve the world (Hirschheim & Klein, 1994; Myers & Klein, 2011; Stahl, 2008a).

A further link between normative issues and IS comes from IS practice. Normative issues in a broad sense pervade all social activities, which includes commercial ones. The use of IT for business purposes is closely related to efficiency and effectiveness, which, in turn, touch on how we should live our lives and which goals we should follow.

At the broadest level of abstraction, ethical investigation is related to the use of computing or information and communication technologies (ICT) in social or organizational settings. Many IS studies take place in a business environment. As a consequence, it is of interest not only to IS scholars but also to organizational, management, or business scholars in general. This means that business or economic ethics can be applied to IS. Thus, the business ethics discipline has paid significant attention to ICT's ethical aspects (George, 2002; Grabner-Kraeuter, 2002).

This brief outline shows that there are numerous areas of contact between IS and normative issues. Despite a wealth of work in the area, there have been few attempts to draw a broader picture of normativity in IS research and practice. …

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