Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Ethics of E-dentity: The Language of “Ought”

Ah, ethics. Those pesky things your mother tried to instil in you at a young age. Those things keeping our civilization from turning into a giant free-for-all. Those things keeping us from indulging in our basest desires at the expense of the rest of the world. Yeah, ethics.

In case you’ve forgotten, the language of ethics is basically one filled with “ought tos” and “should dos.” It concerns itself with determining how people ought to behave in a given society.

We can consider cyberspace to be one vast society in which people must negotiate acceptable behaviour. How we choose to present ourselves may have something to do with ethics, with a feeling that we should be a certain way online.

There are several different approaches to ethics that we can use to look at ethics in cyberspace. A few we can think about are:

  1. ethical egoism—this approach suggests that some behaviour is ethical as long as it results in some benefit for oneself. The ultimate “centre of the universe” mentality, it does not take into account the effect of one’s actions on others.
  2. utilitarian—this approach suggests that behaviour is ethical that results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This kind of ethicist uses “ethical calculus” to determine whether the ends justify the means.
  3. deontological—this approach suggests that behaviour is ethical if there is some logically implied moral duty to commit the action. This kind of ethicist doesn’t consider the consequences of one’s actions but rather the intentions behind them.

In terms of cyberspace, the ethical egoist rules. Due in large part to the amount of anonymity on the Internet, people can get away with presenting themselves in any way they want. This is one of the reasons why passing is so prevalent—Internet users see some immediate benefit to them, so they ignore the possible repercussions on others. They see an opportunity to try out a new identity, but don’t realize that the people they build relationships online trust in this online identity and feel betrayed when that identity turns out to be a sham. Ethical egoists are not unheard of online, but they are certainly not as common as utilitarians.

The utilitarian approach is the first one that comes to mind when thinking of ethics. Ihe Internet was largely build on utilitarian principles, such as the idea that information should be available to everyone so that everyone may benefit from it. While it is more obvious in real-life situations than in cyberspace, many still unconsciously adopt a utilitarian code of ethics when it comes to interacting with people online. Their identities tend to stay very close to real life, and they do not represent themselves as someone they are not. They avoid passing and misrepresentation in favour of the truth or the choice not to share some information.

Finally, deontologists are also quite rare online. They would consider actions to be ethical only if they can be logically maintained for everyone, which would be virtually impossible online. The Internet is such a vast, diverse community that no one could ever agree on what constitutes moral actions. Cyberspace incorporates many cultures with different values and beliefs—finding a way to determine ethical actions online using a deontological perspective would be very difficult.

The take home here is that there are several different ways of looking at what is “ethical.” Just because you don’t agree with some online behaviours doesn’t necessarily mean they are morally wrong.

Hey, with this system, you could even make a case for pornography! I’m just sayin’…

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