Comments on “The Ethics of Information” by Luciano Floridi

Our lives and our fate is coming increasingly under the control, or at least the influence, of an increasing number of autonomous technical information systems. And at the same time our society reaches through technology development and in particular digitisation, levels of complexity that seem to undermine our democracy and moral rules.

The role of ethics in this environment is the subject of Luciano Floridi’s (here LF for short) book The Ethics of Information (Oxford Univ Press, 2013). His approach is unusually analytical for a work on ethics and philosophy, which is attractive, at least for me. He uses mathematical concepts like “level of abstraction”, “complex and self-emergent systems”, and the concept of “entropy” from thermodynamics, which is also used (but differently) in classic information theory. LF uses the term “metaphysical entropy”. A concept that is used as a indication for good (low metaphysical entropy) and evil (high). I do not quite understand the relevance of defining this concept for the remainder of the book. The decision on what is good and evil remains in essence a cultural one, although one may agree that there are basic (shared) elements in humankind. We do not need the term and definition of “metaphysical entropy” for that and it might create confusion.

LF realises the problem though if he states on pg 315 as a response to some of the criticisms to his proposal for Information Ethics: “IE is equally reasonable: fighting the decaying of Being (metaphysical entropy) is the general approach to be followed, not an impossible and ridiculous struggle against thermodynamics, or the ultimate benchmark for any moral evaluation, as if human beings had to be treated as mere numbers.” So ethical good behaviour is fighting the decaying of being, or in LF’s terms: fighting the decrease of metaphysical entropy in the overall system.

The concept of global Information Ethics, being developed throughout the book, is not simply defined in a few sentences without risking a wrong interpretation. One has to read the book to the end. An important aspect however is that the actors in the ethical space are not restricted to human agents and patients, but include all information entities. Hence also non-intelligent objects and creatures, autonomous (intelligent) technical systems, organisations or communities, etc. A second important issue is the proposal to develop a global informational ontology for a global digital world.

I am not an ethicist, nor a philosopher. What interest me most in this book is the efforts to come to a general theory of ethics that might form a practical basis for global policy development concerning the interaction between all these information entities, to the benefit of humankind.

In the last chapter (15) of his theoretical development process, LF addresses the concepts “Physis” and “Techne”, and argues the necessity to develop a successful ecological relationship (“marriage”) between the two. In LF’s view such “marriage” is vital and failing to negotiate a global, fruitful, synthetic relationship between technology and nature is not an option. This is as such not a new view. LF himself refers to techno-philosophers promoting similar views. His conclusion is though that his philosophy and Information Ethics may provide help here.

As Secretary General of Digital Enlightenment Forum (DEF) (see ) I see the synergetic relation between nature (human) and technology as  an important reason of existence of DEF. Exploring and developing this relation in a balanced way is essential in my view for humankind.

Also I was attracted by his reference in Ch. 15 to the concept of “Social Contract” (a topic that is also in the middle of DEF’s discussions at the moment) and the analogy he makes with ontic trust. As LF argues, a social contract may be an implicit or merely hypothetical agreement between parties constituting a society, but in general it tends to be highly anthropocentric. However, we might need to include the role of Artificial Intelligence and Information Systems. LF concludes: “In the case of ontic trust, it is transformed into a primeval, entirely hypothetical pact, logically predating the social contract, that all human ( ) agents cannot but sign when they come into existence, and that is constantly renewed in successive generations.” Understanding and exploiting this effectively might be our most important task to ensure sustainability of the societies we live in.

A worthy read and food for thinking !


About digitrusteu
Independent consultant in the area of Trust and ICT. Secretary General of Digital Enlightenment Forum VZW, Belgium Formerly Head of Unit at the European Commission, ICT Progamme, Trust and Security

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