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Virtue or Utility? Being an Ethical Online Citizen | Geek Essays

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A month or so ago I wrote a post called ‘Why #notaspottynerd isn’t okay‘, which was basically a case study on something I’ve discussed previously in “You Cant Build Inclusion on Exclusionary Language“. Both of these look at a particular issue – the tendency in ‘social justice’ circles to use insults and terms that are often just as harmful as the things they’re aiming to combat. In this post, I intend to show how this particular issue is just one symptom of a much larger ethical issue common to cyberspace – the primacy of Utilitarian thought. From there, I shall move to suggest an alternate ethical framework – that of virtue ethics.

To start with, just what exactly is Utilitarian thought? Coined in full detail in around the 19th century, it existed in less complete forms prior to this, but it’s the 19th century version we still feel today. The main two voices from that time are Jeremy Bentham (yes, he’s the guy who left his body to a university!) and John Stuart Mill. For the sake of starting off with a good understanding, I’ll quickly go over what the two of them said. If you’re interested in reading about this in more detail, I’d recommend The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy as a good place to start.

Bentham Jeremy Bentham thought that humans had two ‘masters’ – pleasure, and pain. Pleasure was desirable, and pain was not. He considered the quest for pleasure and the avoidance of pain to be key driving forces in human behaviour. But how does one move from this into an ethical theory? Actions that bring about pleasure are good, actions that bring about pain are bad. This is a fairly simplified version – it ignores the nuance Bentham brought into distinguishing response from consequence, and a variety of other issues but it is enough for us to start with, before moving on to the categories he used to assess the pleasure and pain that actions brought about. These were:

Obviously, one cannot work this out every time we consider an act, so Bentham noted that experience is a good indicator – for instance, we know that some acts bring about pleasure and others pain from past experience, and can judge accordingly.

One key element of Bentham’s theory, and the larger school of thought to which Utilitarianism belongs is that actions are not intrisically good or bad, but instrumentally so. The morality of the action relies on the consequences it brings about – hence the school of thought, Consequentialism.

Mill Mill was heavily influenced by Bentham, but took issue with what he considered the sheer hedonism of Bentham’s theory. Instead of pleasure, he suggested, why not happiness? He also argued that not all pleasures (or happinesses!) were equal – instead, there were some that were superior. This distinction of higher and lower pleasures falls exactly the way one may expect – physical pleasures like eating and sex are ‘lower’, and intellectual pleasures like reading philosophy and listening to opera are ‘higher’. You might have already spotted one criticism of this theory already! However, this is a handy distinction for some of what Mill was responding too – distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures allowed one to consider human pleasures of more worth than animal pleasures, thus fitting with the common intuition that hurting a person is worse than hurting an animal (see Peter Singer for an example of a Utilitarian who flips the script on this one). While he may have expanded on Bentham’s theories and moved it away from its apparent hedonism, he still sticks with the key aspect of Utilitarianism, that:

An actions morality is defined by it’s consequences. A good action is one that promotes the maximum amount of happiness, and a bad one, pain.

In general, the western world is a somewhat Utilitarian one in thought. There is variation, but its often there, ticking away in the back of people’s minds as a standard. This tendency towards Utilitarian ethics, I would argue, is a key aspect of the current state of cyberspace – and a key part of a lot of the ethical problems raised in recent years.

Online Mobbing, Public Shaming and the Modern Witch Hunt Most people tend to be in agreement when something terrible happens to someone innocent. For instance, when we hear about Reddit traumatising a man’s family because they mistakenly believed him to be the Boston Bomber, we almost universally agree that this was a bad thing. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to apply the same standards when something terrible happens to someone we personally dislike. For example, compare the case of Cecil the Lion – the same people who months before may have been talking about how terrible groups like gamergate could be went about sharing photos and private information of the shooter. Or, perhaps, consider the leaks from Ashley Madison – many were happily sharing the released information, considering it ‘what they deserve’ – and continued to do so even after suicides were potentially linked to the hack.

Why then, do groups apply one standard of behaviour to some cases, and not to others?

It’s here I want to point to the primacy of Utilitarian thought. Firstly, the idea that an actions morality is based on it’s consequences. Under this view, doxxing the Ashley Madison users is a morally neutral act. It is only through the consequences that follow do we decide whether it was moral or not. If the consequences were that many people in relationships with cheaters found out, and got the chance for a better relationship, thus causing temporary pain but for long-term and ongoing happiness, then a Utilitarian may well consider that ultimately a good act. Gamergate taking photos of Anita Sarkeesian without her knowledge would also be a morally neutral act, again decided by the consequences. If the consequences are that Anita and many other women in the industry suffer anxiety for many months, then this would be a morally bad act – promoting pain, not pleasure.

Of course, both of these can be flipped around depending on who is doing the justifying. The Ashley Madison hack’s consequences included potential suicides and other pains for the victims, and Gamergate’s photo caused a lot of happiness among those following.

This is, itself, not an issue with the Utilitarian method of thought. It merely draws attention to something that makes it difficult to apply accurately – making sure you have enough information to accurately measure the rates of pleasure and pain. Indeed, some versions of Utilitarianism suggest that any act causing even a small amount of pain, no matter how much happiness comes with it, is immoral. This opens itself up to a whole world of questions (one that almost always comes up with students is ‘but what about kinky sex’ – and while this may seem jokey, it’s actually a very useful discussion point).

However, it does (I would argue) show why online mobbing and public shaming is so prevalent – whoever is doing it sees it as morally acceptable, because they see the consequences as desirable/happiness-inducing, hence making the act itself a moral one. Or, to use a much simpler phrase than all of this:

Utilitarianism allows us to think that the ENDS justify the MEANS.

Under this view, it’s acceptable to undertake acts that may be unpleasant in some way, as long as the end result is good. For instance, one might think that sharing the Ashley Madison hack data will lead to less cheating/helping numerous cheated-upon partners. They might therefore think the means of sharing private information is okay because the end is something desirable and happiness-inducing for a majority.

This majority is another key aspect of the theory, and it also is well-known in one of the main criticisms of Utilitarian thought: the tyranny of the majority.

Utilitarianism can be seen as a numbers game – it’s all about the most happiness for the most people. This can lead to views such as it being okay for a small number of people to suffer if it brings about greater happiness, or even an ignorance of the quality of happiness. The minor discomfort many comedians might feel about having to change their sets in order not to offend people may well be seen as causing more pain than happiness – after all they and their fans are amajority so when we look at the numbers we may decide that raising a bit of happiness for a minority at the cost of decreasing happiness for a majority isn’t the ‘ethical’ thing to do.

(Again this is where the attempt to make any action that causes pain something unethical comes in – and again, we’ve briefly discussed that this may solve one problem, but it raises new ones.)

Utilitarian thought inherently holds up structures of oppression and power – it allows the happiness of the majority to be seen as the most important thing, letting pre-existing structures remain in place because they’re seen as ethical under this view. This is why I find it concerning how many people who are against these oppressive structural systems subscribe to Utilitarian ethical norms. Replacing the old structures with new things built within the same ethical framework will almost certainly lead to the same issues – indeed, I’d argue that this is what we see so often with the ‘old guard’ of certain aspects of feminism, and why trans-exclusive feminists and sex work abolitionist feminists so often seem to fall in with the same rhetoric of the structures they claim to oppose.

The tendency to consider the internet as ‘just’ the internet, less real than the ‘real world’ or as a place that harassment, pain and other such things cannot happen worsens the impact of Utilitarian thought. When we are no longer counting those we interact with as ‘real people’ their weight in our numbers game decreases. Our ‘real world’ happiness seems much more importantly than their ‘just’ online pain.

A Step Back To Virtue But where can we look to for an ethical framework for cyberspace, if not Utilitarianism? Personally, I am in favour of a step back towards virtue ethics. Some may well argue for another alternate framework (including the wonderful Katherine Cross, who almost certainly has a very different framework to me – but one which ultimately avoids the issues discussed here). Virtue ethics can be traced back to Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics. It fell out of favour somewhat for a variety of reasons (once again, the Stanford Encyclopedia is fantastic for a brief overview!) – notably that is is far less easy to apply than consequence or rule-based theories. It’s far more nebulous, with the emphasis being on having a good character, rather than giving you strict methods of deciding your actions. However, it is for these reasons I am highly in favour of it. Rules will always have some tricky exception, and consequences can never be accurately predicted. Virtue ethics considers the nature of a person, the intent of a person and the act itself. One should act virtuously, and avoid vices. Even if you are not naturally inclined to behave in certain ways, you can habituate yourself to do so and eventually become a virtuous person.

But just what are these virtues and vices? In part, they seem to change over time with societies – Aristotle places much emphasis on honour and bravery, whereas a post-Christ world places much more emphasis on humility. This leads to another criticism of the theory – that it is relativistic in nature – but since this criticism can apply to most ethical theories, I shall not go into depth about it here. It’s much more of a meta-ethical issue, and one that needs far more than a mere paragraph of discussion!

The internet is both different and not so different from the “real-world” (a distinction I am hesistant to make for precisely that reason) and hence needs virtues and vices that are both similiar and distinct. It’s also not quite as easy as saying ‘this person was honest, therefore they have the virtue of honesty’. A person can be honest, but for manipulative reasons – and this, it is clear, is not virtuous. Whilst we do not have access to the subjective inner workings of others, it is enough to be aware of them in ourselves when attempting to be an ethical online citizen. It is not enough to act in virtuous ways – one must also associate with virtuous people, deplore acts that are filled with vice, encourage virtue where possible and not allow themselves to go along with bad tactics, even if they want the end goal.

Despite this, it is also possible to go too far with the virtues – one could tell a lie out of kindness, where honesty may have stood them better. In this case, they are lacking in something Aristotle called phronesis – practical wisdom. It is not enough to be virtuous by disposition, but one must also be aware of how best to apply this. This plays into something I think is vital when being an ethical online citizen: being kind to others who may not be as ‘good’ as you. There is a tendency in some circles to look down on those less fully-formed in their ethical paths – a tendency towards anger and call-outs rather than considering a lack of wisdom may be the cause, not malice. Katherine Cross’ article Words, Words, Words: On Toxcity and Abuse in Online Activism covers this clearly and succintly. Under virtue ethics, we can understand this often as someone having a lack of practical wisdom, and encourage this wisdom to grow. It allows us to avoid the saint/sinner distinctions we see in much discussion, instead having a much more nuanced view of humans on a path to wisdom – imperfect, but not always ultimately cruel or malicious in intent. Unlike in Utilitarian thought, where the consequences are all that matters, virtue ethics allows us to take intent into account – but also allows us a way of acknowledging it’s not a get-out-of-criticism card either.

Virtues that are useful to us offline – honesty, fairness, compassion – are all worthy of their place in an online-focused list of virtues. But there is space for new, still-developing ones – those that are specific to cyberspace. Leaving room for us to develop upon the background of virtue theory is important, as the internet and how we relate to others online is still evolving. The same goes for vices – as a quick example, the rise of ‘trolling’ is something that has accelerated dramatically alongside the internet, and that is something that must be included in any discussion of virtue and vice in an online world.

Virtue ethics cannot solve one key ethical issue online – the tendency to treat others as less-than-people, as not real or a game – but it does provide methods of mediating this. A compassionate person should be compassionate regardless of the status of those they interact with, after all.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Virtue ethics cannot, by itself, instantly solve every ethical problem we encounter in this still-developing cyberspace. Not all people will want to be virtuous, or agree on what a virtue or a vice is. Despite this, I would argue that stepping towards a virtue-based theory of ethics, and away from a consequence/utility based one is a necessary step in becoming ethical online citizens. Utilitarian thought too easily ignores intent in favour of consequences, and allows for online mobbing, public shaming and the like to be seen as ethical so long as it’s from the ‘right side’. Being an ethical online citizen should not include bad tactics for good goals – we cannot claim to build a more ethical, inclusive world if its foundations are pain and unkind acts. Utilitarianism allows this to often go unchecked, with the majority allowed to continue on its own way. In order to break away from pre-existing oppressive structures, we need to break away from the ethical frameworks backing them – and that is, I’d argue, Utilitarianism. Moving towards a virtue-based ethical framework encourages personal development, and a conciousness that the acts themselves are important and worthy of consideration – not just the ends. The notion of practical wisdom allows us to be kind, without excusing behaviour we disagree with. It may not be perfect, but moving away from consequence-based ethics towards virtue-based ethics can at least be the start of a brand new discussion, rather than wading in the stagnant waters of the old, clearly flawed, frameworks we have today. With any luck, a discussion that doesn’t consider the ends capable of justifying the means, and one that doesn’t come down to a game of numbers, will already be an improvement on the old one and allow us to truly flourish into ethical online citizens.


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