Ethics and Morality Online: Sample Guidelines

Ethics and Morality Online: Sample Guidelines

Two of the most famous ethical statements known to humanity are that of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.” These two statements are often contrasted with one another. The second statement is usually depicted as compassionate; the first precept is said to be harsh and unyielding. However, in the case of Hammurabi’s Code, at the time of its conception this philosophy was considered relatively compassionate. A dictator could not extract a punishment from the convicted individual that was worse than the crime that was committed. And in Hammurabi’s day and age, simply having a code of ethics at all, harsh or not, was a step forward from having no rules at all. It limited the ethical abuses that could happen, and set certain minimal standards for rulers and the ruled.

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Likewise, the Confucian precept of “doing unto others,” or the Golden Rule, as it is often called, paints a rather deceptive portrait of the holistic ethical code of the philosopher. Confucius delineated an extremely hierarchical schema of reciprocal relationships between unequals, such as rulers and the ruled, parents and children. The ancient Chinese philosopher was no democrat, and did not see people as intrinsically equal. In fact, both of the ancient systems of Hammurabi and Confucius reflect the belief that it is rules that make people good. In contrast, more modern ethical systems, like those of virtue ethicists, suggest that being a good person and having a good character, rather than a good set of rules, is what is important. Responsiveness to human situations is what is seen as important, not rote memorization of a code of conduct.

Traditionally, in most ethical systems, consideration has been paid to both character and rules: this is reflected in Jesus’ advice to the rich young man, who asks to follow Christ. Jesus first tells the man to keep the commandments (i.e. To play by the rules for what makes a decent human being). But when pressed, Jesus says that to be “perfect” one must sell all of one’s possessions (Matthew 19: 21). There is always a tension between too much of an emphasis on rules, and being too vague in one’s guidelines and leaving it all up to character. Professionals in it striving to create new ethical codes may find themselves in a double bind. On one hand, they dwell in a wild, wild west of uncharted ethical waters. The Internet has changed the way human beings communicate so rapidly, technology has outpaced humanity’s ability to create ethical schemas to deal with the Brave New Online World’s consequences. For example, consider copyright issues: if I post something on my blog in the public domain, to what degree do I own that content? What if someone takes the same information I posted and uses it without giving me credit on their blog, but in slightly revised format? But too many regulations and not enough trust in the individual can hamper the creativity of this new media.

Regulations were recently passed mandating that website owners must be upfront about stating when they receive payment from advertisers to post glowing product reviews. But ethical gray areas still exist, also regarding the ownership of professionally developed content. Who owns a professor’s lecture posted on an institution’s website? The lecture would not exist without the support of the institution and the it staff, yet it is the professor’s creative content.

Only time and litigation will settle these matters. But here are some examples of possible ethical statements that might be useful in a variety of it fields.

Software development: “First, do no harm.”

This is the first principle of the Hippocratic Oath. The medical pioneer of ethics Hippocrates, of course, was referring to the treatment of the body, not the mind. But his advice is relevant for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that technology has become an integrated part of healthcare treatments today. “The ethical approach to the potential for harm, in my opinion, involves taking responsibility for your work and acting appropriately…a responsible, ethical software developer will spend much more time ensuring the quality of the heart monitor software — and rightly so. If we are going to trust software, we must trust the people who build it” (Pollice 2006).

The designer must do all he or she can to mitigate the dangers of his or her software design being deployed for nefarious purposes by users. Creating a program that can be used to hack into a system with vital patient data or state secrets would thus be unethical. So would intentionally creating software that was prone to contracting viruses and harboring other types of malware. A software program must leave the client — and ideally the world — better than before the program was created. Likewise, a program that is marketed as essential to an individual’s future success, and contains a number of new token features that really do not enhance the user’s experience is being marketed in an unethical way.

Finally, a program that is incompatible with many alternative programs and forces the user to use only the designer’s types of applications to be minimally functional (for example, only allowing the client to use a certain web browser, antivirus program, or email provider) is unethical. Microsoft’s default installment of its inferior web browser Internet Explorer as part of Windows, thus teetered on the brink of being unethical, as many people who were not net-savvy did not know that they could use other, better forms of web-surfing technology.

Employer/Employee Issues: “Transparency”

Is Big Brother watching you at work? Many employees live in fear that their employer is monitoring them secretly at work. Employees today are often advised to behave as if they know they are being watched, no matter what, even if their employer has not told them that this is the case. Companies openly and proudly advertise software that can keep track of employee’s web-surfing to minimize the risk of ‘time theft’ or a lack of productivity while the employee is not being watched at his or her workstation. Yet net-surfing at work during downtime is often tacitly accepted amongst employees. Otherwise so-called Cyber Monday, a companion to Black Friday, would not be an unofficial shopping holiday. This fact is often proudly proclaimed by the news media, who predict all individuals heading back to work after Thanksgiving will yield to the temptation to look for gifts online.

Employers are not simply being Simon Legree-like as they keep tabs on their employee’s web-surfing habits. An employee could unwitting stumble onto a system-destroying virus through unauthorized network use. However, employers do owe their employees one core value: honesty. If employees are being monitored, the employees should be made aware of the policy. One of the more noxious aspects of companies advertising employee-monitoring software is the “gotcha” attitude of the advertisements. There is no pleasure finding misconduct in the actions of an otherwise ethical and hardworking employee. Furthermore, if employees are productive, employers may wish to think twice about being overly zealous about making sure that employees do not spend five minutes scanning the J. Crew website for Christmas presents, while on the phone with a client. Here, the Confucian law of “do unto others as you would have done unto you” seems wise. Presumably, employers do not enjoy being treated like children, and neither do employees. Treating employees with suspicion is more likely to lead to suspicious behavior, rather than ethical scrupulousness. The ethic of reciprocity of obligations of Confucianism states: “If a person in a subordinate status wishes to be properly treated that person must — applying a principle similar to the Golden Rule — treat his or her own inferiors with propriety” (Confucianism, Columbia Encyclopedia, 2009). In other words, managers should be honest with employees about how they are being monitored, be judicious in curtailing abuses, and expect employees to wish to do their jobs.

IT and quality of life: “Good fences make good neighbors” (between work and home)

It is often said that one of the good things about the Internet is the ability of individuals to be connected to work 24/7. A mother taking her child to soccer practice can check her work voicemail, or log onto the corporate intranet long after her children have been tucked into bed. Of course, this is one of the profound negatives about the Internet for many employees struggling to balance work and home. They find leaving work is impossible. Simply because employees theoretically can be connected to work all the time, employers expect that employees should be logged in, even while at home, and keep track of the office while the employees are supposed to be ‘off the clock.’ This expectation leaves employees frazzled and resentful, and may be illegal if employees are pressured to work from home and are not adequately compensated for their overtime.

Expectations as to what constitutes working hours should be clear, as well as how many responsibilities employees have while they are at home or on vacation. Those guidelines must be respected in all instances — every manager will feel as if his or her current crisis is the one sufficiently dire to contact an employee on vacation. If vacations become extensions of the office, the spiritually enriching aspects of human life will begin to be depleted, and on a practical level, if the company does not compensate workers for working on vacation, this is time theft on the part of the company, of the employee’s vacation time and of unpaid labor

Act according to Kant’s categorical imperative at all times when setting boundaries between work and home. A natural law according to Kant is “a law….true of all rational agents” (Johnson 2009).A natural law that surely transcends any work policy or need of the moment is that individuals contracted for pay should be paid for all of their work and official employee leisure time should be respected, as agreed upon at the time of the employment

Privacy: “Observe a reasonable person standard when creating agreements to release information”

Internet users should feel secure that their information will not be sold without their knowledge for marketing purposes. A person who buys vacuum cleaner bags online should not have to worry about getting emails from every home improvement vendor on the web, while the vacuum company profits from selling such information, after profiting from the original sale. This makes selling a product a kind of unethically, doubly profitable enterprise — the vendor profits from the sale, but also from the name the customer unwittingly gave out.

Of course, users are often forced to sign agreements releasing their information before buying a product or using a website online. But these agreements are often so long and confusing, bestowing such consent means little. The standard for contracts signed online should be that reasonable person (or reasonable net-surfing reader) without a law degree can comprehend the document, much like the reasonable person standard created by the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in evaluating whether an agreement or situation was unethical and/or illegal (“Oliver Wendell Holmes,” InfoPlease, 2009).

Works Cited

“Confucianism.” From the Columbia Encyclopedia. October 7, 2009.

“Matthew 19:16-26.” King James Bible. Bible Gateway. October 7, 2009.

Johnson, Robert. “Kant’s moral philosophy.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008.

October 7, 2009.

“Oliver Wendell Holmes.” InfoPlease. October 7, 2009.

Pollice, Gary. “Ethics and software development.” IBM. May 16, 2006. October 7, 2009 at

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