NASHVILLE – A boss peeks at an employee’s e-mail. A straight-arrow college student rushes to draft a term paper by cutting and pasting entire paragraphs from Internet sites. A teenager who never would shoplift a CD has no problem downloading music without paying for it. A Colorado woman awaiting a kidney transplant tracks down her own donor through the Internet, prompting new worries about organ trafficking.
Is the World Wide Web changing our ethics?
With bullying, gambling and pornography available at unprecedented levels in cyberspace, it seems anyone with a computer and modem is tempted daily with opportunities that are morally questionable.
No institution is safe. Even pastors have been caught lifting whole sermons from the Web. And it’s all happening at a dizzying pace.
Families, churches, business and government are struggling to catch up and develop an ethical and legal framework that can help individuals navigate this sudden explosion of access, choice and information.
Professor Quentin J. Schultze, Professor of Communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says society’s love affair with the Internet reflects the “increasingly frenetic, chaotic and morally impoverished lives” of North Americans’ lives that leave precious little time to consider ethical concerns about Internet use.
“We’re so busy rushing to and from, and messaging back and forth, that we barely have time to catch our moral
breath,” he says. “In this context, the World Wide Web becomes a temptation as much as a solution.”
In his book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age, he charges that such technology fosters individualism and self-interest over community and responsibility, leading society to stray from its moral centre.
“Today, we increasingly assume that doing things quickly and effectively is more important than doing them carefully, thoughtfully and ethically,” he writes. “As a result, much of our daily communication slips into junk messaging – the informational equivalent of junk food.
“While we gain access to more information and speedier means of messaging, we also weaken the kinds of shared practices, such as neighbourliness and hospitality, that we need to maintain our moral bearings. Our manner of informational living deflates our moral character.”
Professor Steven A. Hetcher, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, says technology is advancing faster than society’s ability to develop social norms that contribute to its moral compass.
“It takes time to develop a pattern of behaviour that makes up social norms, but technology is not waiting,” says Prof Hetcher, author of Norms in a Wired World. For instance, the social norm among teenagers is that downloading music or copying movies without paying for them is all right. Society is still catching up with the concept that lifting intellectual property – whether it’s words, ideas or creative works – is the same as stealing.
Prof Hetcher says society should do less pointing and clicking and more talking about concerns associated with technology, including the Internet. “We must start thinking about the pace of technology and what this means to us as a society,” he says.
Many schools and businesses have developed programmes to teach critical thinking about appropriate Internet use.
Ethicists say discussions about “cyberethics” and “Netiquette” should be served up at the family dinner table. Mr Ramon Barquin, President of the Computer Ethics Institute in Washington, suggests the “Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics” to encourage consideration and respect for others when using computers and the Internet.
Ethicists agree such ethical guidelines are worthy of frequent review – along with a healthy awareness of cyberspace dangers – because of the Web’s inherent characteristics of distance and anonymity.
“Any technology that separates the individual from his or her actions makes it much easier to engage in actions the individual normally wouldn’t do,” he says.
For example, a soldier in the trenches sees a different kind of war from a pilot who drops a bomb from 20,000 feet. “They’re both warriors,” he says. “But the hands of the soldier in the trenches are bloody, while the pilot can return from his mission and have a drink with the officers at the club.”
The Web has that kind of anonymity and distance multiplied by millions of people. Individuals can engage in bullying, cyber smut and theft without ever leaving a keyboard. They can develop or visit Web sites that explore narcotics, gambling, violence and anything else you can think of – a worldwide mall of virtual stores where the shoppers believe identities and actions will never be revealed.
Mr Barquin says: “Is the Internet revolutionary? Yes. Is it going to bring significant change? Absolutely. What exactly will that be? We don’t really know. It took several hundred years just to assess the impact of the printing press on society.”
The Rev Frederick W. Schmidt, Director of Spiritual Life and Formation at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, says that the Web is a human creation, and humans are ethically bound to oversee it in the spirit of Jesus Christ.
“The Gospel requires the renewing of our minds and, with it, the development of a sense of moral responsibility that cannot be laid aside simply because the landscape of information sharing has changed.
“Cyberspace is fully our responsibility.” – UMC.org (official online ministry of The United Methodist Church).
Marta Aldrich is a freelance writer in Franklin, Tennessee
Opportunities that are morally questionable
‘With bullying, gambling and pornography available at unprecedented levels in cyberspace, it seems anyone with a computer and modem is tempted daily with opportunities that are morally questionable.’