Monday, May 24, 2010

Images of Dead Children, the Internet & Values Myopia

"In a free society any free person should be able to choose what site they want to visit or not. If they do not like what they see they just close the screen and go on with their life. Who wants a Big Brother to tell them what to see or not to see?"

JohannaXn (screen name) owner of a gore website being interviewed by Channel 9

This week has seen at at least two issues hit the media in Australia regarding privacy, confidentiality and freedom of speech; Google's gathering of personal data with its 'street view' cars and the online publishing of a murdered Australian child by a gore website.
As a social liberal the latter incident concerns me. It concerns me because JohannaXn uses social liberal values to justify what I would regard as unethical. It concerns me because people like JohannaXn seem to use very important values such as free speech as though they can be applied without consideration of context, without respect for the rights of others and as though they are an ultimate good. The internet provides many huge benefits in relation to freedom of speech, especially for those living under oppressive states, but there is a downside and it seems to be a problem similar to the problem created by large organisations and corporations; while they allow us to achieve very positive things, they also have the potential to create an environment where accountability and responsibility can be lost and in turn allow unethical actions to go unchallenged.
My position is this, freedom of speech is not a blank cheque, it is not an ultimate freedom which trumps all other moral considerations and the rights of others. We have to anchor our ethical mores in a societal and cultural context and also consider the purpose of a particular value.
Freedom of speech does not offer carte blanche and moral absolution in all instances; child pornography cannot be tolerated on the basis that it is a freedom of speech issue, you cannot yell 'fire' in a crowded cinema when there is not one, and having freedom of speech does not mean you cannot be held accountable for your actions.
To me some very important moral considerations are being buried by JohannaXn, privacy being one- privacy for both the people whose images she trades in and their families and friends. If one wishes to claim some journalistic intent as JohannaXn has then she also needs to show how the public display of murdered children is in the realm of the public's 'right to know'. I think there needs to be a high standard of proof for this given the nature of the images and given that once they are released it cannot be reversed.
The issue of confidentiality is another moral concern here. JohannaXn claims access to images that may not be in the public domain, which means that someone involved with processing such cases is breaching not only their duties to the public if they hold public office but also to the victims and their families and friends. Respect for the cultural and personal values of those whose image is used does not appear to be a consideration.
And all of this is being done by someone who will not even tell the world her real identity, yet seems to want to claim some moral high ground.
As such I think in all moral deliberation, but particularly in arenas such as organisations and the internet where there is a potential for greater harm and weaker notions of personal accountability and responsibility, we must be wary of having values myopia.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

In Defence of Regrets

"Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh."
Henry Thoreau

This quote by the American Transcendentalist Thoreau may seem an odd post to begin an ethics blog, but there are at least two reasons I think it is pertinent. I am quite fond of his work, that is one reason, but more importantly I want to use it to say that feelings and emotion are integral to thinking about and living ethics.
When thinking philosophically about ethics there is the danger of wanting to bar feelings and emotions from the ethical equation. This may stem from a wariness of Subjectivism or Relativism, especially if one is committed to a Universalist school of ethical thought. But if ethics is to be useful, and if it is a vehicle that can develop us as human beings and guide us in the gritty dynamic realities of existence, then any ethical perspective will be impoverished and in my mind, somewhat hollow without a robust place for, and understanding of, emotion in moral thought. Computers cannot make moral decisions, not just because ethics isn't about simple equations involving empirical facts, but because they cannot feel.
Indeed, when commenting on the classic ethical problem involving two people drowning in a pond, one of them a stranger and one of them your wife, American philosopher Franklin suggests that it would be a strange sort of person that did not go to save his wife in preference to the stranger. With love as the motivator, I want to say he should prioritise his wife, and I also want to say that this is a sound moral action. This might seem to chaf with a commitment to the moral equality of all persons.
Is there some important distinction to be made if in a similar example to the above; the husband is an emergency doctor who has two patients and only one person he can choose to save, one patient being his wife? How can we understand and configure emotion in ethical deliberation? I am not going to suggest anything here, that is something that we all have to think about. What I will do is return to my original starting point, regret. Like all emotions that we engage healthily with it can be a motivator, instigator, catalyst and intuitive guide. To smother it because it is uncomfortable, or to try and live a life without it in my mind is to eviscerate the full experience of being and the opportunities for growth it opens, and that truly is a wrong.