Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Beginnings of Information Ethics: Reflections on Memory and Meaning

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Beginnings of Information Ethics: Reflections on Memory and Meaning

Article excerpt

These days in my encore career as a hospice chaplain, I have the satisfaction of using my knowledge of information ethics in amazing new ways. As one of the pioneers in our field, I look back on the issues we tackled prior to becoming main stream and I am grateful to be able to continue my involvement in critical issues surrounding death and dying as professional, pastor, and a participant observer. In the world of health care and hospice, the stakes are high and decisions about life and death require careful use of information and information technologies. I often think of the model I presented in 1992 to detail the scope of information ethics and am pleased at how well it covers the significant issues I think about in my work today providing support for families before and after loss. My work is personal as well as professional with real people, death, grief, change, and hope. Information use and education is a huge part of what hospice provides patients and families in making the best choices in tough situations.

The Scope of Information Ethics: The Beginnings

When I began to think about information ethics in the late eighties, the closest field for comparison was computer ethics. The scope I had in mind was larger and included not only what was then called "information" but also the world of knowledge including the philosophy of knowledge. While exploring the philosophy of knowledge, I found the fields of philosophy of technology and the philosophy of science. Needing to attempt something, I started with five working categories to try on others. They were: Access, Ownership, Privacy, Security, and Community. They fit nicely in a star shape and provided a visual image to stimulate discussion.

The five can be placed on the star in a variety of places and various comparisons can be made among them. Each one of the five highlights a key element uniting a wide variety of issues, problems, and dilemmas in the years since I first described it as a place to begin for the scope of information ethics and continues to be useful in my hospice work.

Information is so very powerful in matters of patient care, family/caregiver education, government regulations, and public policy. Balancing patient autonomy and family responsibilities is not simple. Choosing hospice or palliative care rather than active treatment is a decision more gray than black or white. New drugs and treatments become available, as technologies and laws change quickly. Valuing both patient autonomy and family or physician decisionmaking get complicated by the need to prepare advanced directives and then to maintain informed consent at every step as the patient declines. My involvement now is close to the people who need good information and help using it under pressure. Having a very different angle from which to view information ethics issues and how much they matter to people in their last months is extremely rewarding. In this brief reflection, I hope to offer some insights from the early years of information ethics and share a few ideas for future study and reflection.

Background and Bias

In the years of my active involvement in higher education and particularly in professional education of clergy and librarians, I have been fortunate to be a woman in two professional groups that have undergone major changes. Certainly, since I completed college in 1967 and seminary in 1970, large numbers of women have entered the ordained clergy. At Duke, I was the only woman to graduate with my entering class in the Master of Divinity program. A few others graduated later but not many but the numbers went up quickly. Today women who were in seminary in those years are retiring from long pastorates and terms as bishops. Also in the Roman Catholic Church, the roles of women have changed. For example, Roman Catholic lay women now are numerously in professional hospital chaplaincy and related careers such as hospice or prison chaplains. A search of the published literature and presenters at conferences show the significant impact that women have had in religious studies and in faithrelated professions.

The rise of women's studies is another movement that began when I was in college and seminary. I should note that I taught the first class on women at Duke Divinity School in 1971-1972, the same years that I was getting my degree in library science at UNC-Chapel Hill and entering one of the women's professions. Then I began pursuing a doctoral degree in religion (biblical studies) at Duke and was hired as the first clergy woman in the Division of Ordained Ministry of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. The feminist movement was hitting the church and even in the South, change was coming. In less than a year, I would leave that job to return to my doctoral studies in religion. I would learn later that, like Anita Hill, many of my woman-clergy peers, like me, would learn the meaning of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Levels of Professional Ethics in the Workplace

Being a library director in the eighties and the nineties gave me a useful vantage point to view and to participate in the growth of information ethics in practice and in scholarship. In the midst of a twelve year period as a director in a small academic library, I began to work on another doctorate focusing on information ethics. As a library director in the turmoil of change-automation/networking in business, industry, and government, as well as in higher education, I was convinced that my professional commitments were best served by being quiet but deliberate in advocating for the new technologies even though administrators and faculty members at my institution were not interested and were mostly afraid and resistant. If I had to choose, I told the staff, we would get fired for pushing too hard rather than wait to get booted for doing nothing. We pushed, got in trouble, got away with it, and then we were celebrated for our contributions. Finally, most of us left for greener pastures. We are still close.

The point of the Levels of Ethical Orientation in the Workplace was to describe the several ethical positions that can exist at the same time in one setting, depending upon the relationship among various authorities and stakeholders. Also, various moral agents may find themselves placing themselves closer or more distant from the stated mission, ethics, and values of the institution. For example, in higher education board members, administrators, faculty, staff, student, and parents may all be able to justify very different responses to funding in a budget crisis. Librarians and administrators frequently found themselves in conflict about library automation and the uses of the web and today in higher education there are many different positions that may be argued about the proper role of social media.

* Ideal Ethics: Mission Statements; Ethics Codes

* Everyday Ethics: Accepted standards; Good Intentions; Mutual respect

* Pressure Ethics: Split among stakeholders; Temporary crisis

* Subversive Ethics: Threat to institutional or professional integrity

* Survival Ethics: Serious threat to institutional existence, stability, character or to personal or professional employment or to safety and welfare

While I may have started my career more focused on the ideals and norms in academic life, I now realize that we live primarily from pressure ethics to survival ethics. In the last few years, economic cutbacks have slowed down some of the innovation but technologies continue to change and users demand more and more services.

Shoulders and Giants: Thanks to Those Who Came Before and to My Colleagues, and Invitations for Those Who Come After

When I started this article, I was beginning my educational preparation for chaplaincy. Having finished two formal units in Clinical Pastoral Education, interning in both a nursing home and in an acute care hospital, I am now employed full-time in hospice as a chaplain and bereavement coordinator. Several surprises have come my way in the last few years. First, I would never have imagined that I would be working in end-of-life care in the later years of my own life. Second, I am amazed how useful my academic and technology background is in the health care field. To illustrate, I am currently working on our agency orientation for hospice. My task is to present what new team members need to know about the social and cultural backgrounds of our diverse client base and how we should approach the many ethical dilemmas that patients and their families face. My materials will be combined with others and made accessible both for the classroom and for individual use online using one of my blogs. Our team members all have company laptops that they use for documenting care plans, visits, and other uses of their time. One of my general assignments is to chart and monitor bereavement care using my laptop and the company system. As the threads of my study and research come together, I am reminded of those who have influenced me. Here I will acknowledge and thank those most influential in information ethics and whose impact extends to my current endeavors. These are only examples, and I would encourage others to consider their own giants and record them as well.

In college, I first admired Joseph Fletcher for his book entitled Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966). It was one of those controversial 1960s books along with Harvey Cox's The Secular City and Thomas J. J. Altizer's writing on the Death of God theology that liberal college students read in their religion classes. Later I would find out that he was briefly the Episcopal chaplain at St. Mary's College, a girls' school in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I worked as the library director. By the time I started exploring the background sources of information ethics I was pleased to find out that Fletcher had written a book on medical ethics (Morals and Medicine: The Moral Problems of the Patient's Right to Know the Truth, Contraception, Artificial Insemination, Sterilization, Euthanasia, 1954) that asked the same questions that we were asking in the late 1980's. Years later I would return to Fletcher's work on life. Fletcher's career path put him a little ahead of public policy and encouraged me to push ahead in curiosity about emerging areas of technology.

Pioneers like Toni Carbo and Stephen Almagno were models for me in doing research in information ethics even when I did not get support for tenure in several academic appointments. To those of you, who have the opportunity to encourage each other and newer scholars please do so. Reach out to people beyond your comfort zone and be as inclusive as you can. Similarly, Robert Hauptman, as librarian, scholar, and editor, has given me support through the years. Even when my doctoral committee was hesitant to accept my proposal to write on information ethics, they graciously allowed me to invite Dr. Hauptman to serve as an outside member of the committee and financed his travel from St. Cloud State University (Minnesota). I honor his impact on the field and his many achievements, especially in starting The Journal of Information Ethics.

As a global leader and community builder, Rafael Capurro deserves the prize. For many years, Dr. Capurro presented at and attended conferences of the various societies related to ethics and technology and introduced scholars to each other. Has anyone noted that Dr. Capurro launched the Center for Information Ethics online in Netscape Composer? He has connected researchers in computer ethics, Internet ethics, philosophy and technology, information ethics, and other fields around the globe. Before Internet scholarship was mainstream, those of us in information ethics were collaborating online, planning to meet at conferences, and accelerating the growth of the field.

Professor Martha Williams, longtime editor of ARIST, deserves mention. Her careful attention to the growth of information science and to new scholars has left a rich treasure of detailed literature reviews documenting the early years. My thanks to her for encouraging me to submit an article to ARIST using my early work on information ethics and to Linda Smith for her excellent assistance in completing the bibliography. I want to urge others to contribute to ARIST and to be brave in suggesting emerging topics. I had to argue to use "Information Ethics" instead of "Library Ethics," but I insisted. Martha graciously consented. As a very new member of the American Society for Information Science (ASIS), now American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIST), I valued the support of Dr. Williams, Dr. Smith, and Dr. Barbara Flood (late of Drexel) and their confidence in my ability to contribute.

While I was a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill, several professors were especially important in launching my study of information ethics. Late in his career, Dr. Asheim was a major contributor to the Ph.D. program at UNC-Chapel Hill and taught the first class I took as a doctoral student. Dr. Moran was the Dean of the school, my program advisor, and at the time was editing a special issue of Library Trends on leadership. At Dr. Asheim's suggestion Dr. Moran helped me to edit the paper I wrote in Dr. Asheim's class for her issue. More than anyone else, Dr. Chatman was my prime role model and example of scholarly courage and integrity. She would not admit me into her "Theory" class my first semester, so I took Dr. Asheim's class. When I did take "Theory," it changed my life as well as my approach to research. Our most significant reading in the course was Dr. Chatman's theory chapter in her book, The Information World of Retired Women (1992). By that time in her research career, she was confident in her application of theory and methods that showed the deeper issues under- neath the initial research questions. In this case, she was able to describe to us the fear the subjects felt if they sought out too much medical or financial information. They were afraid that their family members or friends would find out that they were too sick or financially unable to maintain their residence in their current retirement home. They feared that family members, especially daughters, would desert them. In their community, they had access to some information but were too fearful of abandonment to ask for more or to seek help. Now when I visit with hospice patients and their families and caregivers, I am aware of the deep emotions and fears that can make it more difficult for them to get the most that they can out of the information as well as the care that we offer in hospice. I am able to be more compassionate and understanding grounded in Elfreda Chatman's research.

Among the early information ethics trivia in my files, I recently rediscovered the advance program announcement for the 1989 Allerton Institute, Ethics and the Librarian containing Clifford Christian's Keynote Address entitled, "Media Ethics in a Complicated Age." In the final program, the title was changed to "Information Ethics in a Complicated Age." It was that change that first caught my eye. At the time, I was an academic library director and beginning my course work at UNC-Chapel Hill. Robert Hauptman also used information ethics in his paper entitled "Current Issues in Information Ethics." At that time I did not know yet that Dr. Hauptman had used the term in his 1988 book, Ethical Challenges in Librarianship.

There are three giants whose lives and work have influenced me. The three are also united because of the impact that World War II had on them. Hans Jonas, James Bryant Conant, and Thomas Kuhn, to whom James B. Conant was a mentor, had academic careers with ethical challenges. Conant was involved in both the Manhattan Project (the atom bomb) and the post-war commitment to seeking the moral high ground in employing science and technology. Kuhn was mentored by Conant and focused his research on the influence of social structures on science and technology. Kuhn, who was denied tenure at Harvard, taught at MIT, where professors in the 1960's questioned the role of science and technology in society. Jonas, whose mother had been killed in Auschwitz, left Germany for the freedom movement in Israel and then settled in the United States, was a philosopher who wrote first on Gnosticism and then on the morality and ethics of life, technology, and science. Like Fletcher, his work also included questions about biomedical issues. These three deserve deeper study. I leave it to the next generation to consider the lives they lived and how their scholarship and service paved the way for many of us.

Many of us were educated in the fifties and sixties in the years of great growth and innovation in higher education. We were making the world safe after World War II and using knowledge for peace. Universities were receiving enormous amounts of federal money to support research and hiring new faculty to build new programs. Remember C.P. Snow and his Two Cultures lecture (1959)? As a freshman at Duke, I faithfully read Snow's book and also David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) as part of the summer reading program. That fall semester, our clever professor assigned readings and then lectured on the opposing perspectives as well. In that class, I was introduced to the work of Peter Berger with his Invitation of Sociology and later with Berger and Thomas Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality (1966). These scholars shaped my sensitivities to the world of theory in the social sciences that eventually guided my approach to the history and philosophy of science and technology.

When I returned to Chapel Hill to explore the beginnings of information ethics, I would revisit social science theory with Elfreda Chatman and a decade later met scholars like Joseph Margolis (Temple) and Don Ihde (Stony Brook). The writings of these two philosophers influenced me and I was privileged to meet both of them. Don Ihde allowed me to sit in on his doctoral seminar at Stony Brook when I lived on Long Island. There I returned to topics I'd first studied in seminary including women's studies, hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur and phenomenology, and technologies of the self as part of applied ethics.

In the early years, Tom Froehlich from ASIS (now ASIST) and other scholars from computer ethics and philosophical enquiry (James Moor, Terrell Bynum, Deborah Johnson) influenced my work. Web sites soon became essential to building connections as was going to conferences. I also mention the late Barbara Flood, Drexel faculty member, whose friendship at ASIST meetings made me feel welcome.

Among my regrets is that I was not able to defend my research better when I was criticized. I should have known that being a pioneer can make others uncomfortable. When people are already defensive in a field, new ideas can be threatening. I was terribly disappointed through the years when my interest in information ethics was not affirmed by deans, other faculty, and practitioners. I was told that ethics was too much like Sunday school or journalism. I gave up too easily, but I'm so glad that others were not discouraged and continue to press forward and have persevered with great success. There was no doubt among practicing librarians about the importance of ethics in the workplace in the midst of rapid changes in technology. My concept of subversive ethics was the favorite. Librarians could understand how we often went around established lines of authority to bring in new technologies and services for our users. Even in the halls of Southern womanhood, some of us worked behind the scenes to add barcodes to the books and to convert to electronic records. We were the first in the neighborhood to have a CD-ROM tower. I am proud that I had the courage to defy authority and to lead others to work around rules and procedures and small-minded administrators to push our institutions forward.

To my peers, students, colleagues, grand-peers, and newbies: I hope you enjoy the journey as much as your achievements. If you decide to take big chances, even if you get fired or risk getting fired, you will get over it. Defend each other, and take on stupidity. Protect each other. I'll long remember the fun of making up a team song for those of us who refused to betray each other to those in charge. Now I realize that I contributed the most by helping others do well. Tell that recruiter that your colleague did his or her best and was unfairly treated. If you are in charge, trust your faculty and staff with your weaknesses. Take care of them, or at least give them a heads up if you can't do anything. Take the hit yourself. My last victory ended up getting me fired but may have saved a life. I'll never know.

Research Topics of Continuing Interest: Invitations

One of the hardest things about leaving the academic world is losing access to the resources of the university and being unable to continue exploring research topics in a formal way. Being fired from an academic job gave me a quick wake-up call about the advantages of being employed in general and particularly being able to use books, online databases, interlibrary loan, and having an office and a desk away from home. I even missed the school cafeteria and the Christmas party. For several years I decided to use a subscription to but found that I did not use it much and when I did, I rarely found anything that I needed. I did use Google Scholar and Google Books, but again I did not have access to much of what I found. Over the years, there are many projects that I would have enjoyed pursuing. I invite you to consider taking up information ethics topics.

Since many of us have retired or will soon retire, I hope that some of you will want to continue building the archives for information ethics that Toni Carbo set up at the University of Pittsburgh. An interesting challenge will be to consider how to document the early years on the Internet for archival purposes. Oral and video history would be a good addition to creating the archival records of the history of information ethics. I am ready now and would be glad to list many who should be asked.

When this article is published, I am going to post to the blog asking you all to look at the information ethics article on Wikipedia. Right now I do not see any record of the article that one of my information ethics classes wrote in 2003. Cathay Crosby from Maryland was in the class at Drexel and wrote most of the entry and posted it on Wikipedia. Several years later I checked on the article and found that it was no longer on Wikipedia. Where did it go? Who replaced it and why? Did somebody wipe out our article intentionally? Should the field be represented on Wikipedia? How do sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and others promote scholarly connections and knowledge?

Among the first papers I presented was one that included a model for defining information in academic discourse as having five aspects: Physical, Social, Political, Philosophical, Metaphorical. How could the model be useful today? In 2001, I wrote about Global Information Justice with several other models. Could those models serve a purpose now? I will leave that to others.


What makes our lives worthwhile? Besides the dearest ones-family and friends, children and pets, good food and drink-I wanted my research in information ethics to make a difference in the way others thought about the challenges of information technologies and new ways to create knowledge and use it. The only final grade of "C" I received in seminary was in ethics (because I was a female student - honest!), so I guess I had something to prove as well. Now in my career as a hospice chaplain, I help people understand the truth of their illness as well as balance their privacy and the access others need to assure their wishes for their last days. Knowledge is truly transformative power when it makes it better for individuals and family members to make decisions that can bring comfort and peace. With publications like this one, Facebook and my blogs, I can continue to be a part of the ongoing conversation with you all.

The InfoEthicist:

For those of you with a curiosity for end-of-life interests, check out my blog titled Celebrate Joy ( I started this blog when I was doing a short interim ministry at my home church. Now I'm using it as a starting point for creating an online community for palliative and hospice issues.

[Author Affiliation]

Martha M. Smith is a hospice chaplain in Reading, PA, who holds a Ph.D. in religion from Duke University (1980) and an M.L.S. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1972). She continues to blog at

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