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Anyone who has ever taken an intro to ethics class knows that there is no shortage of opinions on the foundation of ethics. Kantians believe that moral principles exist a-priori and can be known if we just use our reasoning ability. Utilitarians think that what brings most good to the greatest number of people should be the focus of an ethical system. Aristotelians are of the opinion that cultivating the right character traits, i.e. virtues, will lead people to making the right decisions. I could go on, but I’ll save it for the class room.

Digital ethicists’ challenge is to apply these time-tested theories to a new set of dilemmas created by digital technologies. Some have embraced a virtue-based approach,  others have turned to Kant to accomplish this, while Luciano Floridi is in the process of coming up with a new philosophy of information on his own.  The approach that has informed the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy has always been more pragmatic in nature.

In daily language, the word pragmatic is often used pejoratively, to describe someone with a lack of principles (or character) who will let the situation, rather than a firm moral compass, guide her actions. But in the philosophical sense, pragmatism refers to an orientation towards ethics that isn’t occupying itself with abstract concepts such as “truth,” “right” and “wrong” or with coming up with all-encompassing ethical theories. Instead it focuses on praxis rather than theory and sees the role of the ethicist more to “de-scribe” norms as they develop than to “pre-scribe” them. 

According to pragmatics, our attitudes and norms change in response to societal changes. For example, in an episode of Mad Men a guest at a party could be seen slapping a child that wasn’t his. It was one of the many (and one of the milder) examples in which the show’s creators’ reminded their audience that in the 1960s different rules governed social interactions. Some ethicists might try to answer the question if there is something inherently wrong or right about slapping a child that is not yours, or slapping a child altogether. For a pragmatist, documenting this change and questioning what perpetuated it in order to better understand our current norm is the more interesting endeavor. From this understanding, ethical guidelines can be crafted, but the descriptive process precedes the prescriptive one.

Phillip Kitcher, in the introduction of The Ethical Project describes the project of this pragmatic naturalism as follows: “Ethics emerges as a human phenomenon, permanently unfinished. We, collectively, made it up, and have developed, refined, and distorted it, generation by generation. Ethics should be understood as a project --the ethical project-- in which we have been engaged for most of our history as a species.” This a functionalist view sees ethics as a set of guidelines that make communal living possible. A successful ethical system is one that can fulfill this function.

This approach, I believe, works well for digital ethics, where we try to articulate rules that govern how we interact with each other through digital technologies. For example, when social media emerged, there was no fixed rule about when it is appropriate to tag someone in a picture and when it isn’t. So we figured out a netiquette and ethical norms as we were going along, based on experience, existing norms, insights from experts etc. There still might be areas of disagreement, but I would argue that overall we have come to an understanding of what is acceptable and what isn’t on this issue, and these norms are passed on to new users of social media.

Earlier, I have criticized Facebook for not anticipating the ethical problems with Facebook live and for its general approach of trying things out without much ethical forethought. But wouldn’t a pragmatist argue that because they are charting into new territory, digital innovators are more likely to make ethical mistakes giving the lack of existing normative framework?  This pragmatic defense only has limited power though, as there are general guiding ethical norms and principles in place already.  It is of course true that (some of) these norms might be subject to change in the digital environment and that sometimes our existing frameworks are ill-equipped to deal with new moral dilemmas. However, this does not excuse some of the more egregious ethical lapses we have seen recently, which were violations of well-known and accepted moral guidelines.

Take the example of the  Uber and Lyft driver who was recording and livestreaming riders without their knowledge or consent on Twitch, making money from people watching the broadcast. Legally, there might be some interesting questions regarding invasion of privacy and recording laws, ethically this is a no-brainer as this excerpt from the St. Louis Dispatch story illustrates: “First names, and occasionally full names, are revealed. Homes are shown. Passengers have thrown up, kissed, talked trash about relatives and friends and complained about their bosses in Gargac’s truck. All the while, an unseen online audience watches, evaluating women’s bodies, judging parents and mocking conversations.”

The driver’s statement that he did not see anything wrong with this practice might be genuine, but he probably is one of the few people who thinks he is on firm ethical ground. Broadcasting people’s semi-private conversations without their consent and exposing them to ridicule, crass jokes and perhaps worse (stalking, doxing, …) so one can make some extra money on Twitch is ethically indefensible. It is a violation and negation of well-established ethical principles and values (human dignity, autonomy, privacy), and the fact that this harm is perpetuated through digital technologies does not complicate the analysis or alter our existing norms.

More interesting, ethically, especially from a pragmatist’s point of view, are the cases where it isn’t as obvious that a norm has been violated. Take the #planebae case as an example. On July 3, in a flight from New York to Dallas, a couple asked to switch seats with another passenger so they could sit together. When the female passenger who gave up her seat consequently seemed to hit it off with her new seatmate (former soccer player Euan Holden), the woman who had instigated the seat-switch took a keen interest in the budding love story unfolding  in the row in front of her.   She started to live tweet their conversations, snapped pictures of them (obscuring their faces) and gave a play-by-play of their every interaction, actively cheering in her tweets for a romantic denouement. (The final picture showed them walking in the airport together.) The story went viral, generating hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets and making headlines in the mainstream media. Rosey Blair, the woman responsible for the tweets and Euan Holden made the rounds of the morning shows basking in their new-found fame. The female passenger, on the other hand, declined to be interviewed.

Blair’s posts are a remarkable feat of digital storytelling. She spun the all-in-all rather trivial behavior of two strangers into the social media equivalent of a rom-com and initially the story was heralded as the summer feel-good story we were in desperate in need of. (There also was some speculation that this was all a hoax, which is possible but seems implausible at this point.) But soon questions emerged about the ethics of this modern-day fairy tale, especially when it became clear that the female subject of the story did not welcome the attention and had her social profiles deleted after internet sleuths had figured out her identity. On July 12, she put out a statement through her lawyer in which she claimed to have been “doxxed, shamed, insulted and harassed” and that voyeurs had come looking for her. By that point, the couple responsible for the tweets was slammed online as well.

And thus turned the feel-good story of the summer into a debate about privacy, consent and the right to record that I will not summarize or address here. But what is interesting, and encouraging, is the fact that this has become a conversation about ethics and an opportunity to recalibrate our moral compasses about what we can and cannot record and report in semi-public places and if we can appropriate people’s images and likeness to spin a digital narrative. Of course, the fact that this conversation develops is scant consolation to the woman who had her privacy violated.

Unlike the case with the Uber driver live streaming his passengers, this story had some grey areas to it, which makes it a more insightful case study to understand how our norms of behavior in digital spaces continue to be shaped in reaction to events and circumstances. When a couple of weeks after #planebae, a New Yorker posted a picture of an elderly couple snuggling on the subway on Twitter, some people reacted by referencing to #planebae:  “Here we go again. Did the world learn nothing from the #planebae fiasco?” Maybe the world has, maybe it hasn’t, but figuring this out is the task of the pragmatic digital ethicist.

Bastiaan Vanacker
Bastiaan Vanacker
Program Director

Professor Vanacker is the Program Director for the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy. His work focuses on media ethics and law and international communication, and he has been published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

He is the author of Global Medium, Local Laws: Regulating Cross-border Cyberhate and the Editor of Ethics for a Digital Age.


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