For as long as I can remember, there has been a debate within the computer ethics community on the question of whether or not computer ethics is a distinct field of ethical inquiry. Critics of the distinct field theory say that the problems that are addressed by computer ethics, such as privacy, were problems before computers came along, and that they have only been exaggerated by computer technology. Advocates of the separate field theory say that the scale of this exaggeration has created a discontinuity of kind, making the problems addressed by computer ethics unique. This paper picks up on that debate, and makes a very compelling argument in favor of the distinct field position. In fact, it goes on to make a more general argument, and demonstrates a need for a new approach to ethics that addresses a specific class of technologies, of which computers are just one example.
The impact of some technologies is so far reaching that they create what might be called a technological revolution. These revolutionary technologies go through predictable stages, with the number of ethical problems increasing as they mature. As these ethical problems multiply, we find ourselves in a “policy vacuum” as new situations arise and must be considered in terms of their moral implications. In order to address this policy vacuum ahead of time, we are already in a gray area for moral philosophy. We have to determine the ethical status of events that have not yet occurred, may not occur, and may not even be predictable.
But the paper goes on to raise the issue of malleability. Malleability is the ability of a technology to change the environment in which it operates. This is important, because once the technology is introduced, it is not possible to turn the clock back. The combination of having to address new ethical issues that may or may not occur, and which, if they do occur, will irreversibly alter the environment in which they operate, suggests the need for ethical analysis that looks forward into possibilities, rather than backward into the consequences of historical events. That does, indeed, seem to be a discontinuity of kind.
This paper is accessible, well written, well organized, and well argued. It is a terrific paper all around. It is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the ethics of emerging technologies.