Robert N. Barger, Ph.D.   
                    University of Notre Dame   
  Read at the Third Annual Computer Ethics Institute Conference 
                    The Brookings Institution   
                          Washington, DC    
                          April 28, 1994   
             Copyright (C) 1994 by Robert N. Barger
     That there might someday be agreement on a common rationale
for computer ethics is probably a "useful myth." It is useful in
the sense that if it were not attempted we would not even come
close to achieving a common rationale. Yet it may be mythical in
the sense that agreement upon such a rationale is probably beyond

     At last year's conference, I suggested that computer ethics
can be grounded in one of four basic philosophies: Idealism,
Realism, Pragmatism, or Existentialism (a recent movement -
Logical Analysis - claims that metaphysics cannot be discussed, 
but its epistemology makes clear that it brings in a Realist
metaphysics through the back door). Idealists believe that
reality is ideas and that ethics therefore involves conforming to
ideals. Realists believe that reality is nature and that ethics
therefore involves acting according to what is natural.
Pragmatists believe that reality is not fixed but rather is in
process and that ethics therefore is practical (that is,
concerned with what will produce socially-desirable results).
Existentialists believe reality is self-defined and that ethics
therefore is individual (that is, concerned chiefly with forming
one's own conscience). Idealism and Realism can be considered
absolutist philosophies because they are based on something fixed
(that is, ideas or nature, respectively). Pragmatism and   
Existentialism can be considered relativist philosophies because
they are based or something relational (that is, society or the
individual, respectively).   
     A moment's reflection will show that if a common rationale
is to be found, it will paradoxically have to have an absolutist
basis rather than a relativist one. The reason for this is that,
in the long run, individual or social ethical policy must be
based on principle...and principle can only be grounded in an
absolutist framework. Relativist philosophies (especially
Pragmatism) may be helpful in the area of ethical methodology,
but they provide no absolutes which can serve as a basis for
ethical decision-making.   
     Even assuming agreement on an absolutist basis for computer
ethics, two further problems arise. The first is what to
prohibit. The second is how to enforce such a prohibition.

     Rabbi Gamaliel long ago paralleled Jesus' statement of the 
Golden Rule by saying: "Don't do to others what you would not want 
them to do to you." The trouble is that, in the rapidly developing 
world of computer technology, we don't know what to prohibit. 
William Witsman, a colleague at Eastern Illinois University, 
recently put it this way: "We don't know what not to do." I 
believe his sense of the situation is correct...if not his 
grammatical phrasing of it.

     The following tale may illustrate a way of dealing with this
ignorance: A priest once gave a fairly abstract sermon on
miracles and was stopped after Mass by a young man who said he
still did not quite understand what a miracle was. Somewhat
perturbed, the priest asked the man to turn around. Then he
kicked the man solidly in the seat of the pants and said: "Did
you feel that, my son?" On receiving a quite affirmative reply,
the priest said: "Well, if you hadn' that would be 
a miracle!"  The need today, then, is to come to  a decision about 
the things that should not be done in computing. This decision 
should be based on clear commonly accepted principles. 
     In regard to enforcement, I am reminded of the approach 
adopted by the Rule of St. Benedict which was developed in early
Christianity to regulate the behavior of monks. Benedict
recommended a three-stage process for dealing with recalcitrant 
monks. First, he said, the errant monk should be privately   
admonished by the abbot of the monastery. If that didn't work,  
then the monk should be brought before the full monastic chapter
and publicly warned. If this still had no effect, then Benedict
said, "Let two of the stouter monks explain the matter to him."  
     What we need today, after we know what to prohibit, is
efficient enforcement of these prohibitions. Louis Berzai, a    
colleague at the University of Notre Dame, has pointed out an   
example of inefficient enforcement in the sentencing of Robert
Tappan Morris, Jr., who infected the Internet with a worm 
causing untold thousands of dollars in losses. He received a    
fine of only $10,000 and 400 hours of community service. I join    
Louis in wishing, for purposes of deterrence in this precedent- 
setting case, that the judge would have more forcefully    
"explained the matter to him" by means of a stricter sentence.   
     In summary, my suggestion for achieving a common rationale 
for computer ethics would be: first, an agreement on principles 
(e.g., honesty, justice, truthfulness), second, an application 
of these principles through the prohibition of unethical (i.e., 
unprincipled) behavior, and third, enforcement of these 
prohibitions by providing punishment for non-compliance and/or 
by providing positive incentives for compliance.   
     As a final note, I would agree with the remarks of Professor
Alicia Juarerro made earlier in this conference that we are in 
the middle of a technical revolution and do not yet know what is
going to come out of it. But that does not mean that traditional
absolutist ethics is obsolete. Consider that not only were names
for inventions during the industrial and electronic revolutions
drawn from the preceding technology (e.g., the "horseless 
carriage," the "wireless," the "electric lantern"), but mechanical
engineers one hundred years later are still evaluating engines on 
the basis of horse power, and electrical engineers are still 
evaluating illumination on the basis of candle power. The former 
technology has been superseded, but its basic standards are not 
thereby made obsolete. The same may be true for the moral 
standards to be applied to the current technological revolution.