Robert N. Barger, Ph.D.
                      University of Notre Dame               
                       e-mail: rbarger@nd.edu
    Read at the Second Annual Computer Ethics Institute Conference 
                      The Brookings Institution 
                           Washington, DC 
                           April 30, 1993

               Copyright (C) 1993 by Robert N. Barger


    "Metaethics" is a term which is subject to misunderstanding.
William Halverson (1981) regards metaethics as "The generic name
for inquiries that have as their object the language of moral
appraisal." This definition reflects the viewpoint of the
philosophy known as Linguistic Analysis. It does not, however,
reflect my own understanding of the term. I would define metaethics
as the generic name for inquiries about the source of moral
judgments (i.e., about their basis) and how such judgments are to
be justified. Taken in this sense, metaethics is not about isolated
individual judgments concerning whether certain actions are right
or wrong. It is about how a particular world view -- or more
precisely, a weltanschauung -- underlies and conditions the
formulation of such ethical judgments.

    Thus, before one can make a judgment on whether a particular
action is right or wrong, one must have adopted an understanding of
what basic reality is about, and whether this particular action is
in harmony with one's basic understanding of reality. In
philosophy, this basic understanding of reality is called
metaphysics. A person's preferred metaphysics is basically a
statement of belief about fundamental reality. It is a "belief"
because it is the most fundamental of assumptions one makes about
reality. As such, it cannot be proven. The ancients defined
metaphysics as "first principles," because once one assumes a
ground of meaning only then can one go on to interpret the meaning
of particular things and actions within the larger universe of
meaning. Perhaps the reason that there exist a number of different
metaphysics is that each person must ultimately make a personal 
explanation of the meaning of reality....and there are a number of
possible meanings. Once a person adopts a metaphysical world view,
that world view will necessarily govern her or his decisions about
ethical matters. To put this another way, a person's view of
reality will condition that person's view on value questions.

Objections of Linguistic Analysis

    It is here that Linguistic Analysis would wish to take issue
with my position (which is the position of traditional systematic
philosophy). Linguistic Analysis believes (and I would note the
word "believes," since the position of Linguistic Analysis is as
much a belief as any of the traditional metaphysical positions)
that statements about reality can be verified or validated in only
one of two ways. Those ways are by application of the laws of
logic, or by application of sense observation. Thus, linguistic
analysts believe that what is not open to examination by logical
analysis or to observation by the senses is not a proper subject
for discussion.

    Interpretations of ultimate reality are not subject to
examination by logic or sense observation. By definition, as
starting principles or as a base whereon to stand to make sense of
reality, these interpretations cannot be subject to this kind of
examination. Neither can discussions of right or wrong, which arise
from and are based on these fundamental interpretations of reality,
be subject to verification by logic or sense observation. Hence,
linguistic analysts say that these kinds of questions are simply
beyond the bounds of verifiable discussion -- that is, they simply
cannot be talked about. Linguistic analysts would admit that there
are indeed questions of morality, but they can only be spoken of in
"emotive" terms, that is, in terms of how one "feels" about these
questions. No determination is possible about whether something is
objectively good or bad. Hence, one of the founders of the school
of Linguistic Analysis, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1961), has said: "The
solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space
and time, (6.4312)" and further, "We feel that even when all
possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of
life remain completely untouched" (6.52).

    I believe Wittgenstein and the linguistic analysts are wrong.
I do not base my dissent on the fact that one basic assumption
about the meaning of life is as good as another, but rather on
something which should be recognized by linguistic analysts as
acceptable verification, namely, empirical evidence. In 1989,
Josephine C. Barger and I conducted research on a random sample of
347 students at a midwestern regional/comprehensive university.
These students had academic majors representative of all six
colleges in the University. Through the use of SPSSX discriminant
analysis, Duncan multiple analysis, and SPSSX univariate analysis,
we found (Barger & Barger, 1989) that there were distinguishable
philosophies among the students. In other words, separate
philosophical viewpoints (to be described below) were both real and

The Major Metaphysical Positions and their Resultant Ethics

    The philosophies which were empirically evidenced in our
research were the traditional systematic philosophies of Idealism,
Realism, Pragmatism, and Existentialism (I am prepared to respond
to the objection that Existentialism cannot be described as either
"traditional" or "systematic," but I will spare the reader that
response here). Idealism and Realism might be characterized as
absolute or objective philosophies. Pragmatism and Existentialism
might be characterized as relative or subjective philosophies.


    The metaphysical position of the philosophy of Idealism is that
reality is basically spirit rather than matter. For the Idealist,
the idea is more real than the thing, since the thing only reflects
or represents the idea. The world of spirit or idea is static and
absolute. Socrates and Plato are perhaps the best known ancient
representatives of this view. While Immanuel Kant and Thomas Hill
Green are more modern Idealists.

    Once the metaphysical view that reality is found in the idea is
assumed, the ethical position that goodness is to be found in the
ideal (that is, in perfection) automatically follows. Goodness is
found on the immaterial level, that is, in the perfect concept, or
notion, or idea, of something. Thus, perfect goodness is never to
be found in the material world. Evil, for the Idealist, consists of
the absence or distortion of the ideal. Since ideals can never
change (because they are a priori and absolute), moral imperatives
concerning them do not admit of exceptions. That is, these
imperatives are stated in terms of "always" or "never." For
example: "Always tell the truth" or (put negatively) "Never tell a
lie." Since truth is the knowledge of ideal reality and a lie is a
distortion of that reality, truth must always be told and lying can
never be justified.


    The person with a Realistic world view believes that reality is
basically matter, rather than spirit. For the Realist, the thing is
more real than the idea. Whatever exists is therefore primarily
material, natural, and physical. As such, reality exists in some
quantity and therefore can be measured. It exists independently of
any mind and is governed by the laws of nature, primary among which
are the laws of cause and effect. The universe, according to the
Realist, is one of natural design and order. Aristotle was an early
representative of this view. B.F. Skinner, the behavioral
psychologist, is a more current representative.

    The resultant ethical position that flows from a Realist
metaphysics is one that views the baseline of value as that which
is natural (that is, that which is in conformity with nature). 
Nature is good. One need not look beyond nature to some immaterial
ideal for a standard of right and wrong. Rather, goodness will be
found by living in harmony with nature. Evil, for the Realist, is
a departure from this natural norm either in the direction of
excess or defect (i.e., having, or doing, too much or too little of
something which is naturally good).


    For the Pragmatist, metaphysics is not so simple a matter as it
is for the Idealist and Realist. Reality is neither an idea nor is
it matter. It would be a mistake to view reality as either a
spiritual or physical "something." Rather, the Pragmatist believes
that reality is a process. It is a dynamic coming-to-be rather than
a static fixed being. It is change, happening, activity,
interaction...in short, it is experience. Reality is more like a
verb than a noun. It is flux and flow where the concentration is
not so much on the things as on the relationship between the
things. Since everything changes - indeed, the Pragmatist would say
that change is everything - nothing can have any permanent essence
or identity. An ancient Greek Pragmatist used to say in this
regard: "You can't step in the same river twice." For the
Pragmatist, everything is essentially relative. The only constant
is change. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes! The
Americans Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and John Dewey are
representatives of this view.

    The ethical result of the Pragmatic metaphysical position
demands that value claims must be tested and proven in practice.
This is so because meaning is inherent in the consequences of
actions. In the Pragmatist's view, things are value-neutral in
themselves. There is nothing that is always good, nor is there
anything that is always bad. The value of anything is determined
solely in terms of its usefulness in achieving some end. In answer
to the question, "Is that good?", a Pragmatist would probably
reply, "Good for what?"  Thus, the Pragmatist believes that the end
justifies the means. That is, if an act is useful for achieving
some laudable end or goal, then it becomes good. To state this
another way, a means gets its positive value from being an
efficient route to the achievement of a laudable end (a laudable
end is one that brings about the greatest good for the greatest
number of people). Thus, a means is not valued for its own sake,
but only in relation to its usefulness for achieving some laudable
end. Results or consequences are the ultimate measure of goodness
for a Pragmatist, since the usefulness of a means to an end can
only be judged after the fact by its effect on the end. Thus, for
the Pragmatist, there can be no assurance that something is
good...until it is tried. Even then, it is only held tentatively as
good since a thing is good only as long as it continues to work.
There can, however, be a dispute about which means are more
effective for achieving an end. Indeed, there can be a dispute
about which ends should, in fact, be pursued. Thus, the Pragmatist
looks for guidance from the group. The reasons for this are
metaphysical: reality is experience, but it is the experience of
the whole. For the Pragmatist, the whole is greater than the sum of
its parts. This means that the whole is more valuable than any of
its parts. In the field of value judgments, the group's wisdom is
more highly esteemed than the wisdom of any individual within the


    The Existentialist joins with the Pragmatist in rejecting the
belief that reality is a priori and fixed. But instead of believing
that reality is a process whose meaning is defined primarily by the
controlling group, Existentialist metaphysics holds that reality
must be defined by each autonomous individual. The Existentialist
notions of subjectivity and phenomenological self emphasize that
the meaning or surdity of an otherwise "absurd" universe is
individually determined. Any meaning that gets into the world must
be put in it by the individual, and that meaning or value will hold
only for that individual. Thus each person's world, as well as each
person's own identity, is the product of that person's own choice.
Thus, each person can be defined as the sum of that person's
choices. A person's world is what that person chooses it to be.
Thus, reality is different for each individual. We each live in our
own world and we are who we choose to be. Soren Kierkegaard and
Jean-Paul Sartre are frequently associated with this view.

    Like the Existentialist position on reality, its ethical
position is that the individual must create his/her own value.
There is no escape from the necessity of creating values. Just as
the world is defined by the choices regarding reality that an
individual makes, so the individual must express her/his own
preferences. In making choices, or defining values, the individual
becomes responsible for those choices. The individual cannot
deflect praise or blame for those choices onto others. If the
choices were freely made, then responsibility for them must be
accepted. While groups might influence what choices an individual
makes, there is a zone of freedom within each individual that
cannot be conditioned or predetermined. While emphasizing a highly
individualized choice of values, an Existentialist is not
necessarily a non-conformist, but if an Existentialist does conform
to the values of a group it will be because that person has freely
chosen to do so -- not because they have been pressured to do so by
the group.

The Problem of Consistency

    The above outline of philosophical views might appear to
oversimplify the basis for ethical decision-making. I would readily
agree that ethical decision-making in real time is a much more
difficult process than might appear from the above summaries.  For
instance, our research (Barger & Barger, 1989) found that while
most of the students we surveyed had a predominant leaning toward
one of the four philosophies described above, they also had lesser
leanings toward some of the other three philosophies. In other
words, nobody is 100% an Idealist (...or Realist, or Pragmatist, or

    This means that simply knowing a person's dominant
philosophical outlook will not allow assured prediction of how he
or she might act in response to a given ethical situation. This for
two reasons: 1) the one just stated, that strong sympathies with
other philosophical views besides one's dominant view might end up
controlling action in this or that particular situation, and, 2)
the fact that people do not always conscientiously act in a manner
consistent with their beliefs. That is, they might fail to follow
through with what they believe is the right thing to do in a
particular situation.

    Donn Parker, the key-note speaker at this Conference, would
seem to have taken into account the first reason mentioned above in
the guidelines which he proposes for resolving ethical dilemmas.
Most of his guidelines appear to arise from an Idealistic basis.
Certainly, the "Kantian Universality Rule" does. This Rule states:
"If an act or failure to act is not right for everyone to commit,
then it is not right for anyone to commit" (Parker, 1991, October
14). This is an alternate formulation of Kant's Categorical
Imperative. Kant himself stated his Imperative three different
ways, but his first formulation was: "Act only according to that
maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become
a universal law" (Kant, 1933). Alongside this Idealistic guideline,
Parker proposes what appears at first glance to be a Pragmatic one
("The Higher Ethic"): "Take the action that achieves the greater
good" (Parker, 1991, October 14). I say this appears to be
Pragmatic because the Pragmatist would seek whatever was best for
the group (as in the old Utilitarian motto: "the greatest good for
the greatest number"). But even this pragmatic reading is not far
from an Idealist outlook. Hastings Rashdall (1907) attempted to
synthesize Idealism and Utilitarianism by holding that "the right
action is always that which...will produce the greatest amount of
good upon the whole." Whatever the exact philosophical analysis of
Parker's guidelines may be, the fact that these guidelines may be
representative of more than one fundamental viewpoint should not
necessarily pose a problem for their usefulness in the area of
practical ethical decision-making.

Divergent Solutions to Selected Computing Dilemmas

    In conclusion, I offer some divergent solutions to three
ethical dilemmas having to do with piracy, privacy, and power in
computing. The divergence of these solutions is the result of their
differing metaphysical and ethical viewpoints. For reasons of
brevity, I will present what I call an "absolutist" type of
solution which is characteristic of the Idealist and Realist views,
and what I will call a "relativist" solution which is
characteristic of the Pragmatist and Existentialist views.

    Here is the piracy dilemma (i.e., a dilemma concerning wrongful
appropriation of computing resources). Suppose I use my account on
one of my university's mainframe computers for something that has
no direct relation to University business. This use could be
anything from sending an e-mail message to a friend, to conducting
a full-blown private business on the computer (billing, payroll,
inventory, etc.). The absolutist solution to this dilemma would
probably be that the above-described activities are unethical --
whether only the e-mail message is involved, or the larger-scale
business activities (although the absolutist would recognize a
difference between the two in the amount of wrong being done). On
the other hand, a relativist might say that the latter activities
were wrong because they tied up too much memory and slowed down the
machine's operation, but the e-mail message wasn't wrong because it
had no significant effect on operations.

    Next consider a dilemma having to do with privacy. I use my
account to acquire the cumulative grade point average of a student
who is in a class which I instruct. I obtained the password for
this restricted information from someone in the Records Office who
erroneously thought that I was the student's advisor. The
absolutist solution to this dilemma would probably be that I acted
wrongly, since the only person who is entitled to this information
is the student and his or her advisor. The relativist would
probably ask why I wanted the information. If I said that I wanted
it to be sure that my grading of the student was consistent with
the student's overall academic performance record, the relativist
might agree that such use was acceptable.

    Finally, let us look at a dilemma concerning power. While I was
a Professor at another university, if I wanted a computer account 
all I had to do was request one. But if I was a student at that 
university, I must obtain faculty sponsorship in order to receive 
an account. An absolutist (possibly because of a proclivity for
hierarchical thinking) might not have a problem with this dual 
standard. A relativist, on the other hand, might question what 
makes thsee two cases essentially different (e.g., Are faculty
assumed to have more need for computers than students? Are students 
more likely to cause problems on the system than faculty? Is this a 
hold-over from the days of "in loco parentis?"). 


    The skeletal cases I have just presented are not meant to
suggest that ethical solutions to computing dilemmas can be easily
generated. Indeed, just the opposite is true. In the present world
of computing, where ethical dilemmas are becoming ever more
complex, the hope of finding a single normative code which would
contain standards with which everyone would agree seems dim. That
does not mean, however, that such an effort is futile. For example,
it is possible for people of different philosophic world views to
agree upon the same standards -- although for different reasons.
Metaethical analysis may be helpful in exploring this possibility.
That exploration, however, is beyond the scope of this paper. My
concern here has simply been to show that one's philosophic world 
view predisposes one's ethical judgments.


Barger, Robert N., & Barger, Josephine C. (1989). Do Pragmatists
  Choose Business While Idealists Choose Education?. Charleston:  
  Eastern Illinois University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service 
  No. ED 317 904)

Halverson, William H. (1981). Introduction to Philosophy (4th ed.). 
  New York: Random House.

Kant, Immanuel. (1993). Critique of Practical Reason and Other
  Writings. (L.W. Beck, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago   
   Press. (Original work published 1788).

Parker, Donn B. (1991, October 14). Computerworld.

Rashdall, Hastings. (1907). The Theory of Good and Evil. Oxford:  
  Clarendon Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1961). Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (D.F. 
  Pears & B.F. McGuinness, Trans.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 
  Ltd. (Original work published 1921).