Ethics dilemmas vex online users

  • Christoph Dernbach
  • India
  • Oct 17, 2014



A host of ethical questions are beginning to crop up on ‘conveniences offered by/through the Internet. Is it OK to use the taxi alternative Uber and ignore the current taxi services? Is it ‘bad’ to try out a pair of shoes in a store and get advice from a clerk, only to turn around and order the same shoes – often for lesser money - online? “The Internet is a new technology that is disrupting older technologies,” says a German Ethics professor, Kurt Bayertz. “It was just the same when cars came along and all the saddlers lost their jobs.” Thus, a tool that brings convenience and speeds up life can have clear downsides for many. There’s no questioning that in the countries where the Internet operates, global retailer Amazon has driven a lot of small bookstores out of business. “The question about whether bookstores should survive is not primarily one of ethics, but one of culture,” says Berlin-based Ethics professor Markus Tiedemann. After all, there are plenty of people who avoid bookstores because they don’t like to be accosted by salespeople. “If I come to the conclusion that, yes, I want a purely digitally communicating and organising society, then I can, with a clear conscience, order everything on the Internet,” says Tiedemann. It all depends on where you stand. What about the shoe shopping scenario (above)? Many people’s gut instincts tell them that this isn’t fair - that it is clearly an issue of honesty. But, as ethicists point out, it has a pragmatic aspect to it as well. “If I build such a guilt complex, over the long term I’m just going to hurt myself,” says Bayertz, “because the stores are going to disappear anyway. There will only be the Internet.” Conversation also turns to other topics. Should reports of mistreatment at a company trouble its potential customers? Many ethicists point to the writings of US philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) for answers. Rawls devised a thought experiment known as the ‘Veil of Ignorance’. In it, people must try to imagine what it would be like if everyone in the world was newly born one day, with no knowledge of what had come before them. What societal rules would be created in such a situation? In most cases people felt that some societal rules should exist, to protect against cruelty. And there would be certain things that would clearly be seen as ‘going too far’ - for example, paying people ‘starvation wages’ only. “We would tend to come up with certain ground rules to protect ourselves,” said Teidemann. “Rawls called this ‘Justice as Fairness’. “Continuing down this path, we would get to ethical results pretty quickly.” Business Ethicist Klaus Peter Rippe says that the question is not about working conditions - even if these keep him from shopping with Amazon - but about the market power of a company. “With Amazon, the key point for me is that they really try to use their market power to block competition,” he says. Considering the taxi service Uber, which relies upon private drivers who can be summoned with a smartphone app, he does not see it as a question of moral behaviour. “What we have here is a lack of rules. The question is: are they really private drivers, or doing it for money? At what point are you taken advantage of as a freelancer? We simply have to find rules.” But no matter what principles one applies, it often happens that the temptation to get something ‘quick with a click’ trumps them all in the end. “Even I don’t always manage to stick to all my convictions,” admits Rippe. We would all have to decide for ourselves how far aside we are willing to set our principles. “Some people can only afford the cheapest. And what if you have to buy something at short notice for a birthday, but it’s only possible from one vendor who isn’t entirely kosher? What we should expect from everybody is that they try to minimise unfairness and exploitation to the extent of their ‘abilities’,” concludes Bayertz. 



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