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Cybernetics – A Philosophical Study of Ethics in Relation to Computers

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If one was to look up the term cyber ethics using the Google search engine, countless pages would result.  After perusing a very small portion of the results, the definition that I believe sums up cyber ethics is this:  “Cyber ethics is the philosophic study of ethics pertaining to computers, encompassing user behavior and what computers are programmed to try to do, and the way this affects individuals and society.” (Wikipedia, 2015) The term cyber ethics belongs to a set of applied ethics which deal with everyday problems related with moral issues that emanate from the use of computer networks in the contemporary information society. While there is no question over the place of cyber ethics in promoting fair practices in this information age, divisions arise when it comes to the question of what moral point of view to adopt in evaluating these technological capabilities and setting the ground rules of engagement.  The resultant crisis calls for urgent redress, especially since cyber ethics education is vital in today’s environment; with the need for a unitary approach in such education being even greater. In this regard, two approaches have been identified- one that relies on utilitarian foundations and the other that relies on deontological foundations. Essentially, cyber ethics education should be based on deontological, rather than utilitarian foundations because while the utilitarian approach seeks to maximize utility for the most people, it has adverse social and economic implications, especially for the owners of intellectual property.

According to Spinello (2011), utilitarianism consists of a system of ethics in which the question on whether an action is right or wrong is settled based on the consequences of the action in question. The ultimate goal of utilitarian ethics is usually the promotion of the greatest satisfaction for the greatest number of people (Stamatellos, 2011). On the other hand, deontological reasoning does not concern itself with the eventual consequences of an action. Rather, it concerns itself with the initial will of the action (Spinello, 2011). As such, from a deontological perspective, the question on whether an action is right or wrong is settled based on the inherent will of the person perpetuating the same. In his lecture, Dr. Stephen Gold (2010) develops an understanding of deontological reasoning by pointing out that, although an action may be permissible to other parties, it may not be admirable.

Given the nature of these contrasting perspectives, the need to settle on a singular approach as relates to cyber ethics has become more essential than ever today. The need for a collaborative approach on the education of cyber ethics has especially been highlighted by the young age at which current generations begin going online, as well as the virulent influences that peers have on these youngsters (Mintz, 2011). Increasingly, young people have adopted the notion that on the internet, anything goes (Mintz, 2011). Although these youngsters have retained the conventional respect for physical property, their approach towards intellectual, online property is entirely different. Downloading pirated software, for example, is not treated as “stealing”, as the authorities insist it is. Rather, it is treated as the norm, with everyone knowing someone who perpetuates cybercrimes (Starr, 2011).

To a large extent, the current notion of cyber ethics among the younger generation can be described as being based on utilitarian reasoning. When an individual (say Mathews) uploads a music album to a common area network, the intent is to share it with the majority of his friends. If all his friends download the album, then according to utilitarian reasoning, the initial action of uploading a copyrighted music album will be right because Mathews will have succeeded in creating the realization of happiness among the greatest number of people possible. The essence of this approach is negated by the fact that it is solely concerned with the happiness of people, whilst neglecting the consequences of the action in question, be they social or financial.

From the case above, it is evident that, through its selfish nature, the utilitarian approach ignores the consequences that an act has on others. Whereas Mathews may have succeeded in creating happiness for his friends, his action ultimately results in the loss of revenue for the music band whose album he uploaded. In turn, this creates adverse social implications as the band will not produce any more music since band members are not getting fair returns for their efforts. The same can be said of other types of intellectual property, be it software or even movies. According to Collin (2011), more than $1 trillion worth of intellectual property has been stolen over the internet, representing one of the largest “wealth transfers” in history. In the end, the loss of entertainment and other utilities from the internet will not only undermine the capabilities of the internet, but the benefits associated with the internet, as well.

The essence of deontological reasoning is highlighted by the fact that this reasoning recognizes the eventual consequences of an action. According to Gold (2010) every right has a correlative duty which should be recognized. Every person who ascribes to the deontological code would recognize that the copyrights that the music band enjoys surpass the rights of Mathews’ friends to enjoy free music. While Mathews had the right to upload the song to a common area network, his friends had the overriding duty to pay for the music before they could enjoy it. As such, there is need to adopt a deontological approach towards the education of cyber ethics so that individuals can learn to balance their inherent rights with their subsequent duties.

In essence, basing cyber education on utilitarian foundations promotes selfish behavior by emphasizing the importance of individuals’ happiness with little or no consideration on the welfare of others. In contrast, a deontological approach is preferable because it teaches individuals to assess the intent of their actions and to consider the consequences that such actions have on other parties. In addition, a deontological approach would help to clarify that the rights that apply to physical property are the same that apply to intellectual property. By recognizing the social and financial implications of a range of cyber activities, the deontological approach promotes the greater good of society.

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