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Digital Media Ethics - Book Review

1 May 2018
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover


"Digital Media Ethics" is a publication authored by Charles Ess. Originally published in 2009, the book underwent a reissue in 2014, ensuring its relevance to contemporary discussions. Tailored primarily for academic purposes, it is a comprehensive resource for exploring the intricacies of ethics within the digital realm. The content establishes a solid theoretical foundation and encourages practical engagement with ethical dilemmas. The book includes prompts for stimulating classroom discussions, case studies, and various pedagogical aids.


Covering a range of subjects, the book delves into:


1. Theoretical approaches to ethics.

2. Considerations surrounding privacy.

3. Concerns related to copying, distribution, and copyright.

4. Dynamics of membership within digital spaces.

5. Ethics in the context of online sexual content.

6. Ethical dimensions within the world of gaming.


The subsequent summary mainly focuses on methodological aspects, with less emphasis on the theoretical and instructional elements. While briefly touching on other topics, such as the essence of democracy and the significance of journalism in the digital sphere from an ethical perspective, the book provides more extensive coverage of these areas. Reading the entire book is highly recommended to gain a deeper understanding of these subjects. Enjoy your reading experience!


Theoretical approaches to ethics.

The two primary ethical theories are rooted in the following perspectives:


A. Utilitarianism: This approach involves the assessment of benefits and drawbacks associated with each choice and selecting the option that yields the most advantages. Primary limitations of this approach include:


-   Challenges in comparably quantifying benefits and drawbacks.

-   Uncertainty about the extent to which assessing benefits and drawbacks pertains to the future and the timeframe—hours, days, years.

-   Ambiguity regarding the standpoint used in evaluating benefits and drawbacks—personal, third-party, corporate?


Deontology: This theory focuses on determining what is morally right, regardless of actions that provide pleasure, advantage, or comfort. While religious viewpoints delineate right and wrong, non-religious perspectives like Kantian individual rights adhere to this concept. The fundamental limitations of this theory are:


-   Disagreement over moral values.

-   Discord regarding what is considered morally right under all circumstances (e.g., differing opinions on the permissibility of lying).


Other theories derived from these include:


Ethical relativism: This stance asserts that moral values are always context-dependent rather than absolute, necessitating tolerance for differing values. In contrast, ethical absolutism demands adopting a fixed position.


Feminist ethics (ethics of concern): Anchored in feminine attributes, this ethics emphasizes empathy and responsibility toward oneself and others. It prioritizes interpersonal relationships and care for others. For example, this perspective would commend someone using another's phone to check on a loved one's well-being in digital contexts.


Virtue ethics: Rooted in aspiring to personal excellence through virtue development, this ethics centers on emotional well-being. An instance in the digital realm might involve planning appropriate behavior for robots.


Confucian ethics: Primarily focused on achieving harmony within oneself and society, this ethics places education at its core, emphasizing concern for others. In the digital sphere, debates about alleged contradictions between WEB2.0 and social networks resonate with this theory.


African-ethical ethics: Emphasizing virtues such as prioritizing the collective over the individual, this approach is relevant in discussions about disseminating online information and individual rights in digital contexts.


Ethics within the digital realm draws upon these theories, particularly the two main paradigms mentioned earlier. Despite various approaches and interpretations, space exists for collective digital ethics, delineating shared values (e.g., prohibiting murder).


Considerations surrounding privacy.

Diverse perspectives exist regarding privacy and an individual's entitlement to it. On one side is the European viewpoint, which asserts that every person possesses the right to privacy concerning themselves, their family, and their written expressions. In contrast, the African approach prioritizes communal welfare over individual interests. Between these extremes lies the American stance, which is similar to the European outlook but slightly less stringent.


In the digital realm, discussions on privacy typically focus on excluding administrators and intrusion prevention tools beyond privacy settings. However, the discourse encompasses:


- Emails (for instance, to identify gender or conversation content).

- Online browsing and site interactions (employed, for instance, in delivering targeted advertisements).

- IP usage (for instance, to ascertain identity and actions).

- Access to other individuals' smartphones.

- Utilization of cameras on personal devices and in public spaces, among other aspects.


Determining ethical contradictions varies across cultures, necessitating caution against excessive generalization. Luciano Floridi has defined "my information" as an intimate, personal possession, distinct from objects like externally owned cars. This perception underpins the objection to privacy invasion as an unacceptable infringement.


As individuals, acknowledging and consenting to collecting information about us, whether by private companies providing services or governmental entities, is essential. The invasion of our privacy and personal space remains a concern, even if information collection violates legal boundaries.


Encouragingly, globalization fosters convergence in ethical values across cultures and establishes privacy laws that account for both digital advancements and cultural shifts. An intriguing distinction persists: within Europe, active consent is often required for information usage, while the opposite holds in the U.S., where specific requests not to use data are necessary.


Concerns related to copying, distribution, and copyright.

Three (Western) perspectives on intellectual property can be distinguished:


1. The practical approach asserts that copying is justifiable when it contributes to the greater good over time (as seen in the USA).

2. A (moral) standpoint emphasizes safeguarding the inherent rights of the author, thereby discouraging copying (commonly seen in Europe).

3. An approach prioritizing user rights encourages open sharing, exemplified by practices like open source and Wikipedia (aligned with the African/Confucian concept).


Debates revolve around copyright. Some staunchly defend copyright without compromise. Others draw inspiration from figures like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, asserting that laws can be morally unjust and thus disregarding them is ethically correct. Advocates of the utilitarian stance engage in deliberation, while adherents of Copacius or African viewpoints favor communal welfare, leading them to oppose the existence of copyright. Virtue-wise, knowledge flourishes through its dissemination and comprehension by others—thus, this becomes the virtue guiding our actions.


This doesn't equate to a carte blanche for all forms of copying, but ethical perspectives indeed shed new light on the matter.



Dynamics of membership within digital spaces.

Undoubtedly, the global network and its tools facilitate unprecedented renewal and strengthening of connections with friends. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in regions marked by increased migration, such as the United States. Nonetheless, several challenges emerge in this context:


-   Peer pressure, sometimes extending to the point of ostracism for non-participation.

-   Exploitation of friendships for purposes of shaming and cyberbullying.

-   Constricted and limited options for self-presentation that fail to represent individuals accurately.


Addressing these issues requires a combination of approaches since neither the moral standpoint nor utilitarianism alone seems fully equipped to manage the complexities. It is precisely the ethics of virtue that offer a viable solution for cultivating and nurturing appropriate conduct. Vallor, for instance, cites empathy as a prime virtue in this context. Alongside it, virtues like fostering enduring relationships (retention) and practicing patience play significant roles. These virtues sometimes run counter to the perceived frantic nature of online interactions. For example, embodying positivity toward others and affording them space and security would deter shaming behavior.


However, the online environment remains far from entirely secure. Could this landscape be transformed? Efforts are indeed underway:


-   KISA, for instance, has formulated a set of ethical standards that essentially encourage Internet users to contribute to societal harmony and create a "beautiful Internet world."

-   The Diaspora open-source project strives to establish a safer alternative network, emphasizing individual privacy protection.



Ethics in the context of online sexual content.

Pornography is a recognized issue online, but even the term encompasses diverse interpretations that vary according to country and culture. Defining it, both legally and ethically, proves intricate and far from straightforward.


There are diverse viewpoints, including:


-   Portraying the human body solely as physical flesh.

-   Enabling individuals of varying identities and preferences to fulfill their needs online.


Applying the practical approach to analyze pornography introduces contrasting aspects: the positive stance on freedom of speech and the negative impact on women and children. Here, criticism of utilitarianism emerges: How certain can we evaluate the extent of benefit and harm? How does one quantify levels of damage and benefit? Moreover, is it appropriate to assess pornography using such evaluative tools?


Further inquiries arise within this domain:


- Is permitting advertisements containing sexual content that adversely affects segments of the population morally justified?

- Are we expanding individuals' exposure to new possibilities through the internet beyond their previous knowledge?


While it may seem like a straightforward topic, practicality reveals its complexity.



Ethical dimensions within the world of gaming.

Online gaming encompasses various aspects, including violence, which gives rise to ethical inquiries:


- The impact of games on real-life behavior (with instances of reported post-game murders).

- Considering gaming as an addiction—how valid is this assessment? Can intervention be justified?

- Addressing sexual content in games—does it equate to pornography?

- The capability and appropriateness of limiting gaming to prevent a propensity for violence—does it qualify as harmless play or a potential hazard?


Undoubtedly, digital media introduces a plethora of novel ethical dilemmas. These difficulties can be scrutinized through classical ethical perspectives and frameworks, the approach undertaken in practice. However, the intricate nature of these concerns is mirrored in both real life and the digital sphere, and therein lies the absence of simple, unequivocal solutions across nearly every context.

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