Deborah G. Johnson: Computer Ethics

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Deborah G. Johnson: Computer Ethics

Prentice-Hall, New Jersey 1994, 2nd edition


Chapter 2. Philosophical Ethics

A. Descriptive and normative claims

Descriptive (empirical) statements: how people in fact behave.

Normative (prescriptive) statements: what people ought to do.

Merely descriptive statements can't be used to support normative statements (even if most people don't think using friend's PC account being wrong, it doesnť make it not wrong).

1. Ethical Relativism

= the belief that ethics is relative (wrt. individual or society) => a) there're no universal moral norms; b) (wrt. society) right and wrong are relative to one's society.

+ Arguments: 1) different norms in diff. societies; 2) ethical claims change over time (slavery); 3) Person acquires moral beliefs from socialization in his society.

- Arguments (i) The arguments do not imply there's no univ. moral code but only people do not recognize it or ignore it. (ii) Beliefs shaped by our environment may be right but also may be wrong (sexism, racism). [Normally we do not reflect upon them.] (iii) The diversity in opinions may be superficial. There may be univ. moral norms hidded from sight due to the diversity of expression or interpretation of the principle. [21] (Interpr. of „harm“, „human being“ etc.) (It seems all societies have prohibitions on incest and all consider some aspects of life private.)

=> the arguments do not support the claim; how people behave doesn´t make clear whether it's wrong or good.

Inconsistency: 1) if norms are relative to one's society => we are bound by the rules of our society => there is an univ. norm: everybody ought to abide by the rules of his society; 2) the motive for accepting ethical relativism is not to judge others by our norms, i.e. to respect his own, which implies an univ. norm „everyone ought to respect everyone else“.

Problems: 1) Who sets the society's norms? 2) Rebellion against one's society's norms would not be moral (Socrates, M. Luther King). 3) E. relativist can't judge members of other societies. 2) To which group does a person belong (i.e. whose norms apply)?

„The fact that the norm is accepted in your society seems a weak reason for adopting it as your own.“ [p.23]

2. Utilitarianism

is a form of consequentialism, i.e. evaluates behavior in terms of its consequences.

Goal: the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Instrumental goods are desired for they lead to something.
Intrinsical goods are desired for their own sake – happiness.

Forms of util.:

  • rule-util. (use util. decision making to set up rules to be followed)

  • act-util. (evaluate every single action)


1) It may lead to decisions opposing some of our most strongly held moral intuitions.

2) Util. is ill equipped to deal with issues of distributive justice.

3. Deontological Theories

An act is morally evaluated with respect to itself (i.e. the principle inherent to it), ignoring any consequences (Kant). Kant: You should never treat a person merely as a means but always as an end, i.e. as of equal worth.

=> there are some actions that are always wrong, no matter what the consequences

„We are moral beings because we are rational beings ...“ [p.31]
B. Rights

Associated with deontolog. theories. Legal != moral rights.

Negative r. - for others not to do st. Positive – sb. has duty to do st. for the holder.

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