Computers and Ethics

Computers can impact on ethical theory in two quite distinct ways. First, their ubiquitous use in modern society raises a number of novel issues, the most prominent of which are discussed by Terrell Bynum in his contribution on Computer and Information Ethics in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Secondly, computer modelling has played a significant role in game-theoretic accounts of the Evolution of Cooperation, which are increasingly influential in contemporary attempts to provide a naturalistic foundation of morality.

Computer and Information Ethics

Bynum's article linked above provides an extensive history of Computer Ethics, highlighting the contribution of pioneers such as Norbert Wiener, Walter Maner, Deborah Johnson, and James Moor, as well as more recent developments. He then goes on to discuss six specific topics, which together give a flavour of the field:

The field is rapidly expanding, though in universities it tends for the present to be confined to specialist courses, rather than making a major impact on general approaches to "applied ethics".

The Foundation of Morality

The foundation of morality has been debated since ancient times, with Aristotle influentially attributing it to the cultivation of habits (a view quite amenable to "naturalistic", i.e. non-religious, game theoretic approaches). With the dominance of Christianity over the medieval period, however, morality became widely seen as a key spiritual characteristic – like reason – that sets us radically apart from the animals, and aligns us instead with God and His angels. Only in the 17th century did this idea of morality as fundamentally God-given begin to be seriously challenged, with Thomas Hobbes suggesting an account of morality that grounds it in rational prudence. Then in the next century (1740 and 1751), David Hume went even further in the naturalistic direction, explaining our moral behaviour not in terms of pure reason, but rather as the outcome of our animal sentiments of "fellow feeling" and benevolence, together with a tendency to systematise our judgements with a view to intersubjective agreement.

Darwin's establishment of the theory of evolution gave strong support to the naturalistic perspective, seeing man as one animal amongst others. But at the same time, evolutionary theory made morality seem anomalous, especially after the general rejection of "group selection" in favour of "selfish gene" theory as a result of work by Williams, Hamilton and Dawkins in the 1960s and 1970s. It was in this context that Axelrod's novel approach through computer "tournaments" demonstrated how unselfish altruism could indeed evolve within a competitive environment, thus removing an important obstacle to seeing morality as a natural, evolved phenomenon. Since then, there has been a great deal of research into evolutionary game theory and the origin of morality, involving prominent thinkers from the philosopher Brian Skyrms (who takes inspiration from computer models) to the economist Ken Binmore (who takes greater inspiration from Hume). For more on this, see the page on the Evolution of Cooperation.

David Hume

David Hume

Developed a thoroughly naturalistic account of morality, founded on our biological nature