Dan Bye looks at ethics on the web.
Sometime in January (I don't remember exactly when), I read in a newspaper (I don't remember which) that a religious personage (I don't remember who a bishop? an archbishop? the Pope?) had made some comments about the internet. Whoever it was had remarked that although the world wide web was very exciting and very useful, it couldn't teach morality. Well, I thought, that's a truism. The internet is no more capable than a bicycle of teaching morality. It's a technology, not a moralist.
But on the other hand, I realised, the internet is a kind of community: it only works because people cooperate with one another. And whenever human beings find themselves in situations requiring reciprocity and cooperation we develop "rules", or expected standards of behaviour, to help everyone understand what is required for everyone to get along with each other and flourish. Therefore, might not studying the way in which codes of behaviour have developed in the virtual world give us some insight into the way in which ethical systems evolve in the "real" world?
And indeed it turns out that there is a great deal of material available on the subject of electronic ethics, ranging from the rights and wrongs of "spamming" (sending unsolicited emails, usually containing advertising, to thousands of recipients), to lists of dos and don'ts for contributors to mailing lists and newsgroups. And debates rage on several different levels simultaneously, in that very human way we're used to.
An excellent place to start if you are interested in such matters is the "Ethics and Etiquette of Internet Resources" section of the World-Wide Web Virtual Library at http//www.ciolek.com/WWWVLPages/QltyPages/QltyEtiq.html. It compiles links on net user etiquette, piracy, privacy, copyright, and computing ethics and responsibility.
But in this column I'd like to look at some websites concerned with ethics as a subject of interest to rationalists and freethinkers, rather than as an 'issue' for Internet users. Sites that don't so much "teach morality" as encourage ethical thought.
One place you wouldn't look is the BBC's "Religion and Ethics" page (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion). They have recently conceded space for information about rationalism, humanism, atheism and secularism, but I still can't see anything about ethical issues.
A useful starting point is BUBL's moral philosophy section at http://bubl.ac.uk/link/m/moralphilosophy.htm. The resources listed have been selected, evaluated, catalogued and annotated, so there is an indication as to the quality or reliability of the sites listed.
Some academic institutions have developed educational materials which they make available on the web. The Philosophy Department of Carnegie Mellon University in the USA hosts an Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy (http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/Cavalier/80130/Syllabus.html), which aims to present a general historical and thematic introduction to ethical theories. It's incomplete, but is being developed.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Ethics (http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/ethics.htm) covers the core areas of metaethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. If you don't know what the difference between teleological and deontological ethical theories is supposed to be, you could do worse than read the explanation here. The entry concludes with cross references to other articles.
Ethics Updates (http://ethics.acusd.edu) is widely respected, though its American focus might be off-putting for some of those outside the USA. It's designed to update teachers and students of ethics on current literature relating to ethical issues and moral theories. So there is a "reference room" of classic works in moral philosophy, a range of discussion forums on various subjects, and much more.
New Humanist readers particularly interested in non-theistic ethics should visit the Internet Infidels' terrific collection of documents on morality and atheism at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/ morality-and-atheism.html. There are over 40 articles here, all of them thought-provoking, dealing with such questions as, "are atheists as moral as theists?".