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Information-Centric Ethics - Trolling or Serious Suggestion?

By greenrd in Technology
Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 04:32:55 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)
Technology

Luciano Floridi is a professional philosopher at Oxford University in the UK. He propounds a somewhat unorthodox view of ethics (this is a considerable understatement). Here is a direct quote:

The fundamental difference, which sets it apart from all other members of the same class of theories, is that CE [Computer Ethics] raises information as such, rather than just life in general, to the role of the true and universal patient of any action, thus presenting itself as an infocentric and object-oriented, rather than just a biocentric and patient-oriented ethics. Without information there is no moral action, but information now moves from being a necessary prerequisite for any morally responsible action to being its primary object.
Is this academic trolling? As far as I can tell, he is not saying that we should not delete information only when it belongs to someone else, or when it would annoy people, or whatever. He is saying that additionally, we should not delete information because it is valuable in and of itself.


But how is this position even coherent? How can 0s and 1s, or pixels on a computer monitor, even be meaningful information without individuals to interpret and value them?

Is this, perhaps, a satire on "land ethics" or "environmental ethics" in which streams, rainforests, and species are typically considered "moral patients" which should be protected against destruction for their own sake, and not just because of their beauty or usefulness to us? Will Floridi reveal "information-centric ethics" as an elaborate hoax at some point in the future? It seems implausible - but then it seems to me equally implausible that he actually believes in information-centric ethics.

I personally find land ethics highly dubious, but many environmentalists agree with the proposition that other species, at least, should be protected for their own sake, and not just because of their actual or possible utility to individual humans or nonhumans. I respect this position, even while not agreeing with it.

By contrast, Floridi's suggestion that we should treat information itself as having "rights" or "inherent final value", would seem to imply it would be prima facie unethical to delete large amounts of information (which is absolutely routine - consider deleting old emails, for example), in the same way that it is prima facie unethical to kill people (although not necessarily with the same severity).

Is this really what he is implying? Floridi's own comparisons of information-centric ethics with environmental ethics certainly seem to support this interpretation.

Because if it is, surely it is the philosophical equivalent of theories like David Icke's "reptilian conspiracy" (to pick an example at random).

How did Floridi ever manage to get this theory taken seriously in the philosophical community? "Out-there" theories are two-a-penny on the Net, of course - but Floridi is employed by Oxford University and has a rather long publications list. Will anyone here stand up to defend him?

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Poll
Floridi's information-centric ethics is...?
o Nothing like what greenrd makes out - and I'll explain why in the comments 4%
o Ludicrous 16%
o Beyond ludicrous - it's bizarre 20%
o Dubious 32%
o Sensible 24%
o A right and just progression from "environmental ethics" 4%

Votes: 25
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o direct quote
o academic trolling
o own comparisons
o David Icke's
o publicatio ns list
o Also by greenrd


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Information-Centric Ethics - Trolling or Serious Suggestion? | 35 comments (24 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
It's not as silly as it sounds (4.77 / 9) (#2)
by localroger on Sun Oct 07, 2001 at 12:31:15 PM EST

Floridi seems to perceive "computer ethics," which might apply to certain existing systems, as a special case of "information ethics" which might apply if were to decide that the entire universe really is "all ones and zeroes."

Floridi must work toward the conclusion that information has inherent rights because, in this way of thinking, human beings are nothing but especially large and complex packets of information ourselves. Floridi seems to be trying to constructing a morality that can deal with a variety of environmental and science-fictional assumptions:

  • If the technology exists to record the contents of your brain and play them back into a new body, is it murder to destroy your current body?
  • How is killing one spotted owl different from killing the last spotted owl, or so many spotted owls that the species itself enters a crisis of genetic uniformity?
  • How are human beings different from other animals? Mammals from insects? Animals from plants? Living from nonliving material? What is the inherent worth of an individual or a species?
  • Is it stealing to make a copy of something which doesn't deprive the owner of the original?
  • One can generically lump together a lot of common-sense notions of evil by stating that if a block of information (which might be a file, an animal, or a planet) takes "work" (think CPU cycles) to create, then permanently deleting the last copy of that effort is inherently wrong.
This is not to say that the linked essay isn't academic navel-gazing at its densest, but it is no sillier than any other ethical or philosophical theory.

I can haz blog!

...but still silly. (4.00 / 3) (#13)
by bluesninja on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 12:38:47 AM EST

Floridi must work toward the conclusion that information has inherent rights because, in this way of thinking, human beings are nothing but especially large and complex packets of information ourselves.

This is a worthless observation from Floridi. He's seems to be making a common mistake in that he's getting his levels of explanation mixed up. Whether or not humans are "just information" (whatever the hell that view would entail), this theory doesn't tell us anything about morality because it doesn't tell us anything at all. Morality only operates at a certain level of abstraction away from the raw nature of the universe. It only manifests itself in the way we, as huge and extremely organized chunks of data, interact with our environment, which itself contains other huge and extremely organized chunks of data. While it may be possible to explain the behavior of the higher level from the lower, it's rarely economical. It would be like trying to explain a conversation between humans using only the interactions of elementary particles. Possible, theoretically, just too damned hard and complex to really add any value if all we want to know is whether Tom told Harry to go to the store (or something), and it doesn't even answer your question in the end. Maybe if he told us what it was, exactly, about information that made it a moral player, he'd have a theory. (And that theory looks like it would end up as emotivism).

When the question is "how should humans treat objects and agents in their world?" it doesn't really seem fruitful to begin with "Well, everything is really information, see..."

If his position is merely descriptive ("people behave in this way, period", then it is totally vacuous. Of course people have moral considerations of information. If we have any moral considerations at all, and everything we act on is information in a certain sense, then he's right. Pretty shallow victory, though.

Somehow I doubt his view is as cartoonish as I've depicted here. But I really see no other way to read it.

It seems an awful lot sillier than most ethical and moral philosophy, actually.

/bluesninja

[ Parent ]

same level of silliness (none / 0) (#21)
by speek on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 11:48:11 AM EST

It seems an awful lot sillier than most ethical and moral philosophy, actually.

It all seems mostly silly to me. What is it all but emotivism rationalized? What is our evidence of our special quality as "moral" beings? If it is that we display an ability of abstract logical thought, how is that not an informationally based explanation? If it's our informational capabilities that make us moral agents, then it makes sense to look deeper into information itself for the ultimate source of morality.

But, it's all bunk. There is no morality, per se. There are only strategies for dealing with reality.

--
al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees
[ Parent ]

ok then (4.00 / 1) (#23)
by bluesninja on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 01:14:19 PM EST

Remind me to kick you in the teeth and steal your wallet. After all, your rationalized emotive disapproval would have no intrinsic reality behind it, and I'd have your wallet. Sounds like win-win to me.

You say there is no such thing as morality, but in the very next sentence claim that there are "strategies for dealing with reality". Aren't these strategies moral theories? Aren't some strategies better (objectively) than others? Moral theory is just the art of rationally preferring one strategy over another. Would you agree with this?

/bluesninja

[ Parent ]

ok (4.00 / 1) (#24)
by speek on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 02:15:58 PM EST

If you are going to reduce the concept of morality to strategies for dealing with reality, then fine, but you've thrown a lot out by doing so. No more concept of a "universal" morality. Different strategies for different folks/circumstance.

And yes, some strategies are better - objectively - than others. But, there is a definitive goal in mind when objectively measuring any particular strategy. Tell me, what's the goal of moral strategies? Moral theory is not the art of rationally preferring one strategy over another, moral theorizing is an instance of a strategy designed to convince others to think as you do for the purpose of gaining influence and power.

Remind me to kick you in the teeth and steal your wallet

And your point is??? This is not some troll or a game. I'm talking about what's real. Your potential to steal my wallet is real, and if you do it, the consequences of those actions are real. Somebody proposing a moral theory explaining why you shouldn't do so is a real activity. But there is no God enforcing that moral theory. The laws of nature do not prevent your immoral act. The birds do not peck the eyes of sinners. Nothing happens. You might not even feel guilty, and I might not even hate you for it. So what are you left with? Strategies for dealing with reality, like, how can I live the way I want to live? Well, one thing is I've got to prevent other people from beating me up, cause that really interferes with me living the way I want.

--
al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees
[ Parent ]

point taken (5.00 / 2) (#31)
by bluesninja on Tue Oct 09, 2001 at 10:13:50 AM EST

You raise some excellent points. I apologize for the flippant wallet-stealing comment, but I didn't mean it as a brush-off.

The goal of morality in general is usually defined as "happiness" (as distinct from "pleasure"). The ideal moral theory would be one in which the actions encouraged or rejected by the moral system would always maximize happiness in some, usually ill-defined, way. This topic is a hornet's nest of philosophical debate. Start with Plato and go from there ;)

If I did steal your wallet, and you were ok with that, and it made me happy, then no, it wouldn't be immoral (and it wouldn't be stealing either). You can imagine this being the case in a society where there is no conception of personal property, for example. Thus, particular moral rules might be culturally relative to some degree. There may even be many "best" moral theories. My whole point with the wallet analogy was that, presuming that we both live in the same society with similar ideas of property and violence, then your claim that there was no morality was clearly false. It may be no more than a contract governing orderly behavior, with no metaphysics or God backing it up, but that doesn't make it "unreal," because we objectively DO make moral claims on each other. Would treat such a contractarian explanation as a real explanation of a real phenomenon, not a denial or negation of it.

It may seem like moral rules are arbitrary without some God punishing sinners and rewarding the virtuous, but they are not. We have to live with each other on this planet, and we need to have expectations for interacting with each other. Living in safety and security is only possible insofar as other people let you. There are better and worse ways of securing this agreement from other people.

Incidentally, Plato showed that God was unneccessary to morality back in 300BC (in the dialog Euthyphro). The argument goes: if what is good is good ONLY because God says so, then he could have come up with any old arbitrary rules of morality. It is possible that He could have said "Thou shalt not each hotdogs on Fridays" and this would have been objectively, morally wrong. If you think that this is not the case (and most religious people would), then God must have made moral laws based on their value per se. If this is the case, then we can just as well discover these "moral laws" ourselves, and God's yea or nay wouldn't add anything to value of these laws, (except the punishments he metes out). If God had said "Thou shalt torture puppies", then He would have been wrong, it wouldn't have made puppy torture right.

It just doesn't make sense to say that moral laws would exist in the universe even if there were no humans to "instantiate" them. I don't think we need this to talk sensibly and fruitfully about what is the best way to live.

/bluesninja

[ Parent ]

understood (none / 0) (#33)
by speek on Tue Oct 09, 2001 at 07:11:49 PM EST

It just doesn't make sense to say that moral laws would exist in the universe even if there were no humans to "instantiate" them. I don't think we need this to talk sensibly and fruitfully about what is the best way to live.

Whole-hearted agreement. We don't need to appeal to a higher, external authority. What that means, however, is that the value of moral theories is derived from the agreement of people. What good is a moral theory if no one believes it, no one follows, it has no effect on people's behavior? This just means that morality exists only in the communicative realm of human speech and thought. If people decided that morality was simply the activity of searching for the best way for all of us to live together, we'd be much better off. Instead, morality is most often an appeal to a higher authority, or a universal truth that others must be made to adhere to. This is not so useful.

To get back to the story topic, using information as a base to ask moral questions, to derive rules of behavior is no more silly than the usual appeals to God, so-called absolute truths, logic, or supposed truths about hard-wired human nature.

And, for the record, I was a philosophy major, so I did start with Plato and I went from there :)

--
al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees
[ Parent ]

You don't understand the idea (none / 0) (#26)
by localroger on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 06:56:49 PM EST

Whether or not humans are "just information" (whatever the hell that view would entail), this theory doesn't tell us anything about morality because it doesn't tell us anything at all.

How can you say this? Of course it tells us a great deal. It offers an objective rationale for assigning value to objects in the universe, and suggestions for moderating our behavior based on that value. The fact that it doesn't use the criteria you find important doesn't mean it says nothing, it just doesn't say anything you agree with.

The trick with theories like this -- and it goes back to Kant, Hume, and beyond -- is to ruthlessly and objectively apply the theory in thought experiments and see if the resulting behaviors sound like common sense. The whole point of the exercise is to come up with something that doesn't depend on faith or arbitrary criteria. It is to a certain extent navel-gazing, but it hardly "says nothing."

It would be like trying to explain a conversation between humans using only the interactions of elementary particles.

There are a lot of people interested in doing exactly that, so they can build machines that duplicate those behaviors. Just because you don't see the use for a line of thought doesn't mean the line of thought has no use.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Is this his ideal or his approximation? (4.16 / 6) (#3)
by tmoertel on Sun Oct 07, 2001 at 12:44:53 PM EST

It is unclear from the small quotation whether Floridi actually believes that information has "rights" and "inherent final value." It may be that he thinks that information is worthless outside of a context where it can be interpreted but nonetheless promotes it to a "true and universal patient of any action" because such treatment approximates his ideal system, namely one in which there is a wealth of information available for use in taking moral action. In other words, he may feel that humans can't be trusted to preserve information because it may lead to moral action, but if humans learn to preserve information for its own sake, there will be more information available to promote moral action.

If this were his underlying position, it seems reasonable, and it would explain why a concept that initially seems so unorthodox has made it into philosophical circles.

[Small editorial note: Can you add more supportive text to clarify Floridi's underlying position?]

--
My blog | LectroTest

[ Disagree? Reply. ]


Read it yourself (none / 0) (#28)
by greenrd on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 07:53:02 PM EST

Why don't you actually read (some of) the paper I linked to? I believe only small quotations are legally allowed for the purposes of criticisms or review.


"Capitalism is the absurd belief that the worst of men, for the worst of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all." -- John Maynard Keynes
[ Parent ]

Uh oh... (4.40 / 5) (#4)
by J'raxis on Sun Oct 07, 2001 at 12:46:07 PM EST

I just recompiled Perl... are you saying I just committed genocide with `make clean` ...?

— The Raxis

[ J’raxis·Com | Liberty in your lifetime ]

Hmmm (3.75 / 4) (#5)
by M0dUluS on Sun Oct 07, 2001 at 01:03:00 PM EST

if this is a hoax it seems to be very complete. I don't feel competent to evaluate his arguments in general, bt I do have a beef (!) with the assumptions that he makes toward the bottom of the first link that you give:
Suppose one day we genetically engineer and clone non-sentient cows. They are alive but, by definition, they lack any sort of feelings. They are biological masses, capable of growth when properly fed, but their eyes, ears, or any other senses are incapable of any sensation of pain or pleasure. We no longer kill them, we simply carve into their living flesh whenever part of their body is needed. The question here is not whether it would be moral to create such monsters, for we may simply assume that they are available, but rather: what macroethics would be able to explain our sense of moral repugnance for the way we treat them? Most people would consider it morally wrong, not just because of our responsibility as creators, not just because of the kind of moral persons we would become if we were to adopt such behaviour, not because of the negative effects, which are none, and not because of the Kantian maxims, neither of which would apply, but because of the bio-object in front of us and its values.

Huh? Am I alone in not seeing this as a problem? Is there really a "most" that he is in contact with that I am not?
This is in the section 9.c "Genetic problems".

"[...]no American spin is involved at all. Is that such a stretch?" -On Lawn
You're not alone, but... (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by bluesninja on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 12:05:26 AM EST

... I think his point was that if you watched a "zombie cow" get slaughtered, you'd still be inclined to disaprove of the act in some sort of pre-rational way. Essentially, he mashed emotivism in there by claiming that your reaction of "ewwww!" and feelings of guilt make the act bad (by definition), and, hence, the cow itself has moral value, since moral agents must behave in a respectful way towards the non-cow. This is a blatant tautology, but I see no other way to read this passage.

I'd agree that most people would react "ewwww!" to the slaughter, but that doesn't even come close to asserting conclusively that this act would be wrong. We naturally empathize with things that walk and bleed, regardless of our opinions on their moral status. Awareness of one's surroundings and situation, however rudimentary, seems to be a big prerequisite for a moral agent.

I think the only thing you could say about the example is that it would be morally wrong to slaughter a zombie-cow on, say, a crowded subway. This, of course, being due to the emotional pain you may cause the other moral agents that occupy the subway car, not the non-cow.

/bluesninja

[ Parent ]

The Douglas Adams version (4.00 / 2) (#19)
by dennis on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 11:38:53 AM EST

In Restaurant at the End of the Universe, said restaurant serves up a live sentient cow, which has been engineered to want to be eaten. It views that as its purpose in life, and tries to sell our grossed-out heroes on its succulent body parts. Is it wrong to eat the sentient cow?

[ Parent ]
Supersets... (3.00 / 1) (#14)
by Canar on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 03:06:39 AM EST

It seems to me that this information would only have meaning if it was somehow created. Be it evolved by genetic algorithm (or nature, for that matter, but who's saying that actually happened? :D) or hand-typed; if it's created somehow, it has meaning. As such, it shouldn't be needlessly removed unless it is quick to reproduce. (In the case of the genetic algorithm, given a certain random seed and initial information set.)

This, of course, all implies that the reason such information is important is because of the time spent on that information. No other criterion seems to come to mind that would be general enough here.

The information must be created because otherwise it is nothing more than a number, and there is nothing special about a number. After being created, however, it ought to be treated as something unique, if it is, and cherished. I've had battles like this with my conscience over deleting old stories of mine (From my grade 6 era. Very bad, but unique.), as well as crufty VB code (a bit less of a moral issue here...) from around the same time.

It also seems as though this theory is attempting to take several present ethical beliefs and roll them together into a cohesive whole. If this was a non-human science, he would likely be praised, if only for his efforts. Give that a thought.

-=Canar=-

-1, no hint that you understand this (2.00 / 1) (#15)
by Estanislao Martínez on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 04:08:52 AM EST

At the very least I'd have like some clue as to whether you understood what "information" means when he uses the term. But this passage from your article doesn't inspire confidence that you understand the relevant sense:
How can 0s and 1s, or pixels on a computer monitor, even be meaningful information without individuals to interpret and value them?
Saying that informations is "0s and 1s" or "pixels on a computer monitor" suggests you simply don't know what you're talking about. And to answer your question, several theories of meaning have sprung up which accept so-caled "natural meaning"-- "meaning" in the sense of "smoke means fire". You may disagree with such theories (I actually don't) but the rhetorical question you ask simply begs to be answered with a bucketload of references to the philosophical literature.

--em

Aaargh, correction (none / 0) (#16)
by Estanislao Martínez on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 04:29:30 AM EST

You may disagree with such theories (I actually don't)

Aaargh, I wrote this parenthetical comment, decided it was too long, shortened it, and then ended up saying the opposite of what I mean. I disagree with calling "meaning" what is known as "natural meaning" (after Grice).

--em
[ Parent ]

Information (none / 0) (#29)
by greenrd on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 09:43:25 PM EST

Since it is a paper about Computing Ethics, I assume he's using it in the ordinary computing sense. "George W. Bush has contacts with the Bin Laden family" is information. 0101010100010101 is not, without some clue as to what it means. What do you think he means?

(Yes, I know, I'm news-obsessed...)


"Capitalism is the absurd belief that the worst of men, for the worst of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all." -- John Maynard Keynes
[ Parent ]

the nature of information (2.00 / 1) (#18)
by boxed on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 06:41:43 AM EST

Information IS matter and energy, and vice versa. If you delete a file on your harddrive you DO NOT "destroy" information, you simply change the form of it. Life itself is a contagious information-changing phenomenon. This moral theory is a philosophical dead end much like solopsism. Information cannot be destroyed so how can one possibly do wrong? To put it mildly: this is bullshit. But note that it is not bullshit in the way you seem to think it it.

Information CAN be destroyed (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by greenrd on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 06:54:40 PM EST

What nonsense. If, let's say, I am the only person in the world who knows who Einstein's secret love was, and I die, that information dies with me.

Information is NOT the same as matter and energy. If you write a message on a beach it's still the same matter (more or less) but you've added information to it.


"Capitalism is the absurd belief that the worst of men, for the worst of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all." -- John Maynard Keynes
[ Parent ]

Value of information (3.00 / 1) (#20)
by dennis on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 11:47:12 AM EST

So far I haven't seen any suggestion that some sets of bits are more valuable than others. We exercise this principle with the K5 rating systems. The value of information is not based primarily on how many bits there are, how many copies of it there are, or even how much work it took to make them. The value is based on what the people who receive the bits think their value is.

This is not a philosophy I would apply to environmentalism, but for bits created by humans, it's the only way that makes sense. Otherwise, you're morally obligated to vote +1 on every story submitted to K5.

seems straightforward (3.00 / 1) (#22)
by speek on Mon Oct 08, 2001 at 11:57:10 AM EST

If we take some view that a human being is some combination of animation and information, then this isn't so strange. If a human were "dormant", you would still consider it immoral to destroy that human, right? That information represented by the human body has the potential to resume it's life.

Destroying email is like on the level of destroying viruses - who cares? The level of sophistication of the information being destroyed hardly causes us to blink. But, we might feel differently about something more complex.

After all, morality and ethics basically comes down to how we feel about things. And how we feel depends on what we were taught to feel.

--
al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees

He's not trolling... (none / 0) (#34)
by Jetifi on Thu Oct 11, 2001 at 07:38:51 AM EST

I emailed the guy with the link, he's had a look around. He had a couple of comments (like how people respond without reading links (among other things) ) and has said he might reply.

One interesting point he made is that while physics, mathematics etcetera are exempt from having to comply with the commonly accepted views of society, the social sciences( e.g. Ethics ) are commonly percieved to be more grounded in 'common sense'.

Of course this isn't neccesarily the case. I'll shutup and maybe he'll state his case.



Cultural relativism (none / 0) (#35)
by Scrymarch on Wed Oct 17, 2001 at 07:07:00 AM EST

As well as providing a stronger theoretical defence for environmental protection for its own sake, an information-centred ethics would be a very strong defence for cultural relativism. A culture is a collection of rituals and ways of people interacting, with fashions, languages and so on. Trying to change such a culture - eg to more closely follow liberal values such as gender equality - would involve destroying or melting a unique pattern of information.

A human is also a unique pattern of information, however, so a human sacrificing culture would present an ethical dilemma of sorts when using information values alone.

Probably no-one's tracking this article anymore, but it seemed worth mentioning ... cool link anyway.

Information-Centric Ethics - Trolling or Serious Suggestion? | 35 comments (24 topical, 11 editorial, 0 hidden)
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