CS009: Computers and Human Values
Department of Computer Science, Brown University
Notes, November 23rd -- Roger B. Blumberg

Langford II: Technology and the Scope of Ethics

Introduction: A Difference Between Ethics and Politics?

In discussion of ethics, there is often disagreement about the extent to which ethics and politics can or should be separated. Here are two different contemporary opinions:

[T]he difference between ethics and politics seems to me artificial, if there is a significant difference at all. Sometimes the distinction is a matter of scale. If one guy robs you, it's ethics, but when 435 people rob you, it's politics-or the House of Representatives is in session. But surely the deliberations of that body are subject to ethical analysis. What's more, politics can be a necessary expression of ethics. Often the only way to achieve an individual ethical goal is through group endeavor-i.e., politics. Randy Cohen, "The Politics of Ethics: By Identifying Ethics with Civic Virtue, We Create an Ethics of the Left," The Nation April 8, 2002.

The difference between ethics and politics is that ethics develops the concepts and vocabulary useful to the individual in the management of his/her individual life, while politics develops the concepts and vocabulary useful to the citizen as citizen, i.e., to the individual whose actions must be governed by the common good or the achievement of happiness by all members of the community. Because politics is concerned with the achievement of happiness by the community as a whole, politics has a certain priority over ethics in the field of practical philosophy. Tom Bridges, "Lectures on Aristotle," at http://www.msu.org/, February 18, 2001

Are you in agreement with either or both of these views? Can you imagine a situation in which someone who agreed with both views would find political and ethical considerations in conflict with one another? Cohen and Bridges seem to disagree about how such conflicts should be resolved. How do you think they should be resolved?

In chapters 3-6 of Langford's book, which areas of controversy do you think properly in the domain of politics, ethics or both? In which areas are conflicts between political and ethical ideals most likely to occur? How are these conflicts resolved currently (if at all), and do you sense that issues involving or inspired by technology are handled differently from issues not so close to the machine?

Weckert's "What is New or Unique About Internet Activities?"

This chapter simply raises some issues and areas of controversy that suggest why discussions of ethics and the internet might be important. We'll begin with responses to statements/paragraphs/sections of the chapter in the spirit of the responses at the end of each chapter of the Langford book.

Next, we'll consider the specific "new or unique" characteristics of the Internet raised by the chapter (i.e. globalization, anonymity, interactivity, reproducibility, and uncontrollability):

For Tuesday:: TBA

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