Kant and information ethics

A piece by Charles Ess & Mary Thorseth in Ethics and Information Technology Journal (2008). All annotations in context.
Kant’s basic thoughts on autonomy and the public domain are highly relevant to challenges concerning modern society, particularly to communication in the public sphere. Trust is but one important topic being discussed here; openness another. Thus, our aim has not only been to demonstrate how Kant can be productively applied to new technology; in addition, it has been to show how the basic philosophical queries raised within this context can be fruitfully illuminated within Kant’s conceptual frames.
In particular, Myskja points out that the largely disembodied character of most online communication thereby cuts us off from important, perhaps crucial channels of non-verbal communication that may be essential to trust-building.
At the same time, however, especially as the Internet increasingly becomes a primary venue for participating in ‘‘…the political, social and commercial activities necessary for full participation in a liberal democracy,’’ establishing trust in online worlds becomes a correlatively more pressing matter
phenomenologically-based approach to trust, one that stresses precisely that ‘‘…the bodily presence in the encounter appears to be essential for understanding the relation of trust.’’ He makes this point in part by way of reference to the work of K. E. Løgstrup, E. Levinas, and others – and thereby takes up trust as an ‘‘irreducible human phenomenon.”
Contrary to what many have criticised as an excessively idealistic Kant in the (in)famous example of the Categorical Imperative requiring us to tell the truth even to those obviously bent on harm, Myskja points out that in Kant’s later work, a more realistic understanding of human nature and thereby, a more nuanced understanding of the role of deception emerges. Briefly, deception may take place for less than ideal reasons – but as deception allows us to hide our more negative characteristics while nonetheless developing more virtuous character, it can help us become better persons. This role of deception fits wonderfully well with what is otherwise often regarded as a highly morally problematic dimension of online communication – precisely that we can there hide our real selves.

Finally, Thorseth points out that Kant’s notion of reflective judgment is of possible judgments, in contrast with actual judgments – where the former refer to something virtual in the sense of what is possible for human beings to imagine. For Thorseth, the well-known virtual world of Second Life stands as an example of a virtual reality in which a key condition of reflective/possible judgment is met – namely, that we are able to avoid the illusion that our purely private and personal conditions somehow constitute an objective context or reality.
‘‘The liberation of our judgments from subjective private conditions is a necessary condition for weighing our judgments with the possible judgments of others, by putting ourselves in the position of everyone else.’’


The basic dilemma is simple. If the algorithms are open – then webmasters (and anyone else) interested in having their websites appear at the top of a search result will be able to manipulate their sites so as to achieve that result: but such results would then be misleading in terms of genuine popularity, potential relevance to a searcher’s interests, etc., thereby reducing users’ trust in the search engine results and hence reducing the usability and accessibility of important information. On the other hand, if the algorithms are secret, then the legitimate public interest in understanding how web pages are ranked is foiled: in particular, users cannot know whether or not a high ranking is the result of payment – and again, such secrecy reduces trust and thereby the usability and accessibility of important information.
‘The dilemma, then, is that a right to information could make people worse off in terms of information.’’ Elgesem then provides a contextual analysis of the role search engines play in the broader ‘‘information ecology’’ constituted by contemporary ICTs. Elgesem is able to connect the search engine dilemma with Kant’s second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, ‘‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.’’ Here, Elgesem interprets Kant to mean that by ‘‘humanity,’’ Kant refers to our ability to reason as the central property that makes us human. The simple point, as emphasized in Kant’s famous example regarding lying, is that failure to provide truthful information is a prime example of violating the CI because false information makes it impossible for the recipient to exercise her rationality. By the same token, Elgesem argues that a biased search engine likewise makes it impossible for users to exercise their rationality, and thus likewise represent violations of the CI.
‘‘In a complex information society, with a highly developed division of intellectual labor, we have no option but rely on information from sources that are usually trustworthy.’

visualizations are more than just ‘‘pretty pictures’’: rather, precisely in virtue of their bringing into play our shared cognitive and aesthetic frameworks as human beings, they thereby catalyze the epistemological – but also aesthetic and thereby social, if not also political – processes that create a shared intersubjective framework in the first place, one that then makes possible trust-building and a shared sensus communis within which the enterprise of collaborative science may take place.

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