Empirical Ethics as an Alternative Moral Epistemology for Computer Ethics

Katleen Gabriels

Onderzoeksoutput: Unpublished paper


I. Introduction Since the 1980s, there is an increased awareness for the social context in which humans and technology are embedded. This increased awareness has eventually brought about a shift from theoretical philosophy towards a more empirically oriented approach, mainly within the fields of philosophy of technology (see e.g. Brey, 2010) and applied ethics. This empirical turn, most manifest within bio-ethics but also in business ethics and political philosophy, is characterized as ‘empirical ethics’ (see e.g. Musschenga, 2005; Wong, 2012). Its ultimate objective is to take into consideration and to improve ethics’ “context-sensitivity” by studying ethical issues within actual lived contexts and cases (Musschenga, 2005, p. 468). In its broadest sense, empirical ethics combines empirical (social) research “with philosophical (normative ethical) analysis and reflection” (Musschenga, 2005, p. 468). Up to this point, empirical ethics still concentrates heavily on bio-ethical problems. The question to what extent information technologies alter our moral condition has preoccupied moral philosophers since the wider dispersal of computer-mediated virtuality in the 1980s (see e.g. Cavalier, 2005; van den Hoven & Weckert, 2008). The prevailing epistemological framework in Computer Ethics addresses the problematized relation between virtuality and morality in an abstract, impersonal method without taking into consideration any empirical data (see e.g. Bynum & Moor, 1998). This paper seeks to introduce empirical ethics into the field of Computer Ethics. Apart from conceptual reflection and elaboration, this paper also addresses a methodological discussion on the incorporation of “moral fieldwork” (Moody-Adams, 1997, p. 224) in a long-term study on moral behaviour that I conducted in the social virtual world ‘Second Life’ (Linden Lab, 2003). As a form of ethnography, moral fieldwork seeks to grasp and interpret everyday moral habits, customs, perspectives, and attitudes of people’s ‘lifeworlds’. Ultimately, this paper aspires to illustrate how empirical ethics can enrich Computer Ethics as an alternative moral epistemology. II. Theoretical background In 1987, Michael Walzer called for an interpretative approach in moral philosophy in his book Interpretation and social criticism. In his view, moral philosophy must not be studied in terms of positivist or abstract modelling but rather as a “thick description” to acknowledge the “lived-in quality” of the moral world (Walzer, 1987, p. 20). Walzer conceptualizes moral philosophy “as a reflection upon the familiar” (1987, p. 17). Moral culture is constituted not only by what people do, “but how they explain and justify what they do, the stories they tell, the principles they invoke” (Walzer, 1987, p. 29). Therefore, the moral philosopher has to engage within his or her own community to study its existing, lived-in morality and to hear the different moral voices in context. In doing so, the moral philosopher has to acknowledge the moral variation and its messiness. The incorporation of moral fieldwork in a philosophical study is not unusual and fits within a larger philosophical framework, which trades back to the Socratic engagement with public life that “constructively affirms the link between moral philosophy and everyday moral inquiry” (Moody-Adams, 1997, p. 223). III. Conducting moral fieldwork in Second Life To meet the empirical turn in philosophy of technology, I sought to approach the problematized virtuality-morality relation in terms of connectedness, as everyday moral encounters and conflicts take place in lived contexts and not in abstract moral universes. To this aim, my study conjoined a strong grounding in moral philosophy with an empirical study on the grounds and meanings of moral values and practices in the shared spaces of Second Life. “[I]nstead of merely reflecting on data collected by others” (Molewijk et al., 2004, p. 64), I sought to gain contextual understanding in how residents make sense of virtual morality by engaging myself in their community to enter into dialogue with them. I subsequently collected the empirical data myself by having numerous recurrent conversations with experienced residents in both actual (face-to-face) and virtual (Second Life) settings, to study morality in the way that it is dependent on personal standpoints in the social world and “on the ways these standpoints are implicated in particular situations” (Hitlin & Vaisey, 2010, p. 11). IV. Discussion and concluding reflection If I had merely reflected on data gathered by others, I would have missed the insider’s perspective and the involvement in the lifeworlds of the informants. My personal growth from newbie (newcomer’s perspective) to an integrated Second Life-resident made me more reflexive about my stereotypical ideas about virtual morality and in-world sociality. By undergoing this growth, I experienced the same process as my (established) research participants. This way, I learned the customs and language, not only in terms of jargon but also the technological and cultural language; I subsequently moved from stranger to a more settling position, becoming part of the setting “that others are taking for granted” (O’Reilly, 2005, p. 93). Empirical ethics can disclose moral issues in virtual space that cannot be derived from a detached, conceptual viewpoint. Only by listening to informants’ moral voices and narratives, I could gain clearer understanding in their moral variation. Moral fieldwork can furthermore disclose to what extent in-world moral decisions are co-shaped by the technological possibilities of virtual space. Research findings show, among other things, that technological possibilities affect and co-shape in-world moral behaviour. Several informants, for instance, took an alternative avatar (a so-called ‘alt’) to spy on others in-world. While discussing their motivations, informants often told me that the technology made it possible to spy, so why not make use of it? They seemed to delegate moral responsibility to the technology. This way, studying ethical issues within actual lived contexts offers fruitful ground for further reflection on the ethical implications of the data and research results.
Originele taal-2English
StatusPublished - 2015
EvenementETHICOMP 2015 - DeMontfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom
Duur: 7 sep 20159 sep 2015


ConferenceETHICOMP 2015
LandUnited Kingdom


Duik in de onderzoeksthema's van 'Empirical Ethics as an Alternative Moral Epistemology for Computer Ethics'. Samen vormen ze een unieke vingerafdruk.

Citeer dit