A writer’s obligations: ethics, law and pragmatism, Part 2a: Ethics


Last week I promised you I'd write about ethics and the Web. Ever since I've been wondering if I bit off more than I could chew and have been trying to find a way to approach this rather broad topic. Would I have to provide an introduction to methodology—weigh the merits of utilitarianism against the theories of Rawls or Kant? Would my suggestions sound preachy or reminiscent of the thought police? But then it struck me.

What would Socrates do?

He'd ask questions! So that's what I'll do. I'll ask a few questions about hypothetical moral issues one might face when writing for the Web. You gentle, quiet reader will in turn either answer the question or ask additional questions that will help lead us towards what I hope will be a morally sound conclusion. Also if you have additional issues you would like to address in this manner, let me know and we can consider those as well. Let the dialogues begin.

Must one reveal conflicting data or opinions?

In the course of your work, you blog in support of a program that will reduce illiteracy among children in the local school system. You have researched the program carefully, read the studies showing its successes in other schools and your goal is for the school board to implement the program here. A week after you have posted your entry, you learn of a new study that contradicts the previous findings. Are you morally obligated to add this information to your blog? What if you read the new study and realize that it's methodology was flawed? What if the study was flawed, but the institution that produced it has a stellar international reputation? What other issues should be considered? Is your moral obligation to the children greater than to your readership?

Take advantage of another to further your own ends?

What if you were running for president of your sorority, and someone gave you an audiofile of your opponent having sex with her boyfriend? If you were to podcast this anonymously it's affect on her reputation might swing more votes towards you—or gain sympathy for her. Is it morally allowable to podcast this? Does it make a difference whether your opponent is popular and confident or insecure and shy? Does it matter that you weren't the one who made the recording?

I actually only made up part of this story. In reality it happened to a friend in college whose fraternity brothers played the recording during a party at their house. I'm using this example because pranks are a common part of college life. The moral questions relate to the nature of the prank; when is something more than a harmless joke? In these days of MySpace, Facebook, and personal blogs, some pranks may involve the Internet, where they can be seen or heard by anyone from your mother to future employers. In addition to asking whether this is harmless fun or emotionally damaging, it is also worth considering how your involvement in such a prank impacts your own reputation.

Purposefully omit information that might weaken your argument

You're a political blogger who believes that we should build a bridge across Lake Erie to further economic development. Studies have revealed that a ferry service would be far more cost effective given the structural challenges that such a bridge would involve. But a bridge would be cool, especially for you who owns a small cottage in Ontario. Is it fair for you to leave out any negative information? Would your moral obligations be different if you were a professional journalist, a lobbyist for the trucking industry, or merely an interested citizen?

Other examples?

You each probably have other examples we can examine. Post them below or send me an e-mail, so we can add them to our dialogue. Whether or not you have additional ideas, please share your answers and questions to the above scenarios and let's see where our discussion will evolve. Have a great Halloween Weekend!

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  1. What if I kept a blog, labeled in the sidebar as a 'work of fiction' that contained short stories about sexual experiences between adults and very young children? If you can get past the initial skin crawling feeling, the question is actually interesting. We watch movies where murder is rampant, sometimes turning killers into heroes, yet for some reason a blog about sex between aduls and children seems...well...wrong. Is there something unethical about blogging fictional sexual exploits? Does that answer change if children are involved? I think applying real world ethics into virtual domains, whether it be War of Warcraft or MySpace may be difficult and troublesome. For example, an argument against murder can be made based on Kant's categorical imperative. However, what if I killed a half-elf that is farming in a field? Is Kant still relevant in a universe where you can simply revive and resume your normal activites? Why apply journalistic ethics to weblogs? Very few bloggers actually engage in newsmaking. What we see is mostly opinion on news reported by respected agencies. A blogger that talks about how foolish the drunken guy at the party looked is no more bound to ethical standards than Andy Rooney in one of his rants on 60 Minutes. If we start from the point that everything on the internet is probably false, life gets easier. Its mostly one big work of fiction.

    Comment by anon — October 31, 2006 @3:58 pm

  2. My apologies for not responding sooner, I've been out with the flu. You've posed some intriguing questions. Regarding the first issue, I would ask what is the nature of the stories. Philosophers and lawmakers have been pondering the questions of pornography for quite some time. Are the stories designed to appeal to a more prurient nature? If so they would probably be considered child pornography and would be illegal in most jurisdictions. If these encounters are part of a greater plot, and written in an appropriate manner, such as a novel by Andrew Vachss (Case '65) in which the hero catches and punishes the child abusers, then they might be serving a different moral purpose. Justice Potter Stewart posed the "I know it when I see it" test for obscenity, akin to your comment about "skin crawling." This doesn't really settle the matter though, issues of pornography are still gray, so I'll try to find some resources that might provide further insight into this issue. Regarding fiction that includes other acts of immorality, such as murder, I guess I would still want to know the context of the story. How does this drive the plot, how does it make us question the morality of the incident? When applying ethics to the virtual world, I think it depends on how much overlap their is between virtual and real. Does what we write in the virtual have an impact on the real? In the case of MySpace it very well may. When it comes to killing half-elves, it might not. But in that case, if you are applying Kant, apply it to that world, rather than ours. What would happen if you killed every half-elf? Do they suffer even if they come back to life? How do their short-term deaths impact society? What other repercussions may their be? While most bloggers are not journalists, some do play that role. When Salam Pax first started blogging from Iraq (before the invasion) he provided first hand accounts of what he saw happening in Baghdad. These turned out to be so useful that he was eventually published by The Guardian. While others may be pundits, or opinion makers, some also gather information from other news sources in order to inform the public about information that may be hard to find, or downplayed in mainstream media. I think those who are serving such a role, should consider their responsibilities just as they would in traditional media. Regarding your conclusion and some of the other issues, should we treat issues of morality differently in fiction than we do in non-fiction? How much impact does the non-fictional world have on our real world? Is it a mirror for society? If some or all of the Internet is considered to be unreliable, does that mean that we shouldn't strive for accuracy and/or morality?

    Comment by Heidi Cool — November 2, 2006 @12:39 pm

  3. Last week I promised anonymous that I'd post some links on the subject of ethics and pornography. If you're looking for something new to discuss in coffee houses or pubs, this one is bound to spawn endless opinions. For more information check out the following (most are fairly old):

    Comment by Heidi Cool — November 10, 2006 @3:00 pm

  4. I've been a victim of a MySpace prank but it was harmless. It will be interesting to see where MySpace and Facebook are in the future. MySpace has become a huge collection of fake profiles and spammers. They are attacked by bots and are constantly having lag issues. Sites like Facebook and Xanga will have bigger clout vs. MySpace being a site full of skin show photos and fakes.

    Comment by Johnny — April 25, 2007 @5:50 pm

  5. Great post, plus some great follow up comments.. Its writing like this that makes it worthwhile to read the web. Bruce

    Comment by Web Design Perth — July 8, 2007 @2:18 pm

  6. Man, I haven't read such a relevant blog post for years... In my opinion, MySpace should be rebooted - that is it should start afresh. Think about the millions of spammers and paedos on there. Maybe they would be discouraged by a relaunch which promised better safety. Just my 2 cents.

    Comment by Ed Bourne — May 11, 2008 @1:11 pm

  7. Unfortunately the reality is that we all "Take advantage of another to further your own ends?" at some time or other. You would be pretty hard pressed to search yourself and find you never did even to a slight degree. And if you come back to me and say that you never would then I think you might be guilty of "Purposefully omitting information that might weaken your argument". Dale - Perth Web Design Guy

    Comment by Perth Web Design Guy — October 25, 2008 @11:15 am

  8. [...] not limited to) Karl Foxley, Beginner Blogger, Ben Lang, Infopreneur, LifeNotion, Chuck Lasker, Heidi Cool, Kikolani, Robert Bravery, John Sullivan, AussieSire, Rose DesRochers and many others who I will be [...]

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