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Photo of Mark Grover, {Photo courtesy of James Zheng}
November 20, 2007

U of S student puts the Internet through the ultimate moral test

November 20, 2007
Twenty-first in Series
For The Saskatoon Sun
By Charles Hamilton

Enter almost any chat room on the Internet and you can remain virtually anonymous.

You don’t have to reveal anything about your real, off-line life. Your screen name becomes your new identity, your virtual self. You can hide anything about your personal life that you wish. You can conceal your sex, your age, or your hair colour. You could just as easily lie about them.

But could all this ambiguity, all this lying about who we really are while online, harm our sense of morality? One University of Saskatchewan graduate student thinks this is exactly what is happening to our online behaviour.

Mark Grover believes people need to seriously re-think the way they behave on the Internet, and that Internet users are in desperate need of a good, old-fashioned ethics lesson.

“Sitting behind the computer screen, just dealing with avatars and anonymous usernames, I think sometimes people don’t even realise that these are real people they are communicating with,” says Grover, who is in the first year of his master’s thesis in computer ethics.

Grover is part of a growing community of philosophers involved in philosophical issues concerning the Internet. The field first emerged in the 1950s, when philosophers started thinking about the ethics of artificial intelligence.

But unlike many of his predecessors, Grover is not concerned with more fashionable topics such as artificial intelligence; he prefers to take a more traditional, ethical stance on the Internet.

His philosophy and his views about Internet ethics are rooted in the works of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s moral philosophy relied on one simple universal rule: When you make a moral decision, imagine that everyone in the world came to the same conclusion you did – imagine that your decision became a universal law.

In this framework, lying is completely contradictory – if you lie, that means everyone in the world has the right to lie, and if everyone in the world were to lie, society would fall apart. Grover believes he can apply this same Kantian concept to our behaviour on the Internet.

“We know that computers are having a huge effect on our society and to go back and actually analyze the conceptual issues is very important step in understanding,” he says.

“There are new problems that need to be addressed and untangled and I think the Kantian theory can help us deal with them.”

One of the most famous Kantian rules states that you must always treat people as ends, never as a means to an end. In other words, don’t use people for your own personal gain. This is one ethical principle Grover believes is grossly violated on the Internet.

There are the extreme examples of pedophiles or sexual predators using the Internet to lure their victims, but Grover believes that this principle is violated even in many of our everyday online interactions.

Because people can so easily conceal their true identity online, they are more likely to treat other people with disrespect. And, unlike real life, there is no real moral reputation to protect.

“Because they are anonymous, people tend to be deceitful online, they don’t show the same respect they would a person in real life, and, in extreme cases, they intentionally harm other people.”

Grover believes that the Wild West, anything-goes-mentality of the Internet makes it an inviting place for people who like to behave outside society’s usual moral boundaries.

But Grover’s work is not all about the problems. He also sees hope in the World Wide Web.

“Any reasons you have to tell people to treat others with respect online are the same reasons you would in real life,” he says. “People have to understand that the Internet is a place where our moral behaviour does matter.”

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Charles Hamilton is a student writer for the U of S Research Communications office.

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