Intercultural information ethics

Capurro, Rafael
 Incorporated contributions
Capurro (30/10/09), Diaz (2/2010)
 Usage domain
Information ethics
Éthique interculturel de l'information
 German Interkulturelle Informationethik

1. Erecting a new discipline
2. The foundational debate
2.1 On the Sources of Morality
2.2 On the Foundation of IIE

a) Charles Ess

b) Toru Nishigaki

c) Terrell Ward Bynum

d) Bernd Frohmann

e) Luciano Floridi

f) Philip Brey

g) Rafael Capurro

3. Debate on IIE

Intercultural Information Ethics (IIE) can be defined in a narrow or in a broad sense. In a narrow sense it focuses on the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) on different cultures as well as on how specific issues are understood from different cultural traditions. In a broad sense it deals not only with intercultural issues raised by ICT but by other media as well allowing a large historical comparative view. IIE explores these issues under descriptive and normative perspectives. Such comparative studies can be done either at a concrete or ontic level or at the level of ontological or structural presuppositions.

1. Erecting a new discipline

The international debate on ®information ethics started with the “First International Congress on Ethical, Legal, and Societal Aspects of Digital Information” organized by UNESCO in 1997. Subsequent UN conferences culminated in the World Summit on the Information Society. The academic debate on intercultural issues of ICT takes place in the biennial conferences on “Cultural attitudes towards technology and communication” organized by Charles Ess and Fay Sudweeks since 1998. But intercultural issues are also raised in the ETHICOMP conferences organized by Simon Rogerson since 1995, the conferences on “Ethics of Electronic Information in the 21st Century” at the University of Memphis since 1997, and the CEPE conferences (Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiry) since 1997.

The first international symposium dealing explicitly with intercultural information ethics was organized by the International Center for Information Ethics entitled “Localizing the Internet. Ethical Issues in Intercultural Perspective.” It took place in Karlsruhe (Germany) in 2004 (Capurro et al. 2007). The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics organized an international conference, entitled “Information Ethics: Agents, Artefacts and New Cultural Perspectives” that took place in 2005 at St Cross College Oxford. This conference addressed cultural questions of the globalization of information processes and flows, particularly “whether information ethics in a global sense may be biased in favour of Western values and interests and whether far-eastern cultures may provide new perspectives and heuristics for a successful development of the information society.” (Floridi/Savulescu 2006, 155). Soraj Hongladarom and Charles Ess have edited a book with the title “Information Technology Ethics: Cultural Perspectives” (Hongladarom/Ess 2007). The book puts together a selection of contributions on what Western and non-Western intellectual traditions have to say on various issues in information ethics, as well as theoretical debates offering proposals for new synthesis between Western and Eastern traditions.

In the following, an overview on IIE as discussed in some of these sources is presented, dealing with the foundational debate in moral philosophy in general as well as with IIE in particular.

2. The foundational debate

2.1 On the Sources of Morality

There is a classic debate in moral philosophy between cognitivism and non-cognitivism with regard to the truth-value of moral claims. This distinction presupposes that human emotions have no cognitive value and vice versa, that human cognition has a truth-value if and only if it is free of emotions. According to Capurro (2009), this is a wrong alternative since, on the one hand, there is no emotion-free cognition; on the other hand, emotions have a cognitive value as demonstrated by neurobiologist Antonio Damasio (1994).

One classical answer to the question of the foundation of morality is that moral claims relate to the basic moral principle “do no harm, help where you can”. Capurro believes that even if we can give good reasons for such a fundamental moral principle, the knowledge of such reasons is not enough to move the will in order to do (or not) the good. Is there a foundation for this principle?

According to Karl Baier (2006), basic moods through which the uniqueness of the world and the finitude of our existence become manifest, are a transcultural experience common to all human beings. They concern our awareness of the common world. It is on the basis of the mood of anxiety, for instance, that we are aware of death and finitude or in the mood of “being born” in which we feel ourselves open for new possibilities of being. According to Heidegger (1987, 228ff) fear is a mood in which one is afraid about something fearsome, while anxiety, in contrast, faces us with our being-in-the-world itself. Wittgenstein describes his “key experience” (“mein Erlebnis par excellence”) in the "Lecture on Ethics" with the following words:

“This experience, in case I have it, can be described most properly, I believe, with the words I am amazed about the existence of the world. Then I tend to use formulations like these ones: 'How strange that something exists at all' or 'How strange that the world exists'". (Wittgenstein 1989, 14, my translation)

According to Wittgenstein we have really no appropriate expression for this experience – other than the existence of language itself. On December 30, 1929 he writes:

“I can imagine what Heidegger means with being and anxiety. Human beings have the tendency to run against the boundaries of language. Think for instance about the astonishment that something at all exists. […] Ethics is this run against the boundaries of language.” (Wittgenstein 1984, 68, my translation)

In other words, the primum movens of moral actions lies in the call coming from the uniqueness of the world and the finitude of human existence that are disclosed through moods. According to Heidegger we are “indebted” or “guilty” towards the calling of the world, in the various senses of the word “guilty” such as ‘having debts to someone’ or ‘being responsible for’ (Heidegger 1987, 325ff) We are primordially “guilty” in the sense that we are indebted to the “there” of our existence, between birth and death. Our existence is basically “care” of our given and limited possibilities that manifest themselves within the framework of the uniqueness of the world and human existence.

Morality arises from (Greek: “hothen”) the awareness and respect for both the uniqueness of the world itself and human existence which are the invaluable and theoretically non provable truth-values on which all moral claims rest. The moral imperative is the call for care of our lives in a common world. It is a categorical imperative since there is no way to avoid caring for our lives, but it allows at the same time different interpretations that we accumulate as individuals as well as societies building a dynamic cultural memory. Such reflection does not provide a sufficient reason for doing the good, just because any linguistic utterance would be insufficient without the experience of the call itself. A theory can only point to such call without being able to give a foundation, which would negate the phenomenon of the call as originating such utterance.

Our being-in-the-world is the ‘first call’ or primum movens of our will. This might provide a universal non-metaphysical frame of reference for different experiences and ethical theories.  Buddhism, for instance, experiences the world in all its transitoriness in a mood of sadness and happiness being also deeply moved by suffering. This mood grasps the world in a specific way. There is something common to all human beings in the basic moods but at the same time there are specific moods at the beginning of human cultures, such as astonishment (“thaumazein”) in the Greek experience of the world. Karl Baier points to the danger of building stereotypes particularly when dealing with the differences between East and West with regard, for instance, to the search for harmony as an apparently typical and unique mood of Asian cultures or the opposition between collectivity and individuality (Baier 2006). As there are no absolute differences between cultures there are also no exclusive moods. Experiences such as nausea, pangs of moral conscience or the ‘great doubt’ are common to Japanese Buddhism and modern Western nihilism. A future intercultural philosophy should look for textual basis from literature, art, religion and everyday culture paying attention to complex phenomena and to the interaction between moods and understanding. If there is a danger of building stereotypes, there is also one of overlooking not only concrete or ontic but also structural or ontological differences by claiming a single world culture that mostly reflects the interests and global life style of a small portion of humanity.

2.2 On the Foundation of IIE

a) Charles Ess

Charles Ess’ “global information ethics” seeks to avoid imperialistic homogenization while simultaneously preserving the irreducible differences between cultures and peoples (Ess 2006). He analyzes the connections of such an ethical pluralism between contemporary Western ethics and Confucian thought. Both traditions invoke notions of resonance and harmony to articulate pluralistic structures of connection alongside irreducible differences. Ess explores such a pros hen ("towards one") pluralism in Eastern and Western conceptions of privacy and data privacy protection. This kind of pluralism is the opposite to a purely modus vivendi pluralism that leaves tensions and conflicts unresolved and giving thus rise to a cycle of violence. Another more robust form of pluralism presupposes a shared set of ethical norms and standards but without overcoming deeply contradictions. An even stronger form of pluralism does not search identity but only some kind of coherence or, as Ess suggests, complementarity between two irreducible different entities.

There are pitfalls of prima facie convergences, analogies and family resemblances that may be oversimplified by a pros hen strategy. In many cases we should try to dig into deeper layers in order to understand where these claims originate or simply accept the limits of human theoretical reason by celebrating the richness of human experience. As Kei Hiruta rightly stresses (Hiruta 2006), it is not clear what the points of shared ethical agreements are and how this call for unity fits with a call for diversity concerning the judgements of such ethical perspectives. According to Hiruta, the advocates of ethical pluralism would like to avoid the untolerable, such as child pornography in the Internet, working on the basis of a pragmatic problem-solving strategy leading to “points of agreement” or “responses” on the basis of Socratic dialogue. Socratic dialogue is based on the spirit of parrhesia or “direct speech” which is a key feature of Western philosophy (Capurro 2006a).

b) Toru Nishigaki

In his contribution on information ethics in Japan, Toru Nishigaki makes a difference between the search of ethical norms in the context of new information technologies on the one hand, and the changes “on our views of human beings and society” becoming “necessary to accompany the emergence of the information society” on the other hand (Nishigaki 2006, 237). Such changes concern, for instance, the Western idea of a “coherent self” being questioned by information processing in robots. While this change may lead from a Western perspective to nihilism, Buddhist philosophy teaches that there is no such a thing as a “coherent self” ethics having to do with compassion as well as with the relationship between the individual and the community. The key ethical question might be how our communities are changing instead of how far the “self” is endangered. As Nishigaki remarks: “It is possible to say, therefore, that in a sense the West now stands in need of Eastern ethics, while the East stands in need of Western ethics” (Nishigaki 2006, 238). Nishigaki stresses at the same time, that there is no “easy bridge” between IT and Eastern philosophy. IT as looked from a cultural standpoint “has a strong affinity with the Judeo-Christian pursuit for a universal interpretation of sacred texts.”

While we in the West look for some kind of unchanged meaning of terms, such as in Charles Ess’ pros hen search for shared values and a tolerant or benevolent view on judgment diversity, the ZEN master is eager to exercise himself in his disciple “by doing away with universal or conventional interpretations of the meanings of words” (Nishigaki 2006, 238). In other words, the Buddhist stance teaches us, Westerners, another strategy beyond the controversy between monism and pluralism, by way of a different kind of practice than the Socratic dialogue. Nishigaki points to the controversy in the West between cognitive science and its view of cognition as a “representation” of the “outer world” and the view shared by our everyday experience as well as, for instance, phenomenology. Biologist Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoiesis offers an alternative based on the Buddhist view on cognition as “a history of actions performed by a subject in the world” being then not representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but “enactment” of such a history in the world.

c) Terrell Ward Bynum

‘The’ information society is and has always been culturally fragmented into different information societies. Consequently, what is morally good for one information society may be considered as less appropriate in another one. Terrell Ward Bynum advocates, borrowing insights from Aristotle, Norbert Wiener, and James Moor, for a “flourishing ethics” which means that “the overall purpose of a human life is to flourish as a person” according to the basic principles of freedom, equality and benevolence and the principle of minimum infringement of freedom (Bynum 2006). If the goal is to maximize the opportunities of all humans to exercise their autonomy – a conception of human existence that is culturally grounded in Western social philosophy – Bynum rightly follows that “many different cultures, with a wide diversity of customs, religions, languages and practices, can provide a conductive context for human flourishing” (Bynum 2006, 163). In other words, Wiener’s principles provide a foundation for a non-relativistic global ethics that is friendly to cultural diversity. Bynum widens the scope of this human-centered ethics into a “general theory of Flourishing Ethics” which includes the question of delegation of responsibility to ‘artificial agents’ and the consequent need for ethical rules for such agents. Although Bynum welcomes different ethical traditions, he is well aware that some of them would not be compatible with “General Flourishing Ethics”.

d) Bernd Frohmann

Following Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Bernd Frohmann proposes a philosophical interrogation of the local effects of the Internet through three main concepts, namely effect, locality, and ethics (Frohmann 2007). He discusses the relationships between the global and the local or, more specifically, between the flows of capital, information, technology, and organizational interaction by pointing to the similarities and difference of today’s “space of flow” (Manuel Castells) with some of its predecessors for instance in England’s global empire. According to Frohmann, “ethical action consists in a ’mode of subjectivation’ not eclipsed by the will to truth’s drive to knowledge, transcendence, and universality. A philosophical ethos seeks contingencies and singularities rather than universal determinants, which block the aim of getting ‘free of oneself’” (Frohmann 2007, 64-65). This is a plea for a kind of Intercultural Information Ethics that focuses on a careful situational analysis starting with the local conditions which does not mean mono-cultural chauvinism but critical appraisal of the way(s) computers control societies and the strategies people can develop in order to becoming “digitally imperceptible.” Frohmann asks for strategies of “escaping” the Internet rather than “localizing” it as far as it can become a local instrument of oppression.

e) Luciano Floridi

Distinguishing between “ethics of global communication” and “global information ethics”, Luciano Floridi addresses respectively: on the one hand, the pragmatic dialog in the interaction between different cultures and generations, on the other hand, the foundational questions regarding the possibility of common principles allowing such dialog, or the existence of a macro-ethic in the sense of some kind of consesualism or deontologismo or contractualism (Floridi 2009: 222).

A key issue in Floridi’s theory is the “shared ontology” as a mean to overcome in global information concerns Wittgenstein’s problem of the lion: “if a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it” (Wittgenstein 1953, §568). As a basis for common understanding Floridi proposes a basic ontology of life and death, food and shelter, anguish and protection (Floridi 2009, 224), i.e. whatever allows us to support life and avoid suffering or destruction of any entity, since – based on the very fact of being - every entity has a right for being. The most elemental opposition is being vs entropy, or the “flourishing of entities” in their global environment vs the “destruction”, “corruption” or “impoverishment of being” (Floridi 2008). He names this minimal ontology “ontocentric” –aparently more radical than, for instance, biocentric or anthropocentric. In the center, we find the patient of an action instead of the agent. He opposes both a metaphysical theory stating something about the being of entities –as a kind of ontological imperialism- and a plain relativism unable to suggest any effective interaction regarding intercultural problems. Without imposing hierarchies of common values, “global information ethics” should allow them to embed them within particular situation and natures (“embeddedness” and “embodiement”). This light and horizontal ontology aims at bridging cultures, which in their vertical and thick density are often irreconcilable.

However, we might ask: this “light” and “horizontal” approach is enough to face the pragmatic problems arisen in intercultural interaction or we also need a thick and vertical analysis to overcome them? How could this minimal ontology be politically accepted? The “dignity of being” does not pose a minimal metaphysical ontology?

f) Philip Brey

For the Netherlander philosopher Philip Brey, an ethical dialog thoughtfully considering cultural differences is necessary to cope with intercultural information ethical problems (Brey 2007). He includes in information ethics issues related to ICTs, computation and mass media, distinguishing between a moral descriptive relativism and a normative level, named meta-ethical. The latter faces the question about the existence of universal values and principles or the cultural relativity of IE, but the problems should be first reflected in a descriptive relativity for afterwards searching for differences and commonalities. He analyses relativism in privacy, intellectual property rights, information freedom and the difference between moralities centered in human rights in Western societies and centered in virtues in Far-east societies influenced by Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Maoism superimposing social harmony to individual welfare.

He leaves to social science the question of the usage of ICT as instruments of oppression or freedom, just focusing on the comparative analysis of moral systems. This limitation might be a lack to overcome some avoidable cultural relativism, since some cultural closures might have arisen within the tensions regarding oppression and freedom, which can easily be connected to the “suffering” vs “flourishing” –posed, as seen before, as a basis of mutual understanding-. In clear opposition to Brey’s stance, the The North American philosopher Ken Himma argues for an objectivist moral, which should be comparative and a part of social sciences (Himma 2008). The endeavor of EII is not just interaction –as in Brey- but agreement. However, although he provides good arguments to defend objectivism, he does not develop a system of objective norms for information ethics.

g) Rafael Capurro

In today’s information society we form ourselves and our selves mainly through digital media. The power of digital networks does not lead necessarily to slavery and oppression but also to reciprocity and mutual obligation. Globalisation gives rise to the question of what does locally matter. Cyberspace vanishes into the diversity of complex real/virtual space-time connections of all kinds which are not any more separable from everyday life and its materiality. The boundaries of language against which we are driven appear now as the boundaries of digital networks which not only pervade but accelerate all relationships between humans as well as between all kinds of natural phenomena and artificial things.

Following Michael Walzer (1994) and Soraj Hongladarom (2001), Capurro conceives moral arguments as “thick” or “thin” regarding whether they are contextualized or not but questioning the view that there is no third alternative between mono- and meta-cultural ethical claims (Capurro 2007). A purely meta-cultural information ethics remains abstract if it is not inter-culturally reflected. The task of Intercultural Information Ethics is to intertwin “thick” and “think” ethical arguments in the information field. The analysis by Michel Foucault on the Western tradition of parrhesia or ‘direct speech’ shows that it as a special trait of Western moral behaviour and democratic practice in contrast to the importance of ‘indirect speech’ in Eastern traditions (Foucault 1983). We should develop this difference for instance with regard to Confucian and Daoist thought and their relevance for the development of  information societies in Asia. In resonance to Charles Ess’ concept of an ethical pros hen (“towards one”) that looks for a pluralist interpretation and application of shared ethical norms (Ess 2006), Capurro argues in favor of a hothen (“from which”) approach that turns the attention to the question of the source(s) of ethical norms including the multiple cognitive-emotional experience of such source(s). The task of IIE is not only to describe them, but to open the endless task of translation between them (®hermeneutics). As Susan Sontag suggests (Sontag 2004), the task of the translator can be seen as an ethical task if we conceive it as the experience of the otherness of other languages that moves us to transform our mother tongue – including the terminologies used by different philosophic schools – instead of just preserving it from foreign or heretic influences.

The concrete impact of information and communication technologies on different cultures and particularly on their moral foundations has been discussed elsewhere (Capurro 2009, 2010)

3. Debate on IIE

IIE is an emerging discipline. The present debate shows a variety of foundational perspectives as well as a preference for the narrow view that focuses IIE on ICT (Capurro 2008, 2009). Consequently comparative studies with other media and epochs are mostly not being considered so far. With regard to IIE issues in today’s information societies, there are a lot of cultures and regions that have not been analyzed so far. Privacy as well as online communities, governance, gender issues, mobile phones, health care, and, last but not least, the digital divide are on the agenda. New issues such as blogs, wikis and “Second Life” are arising. We have to deepen the foundational debate on the sources of morality. According to Michel Foucault, ethics can be understood as the “problematization” of morality. Intercultural Information Ethics has a critical task to achieve when it compares information moralities. This concerns the ontological or structural as well as the ontic or empirical levels of analysis. One important issue in this regard is the question of the universality of values vs. the locality of cultures and vice versa which is related to the problem of their homogenization or hybridization.

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Name (date)
[Entry text]

Emilia Currás (09/12/2009)

Information as the fourth vital element and its influence on the culture of peoples*


People developed their intelligence and achieved a more comfortable and easier life. With regard to their technological cultural evolution, they began by attempting to substitute brute muscular force by certain tools: knives, axes, needles, the wheel, the pulley, and the plough. The first industrial revolution occurred over long periods of time. So long that the word “revolution” is inappropriate. And also because information in increasing.

Discoveries and inventions took place, but always from the basis of muscular strength, assisted and replaced by tools. Tools that man knew and used with confidence, though the job he carried out was nevertheless laborious, and also information increasing.

With time, new tools appeared. These tools were more complicated, resulting from the discovery of the steam engine, and later electricity and enabled man to substitute muscular energy by mechanical energy. There was a second industrial revolution in a much shorter period of time. Information had a positive effect, not only because of the greater amount produced in the long years before, but also because of the increased amount resulting from the technological advance in itself. This influenced working conditions, which changed considerably, and consequently living conditions improved.

Not a great deal of time has elapsed since then. There has been in practice, through a continuous process, a third industrial revolution, which is characterized by the use of “new technologies”, based on semiconductors, computers, laser rays, servomechanism… Mechanical force has begun to be substituted by intelligence force. For the same reason the we mentioned before, information has begun to increase, and this time almost alarmingly, to the point that, in order to assimilate and transmit this information, Humanity has found itself forced to initiate a transmutation in its associated life.

Work is becoming easier. What before was considered God’s punishment, is now becoming a desired and scarce commodity. Information has brought about these changes in technological culture. The greater the information, the faster the change. I feel it convenient to explain that in these cases I am referring to information as the sum of a series of products and phenomena resulting from mental activities that can be grasped and assimilated in order to realize a new technical development.

Therefore, information cam be considerer at the fourth vital element. 

* Introductory speech to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes y Ciencias Históricas de Toledo. (J. Inf. Scienc., 13, 3, (1987), 149‑157.)



Incorporated entries

Rafael Capurro and J.M. Díaz (2/2010)

It corresponds with the article directly edited in the left column. The contributions by J.M. Díaz concerns only some passages and the articulation of the text.