MORPH: Changing morality

Ethics used to mean a system of moral principles by which one guided and judged one's actions as either good or bad, right or wrong -- in other words, as socially acceptable or unacceptable. Note the keyword -- "social". Now, mentally type it into your personalised brain-Google engine, click Search, and see what comes back.

An aspiring dot-com entrepreneur might get "socialite"; a cheeky hacker, the Australian Computer Society. A reformed smoker could index social smoking. But there's a new breed of consultants -- ethics consultants -- who would much rather hit you over the head with something more serious -- like the word "sociopath", for example.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines sociopath as "a person who has not developed a proper regard for society, and who behaves in an anti-social way, ignoring rules of normal moral behaviour". It would appear that most individuals fit this definition, at least to some extent. The problem, according to behavioural analyst Georges Deveraux, is that humanity exists in the state of chronic neurotic tiredness due to the fact that our contemporary lifestyle represents an evolutionary novelty to the human race. But that's beside the point.

What is disturbing is the extent to which our collective business practices, and IT business practices in particular, contribute to the trend. They hover on the borderline between what is socially acceptable to most of us, and what in most societies would be defined as anti-social or even sociopathic.

Stalking, for instance, is a practice guaranteed to result in an AVO, no matter how quixotic, industrious or plain nutty the reasons for such an action might be. But, as InfoWorld columnist Bob Lewis recently pointed out, when society calls for an AVO against corporate development of stalking technologies "that surreptitiously follow you around the Web", or a virtual victim asks for protection against the Internet-equivalent of break-and-enter (such as spamming), the industrious character of a corporation seems to be a good enough excuse.

So, if says it could use the individual data it collects currently for whatever purposes its future privacy policies would allow, users should just get over it, right? After all, these are just a few more "evolutionary novelties" our neurotic species will have to digest.

Then again, who ever said this was an age for the faint-hearted? We are at the epicentre of the second industrial revolution and the rules are morphing along with the world that creates them. Our moral focus, it seems, is changing too.

The proverbial love of money is no longer considered the root of all evil. Most seem to subscribe to a different view, happily becoming shareholders in the business of virtual stalking. No-one likes to be stalked, but they will turn a blind eye as long as the stalkers deliver dividends at the year's end.

Call it the new economy paradox, but it's safe to say that a virtual stalker's shareholder (VSS) will not raise any ethical issues with a company they part-own -- unless the CEO is rewarded hefty bonuses and the VSS gets nothing but a sad childhood story as its ROI (as was recently the case with a struggling Australian telco). That's because these days, "ethics" is a moral responsibility that others have towards us, not vice versa.

Similar attitudes seem to prevail in the new channel. The results of a Channel X spot survey of 15 resellers, distributors and vendors shows that, when asked about ethical issues, vendors complain about bed-hopping resellers who won't commit to "mono-vendorous" relationships, while the channel points its finger back, accusing vendors of too much marketing hype and not enough real work. Just as with the neurotic society and the virtual stalker's shareholder, nobody wants to take the blame for the unhappy customer. Here too responsibility has gone astray.

It is true, however, that the new economy is only approaching its adolescence. And in adolescence, people tend to mix hope with confidence without caring much about responsibility -- an ethical value in itself. It is also true that revolutions and ethics don't mix, because opportunities like those presented by technological revolutions don't come often. Yet it is never too late for a historical precedent to be set.

X facts

ethics /ethiks/, n. pl. [L ethicus, from Gk ethikos of morals, moral] 1. A system of moral principles, by which human actions and proposals may be judged good or bad or right or wrong. 2. The rules of conduct recognised in respect of a particular class of human actions. 3. An overall emphasis on moral matters.*

*Source: The Macquarie Dictionary.

**Natalie Hambly contributed to this article.