BOSTON — To paraphrase Will Rogers, most philosophers never met a moral quandary they didn't like. After all, philosophers are beside themselves when pondering quandaries of the human race.
But until recently, in a swiftly moving technological society, most philosophers did their pondering under a bushel, mulling classical quandaries in university settings.
No more. A big techno-foot has kicked the bushel
aside. Standing over them is the grinning triad
known as information technology, computers, and (fierce growl) ... the Internet.
How philosophers shape the debate over the moral impact of computers on humankind could lead to a golden age of philosophy. Or, possibly neutralized by technology's alleged power of democratization, philosophy will remain background noise.
Philosopher Terry Bynum wants a foreground response. At the recent Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy held in Boston, he and five other philosophers, out of 3,000, gathered in a small conference room to grapple with the moral and ethical implications of information technology and the Internet.
"Technology information in all its forms is changing the meaning of the concepts upon which philosophy is built," says Professor Bynum of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
He cites the example of today's "knowledge engineering," a branch of information technology sometimes linked with artificial intelligence. "Knowledge engineering will change the very definition of what it is to know and what it is to make use of that knowledge," he says.
Further, as the flow of information on the Internet expands exponentially and across cultures, not only knowledge may need to be redefined, but also the "knower." What is a person's identity and responsibility as a collaborative participant on the Internet?
"Our classical notion of who is responsible is based on a natural person acting in a three-dimensional space where the causal context is clear," says Jeroen van den Hoven, a philosopher at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands. "On the Internet this is no longer the case. Where is he or she acting in space and time?" he asks. "And the causal changes are also somewhat difficult to trace."
What philosophers can offer in these new gray areas of behavior and collaboration in a digital world is the commitment of adhering to moral values, ethics, and individual worth.
"I think the problems today are so great, so overwhelming that we need all the assistance and intellectual resources we can avail ourselves of," says Professor van den Hoven. "But this involvement goes against the grain of a lot of professional philosophers who don't deal with practical issues."
To those philosophers willing to grapple with the technological revolution, new definitions are a necessary, if daring, tool. Some of these definitions may find their way into dictionaries or be rapidly displaced as technology changes social meanings.
One of the philosophers in the conference room, James Moor, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., defines "computer ethics" as "the analysis of the nature and social impact of computer technology and the corresponding formulation and justification of policies for the ethical use of such technology."
As seconded by Bynum, this definition is necessary because over the past five years the appropriate subjects that now fit under the heading of "computer ethics" have exploded around the world.
"For the first time in history, we have the Internet connecting 200 countries and crossing all borders," he says. "The result is all sorts of questions about whose laws and justice apply. Whose values apply. And out of this may come something called global information ethics that will be a new contribution to ethics - not just a new branch of applied ethics, but a substantive [contribution] that does not use the older theories."
As these fundamental shifts occur, van den Hoven warns against losing control or abandoning old political precepts for the sake of technology. "We need to realize we have to be in charge from a moral point of view," he says.
For so-called cyber-libertarians, who say the Internet exhibits a particular kind of intelligence that is self-organizing and could successfully solve political problems, van den Hoven questions such efforts, which would do away with political representation.
"Democracy has a distinct knowledge component where you deliberate maybe with your neighbor and reach a solution," he says. "But the [libertarians] say the interconnected net of Internet users is like a flock or swarming behavior, and this could be best in direct voting. We know that you can have a wonderfully efficient distribution network, but from a moral point of view, it could be completely unjust."