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Is there such a thing as Global Ethics?

August 3, 2012 Shem Radzikowski No Comments

Modern communication technology has allowed us to transcend cultural, geographic and political boundaries without much concern for the inherent ethical differences that exist within each group. The internet, for instance, has torn down these barriers and provided a publishing platform with an unprecedented global reach.

Across the globe there are many cultural varieties and differences, not always compatible or consistent, that exist both intra-nationally and inter-nationally (Spence, 2009). Based on this statement, it stands to reason that there exists some baseline framework which allows for the creation, dissemination & consumption of information. In fact, these baselines could be looked upon as a form of universal or global ethics that underpin societies and allow them to consume with (some) confidence that the information is correct and therefore valuable.

On the surface, at least, this observation does seem to hold some logical credibility — why would anybody busy themselves with consuming mis- or disinformation? The question we must ask, then, is there such a thing as global ethics, an ethic that underpin this exchange and consumption of information on a global scale?

“Socrates argued that a moral agent is naturally interested in gaining as much valuable information as the circumstances require, and that a well-informed agent is more likely to do the right thing” (Floridi, 2008). In this case, valuable information is anything that helps us make an informed decision — one can only be a well-informed agent if the provided information is true or truthful.

(Spence, 2009) stated that “misinformation by way of negligent or purposeful deception can never be justified whether it takes place in the West or in the East.” (Spence, 2009) also suggested that the “notion of truth and/or its associated cognate concepts such as honesty, objectivity, etc., features in most codes of media ethics across the world.”

In support of this notion, the International Federation of Journalists, in its first point of the standard of professional conduct for journalists, lists: “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist” — identifying truth as the underlying motive for any communication.

However, just because one organization has posted standards of conduct does not imply universal and global adoption. Similarly, reaction to any deviation from codes of conduct, e.g., deception, is unlikely to be the same across the globe or across different cultures. For instance, bribery in Zimbabwe is seen as the norm whereas it would be uncommon to see it in Germany. The reactions may be different from culture to culture, but misinformation is always seen as morally and ethically wrong irrespective of the geography.

(Spence, 2009) goes on to say that “good investigative journalism that seeks the truth, whether conducted in Russia, Africa, Asia, Europe or the USA, transcends cultural and national borders. It is for this reason that in less democratic states investigative journalists are both feared and persecuted, in some case fatally.”

This statement gives rise to two points: (1) that democratic societies rely on truthful journalism to make informed decisions; and (2) that the transparency exhibited by truthful journalism is a threat to a less democratic regime.

Gewirth’s Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC)’s logical proof is a demonstration of the rational set of events that take place when a person faces a moral dilemma Gewirth concludes that all sane and rational people, on the “pain” of self-contradiction, must adhere to the logical conclusion demonstrated in his proof (Stork, 2011).

Applying the PGC to information, (Spence, 2009) argues that “information generally and interformation[1] specifically, must not be disseminated in ways that violate informational agents’ rights to freedom and wellbeing, individually or collectively.” In his paper, (Spence, 2009) showed that information has a dual normative structure that commits all disseminators of information to both universal epistemological and ethical norms. Simply put, anyone who disseminates information is bound by universal ethical norms.

Philosophers, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, analyzed human nature and the whole idea surrounding a good society. They saw humans as rational agents “capable of thinking for themselves and acquiring knowledge” through various sources (Bynum, 2008). With this in mind, we could argue that knowledge allows people under a democracy to track truths about the general will and the common good (Rousseau, 1762).

The acquisition of knowledge requires more than just a free press that publishes or broadcasts truths. It is equally imperative that the public receive and believe those truths. If information is published but never read, or published and read but never believed, the public will never possess the knowledge required for making an educated (correct) decision (Goldman, 2008).

Traditionally speaking, journalists were the primary contributors to the wider information gathering and dissemination effort, but the advent of the internet, namely e-mail and web pages, gave ordinary people powers of communication that have thus far been the preserve of the relatively wealthy (Goldman, 2008).

Epistemic comparisons of the conventional media and the blogosphere reveal that blogging is gradually displacing conventional journalism as a source of news and the dissection of news (Posner, 2005). Posner also suggests that blogging is not harmful to the public’s epistemic good; instead, he argues that blogging is no worse from the standpoint of public knowledge than conventional journalism.

 [T]he blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do. The rapidity with which vast masses of information are pooled and sifted leaves the conventional media in the dust. Not only are there millions of blogs, and thousands of bloggers who specialize, but, what is more, readers post comments that augment the blogs, and the information in those comments, as in the blogs themselves, zips around blogland at the speed of electronic transmission. [ — ] This means that corrections in blogs are also disseminated virtually instantaneously, whereas when a member of the mainstream media catches a mistake, it may take weeks to communicate a retraction to the public . . .

— Richard A. Posner.

(Posner, 2005) goes on to say that anyone in the mainstream media clinging to the notion that blogging lacks checks and balances, is seriously misinformed; “the blogosphere has more checks and balances than the conventional media, only they are different.” He argues that the blogosphere is a “collective enterprise — not 12 million separate enterprises, but one enterprise with 12 million reporters, feature writers and editorialists, yet almost no costs,” (Posner, 2005, pp. 10– 11).

Although Posner suggests that the blogosphere is more accurate, and, therefore, a better source of knowledge than conventional media, he also draws an interesting observation, in that the “bloggers are parasitical” on traditional media (Posner, 2005).

The bloggers might be seen as a force to be reckoned with in terms of number of readers, and it is plausible to suggest that their combined biomass displaces any single news publication or corporation. However, the fact that bloggers conform to a somewhat parasitical relationship with the mainstream media, is enough to suggest that the former would not exist (as easily) without the latter.

The bloggers do a good job of disseminating information that was created by the mainstream media as well as provide an independent outlet for its analysis and dissection. Based on these observations we can surmise that traditional media, many of which already have a global reach, in combination with the blogosphere, create an organism that functions relatively autonomously and with inherent ethical checks and balances one would expect within such a system. It’s important to keep in mind that the reliability of the blogosphere should not be confused with the reliability of a single blog which might not work under the same “collective” ethical and logical checks and balances (Goldman, 2008).

Norbert Wiener, who was a pioneer in the field of cybernetics during the 1940s, saw early on that combining cybernetics with digital computers would have significant implications for ethics and societies. It was during this time that he founded Information Ethics (IE) as a field for academic research (Bynum, 2008).

Wiener suggested that there is “something even more elemental than life, namely being — that is, the existence and flourishing of all entities and their global environment — and something more fundamental than suffering,” (Floridi, 2008). IE is said to hold some “intrinsic worthiness” and has a right to persist in its own status as well as improve its existence and essence. As a result of such rights to flourish, IE evaluates any moral agent based on its contribution to the overall growth of the infosphere and any action (or event) that might negatively affect the infosphere (Floridi & Sanders, 1999). In essence, this is a way to state that any instance of information/being, “simply for the fact of being what it is, enjoys a minimal, initial, overridable, equal right to exist and develop in a way that is appropriate to its nature” (Floridi, 2008).

It’s important to understand that entropy here does not refer the physicists’ concept of thermodynamic entropy, instead, it refers to any destruction or corruption of informational objects (mind, not of information).[2]

The fundamental principles of IE as mentioned by (Floridi, 2008) are:

  1. entropy ought not to be caused in the infosphere (null law);
  2. entropy ought to be prevented in the infosphere;
  3. entropy ought to be removed from the infosphere; and
  4. the flourishing of informational entities as well as of the whole infosphere ought to be promoted by preserving, cultivating and enriching their properties.

If we assume that the blogosphere is similar in nature to the infosphere, we can test whether these four fundamental principles of IE hold true for the blogosphere based on existing entropy-fighting mechanisms on the internet.

Principle (1) can be satisfied by the fact that the internet (and thus the blogosphere) is redundant by design, with multiple nodes (blogs) which can continue to provide information even under severe denial of service (DoS) attacks; (2) corruption can be seen as inaccuracy or erroneous data, these can be quickly amended using the commenting system commonly used on blogs; (3) the checks and balances, both in the way of peer review as well as error correction protocols (TCP/IP) which ensure information can move uncorrupted from one node (agent) to another; (4) the development of content management systems, streaming video and new hypertext markup languages, allow for a rich and immersive experience that is continually evolving.

In conclusion, we touched on Socrates’ well-informed agent and the agent that identifies truth as the underlying motive for any communication as well as Gerwirth’s Principle of Generic Consistency and the pain of self-contradiction for anyone who disseminates false information. We also discussed that knowledge allows people to track truths about the common good — something that cuts across all spheres of humanity. Similarly, information that is not trusted (or not from a trusted source) will never permit the public to become enlightened.

Globally applicable intra-nationally and inter-nationally ethics were in existence prior to the introduction of modern communication systems, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the internet (blogs and social media) that participation in the information making process was accessible to everyone and thus creating the blogosphere.

Posner suggested that the blogosphere has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media, and since the internet is global, it stands to reason that ethical values are equally applicable across the blogosphere thanks to the millions of people who act as checks and balances. We then introduced Information Ethics (IE) which showed that information has a right to exist without fear for corruption or destruction; and we proposed that the fundamental principles of IE could also apply to the blogosphere.

The abovementioned arguments are equally applicable across the globe with only slight cultural variations. These arguments collectively form a robust opinion in support of global ethics. It is interesting to note that the underlying theme in each argument showed a resounding yearning for truth without which knowledge can never be attained.

  1. A word which refers to both information and internet information (Spence, 2009). ^
  2. “Destruction is to be understood as the complete annihilation of the object in question, which ceases to exist; compare this to the process of ‘erasing’ an entity irrevocably. Corruption is to be understood as a form of pollution or depletion of some of the properties of the object, which ceases to exist as that object and begins to exist as a different object minus the properties that have been corrupted or eliminated. This may be compared to a process degrading the integrity of the object in question” (Floridi, 2008). ^


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