Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Ethics and Codes

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 29, 2006

Responding to David Warlick - I tried to put this post into his comment system as well, but it's not even accepting the first two paragraphs.

I may comment more extensively elsewhere shortly, but I would like to offer the following thought: that the downloading and copying of songs might be ethical behaviour.

Certainly - as I argue in my essay, Copyright, Ethics and Theft - the morality of the publishers, who appropriate content from the public domain, and use their monopoly position to appropriate copyrights from artists for a fraction of their worth, is even more in question.

The issue is not nearly so clear cut as implied in your post. In some nations - my own, for example - copying content I have already purchased is legal. Is it therefore still unethical? No? Then what is the source of your claim that it is unethical in U.S. schools - is breaking a law automatically unethical? What about downloading from, which is based in Russia. The service is legal in Russia. Is it unethical to download from them?

See, this is the problem. People tend to regard these ethical questions as already settled. Just codify them, make people follow them, and all will be right with the world. But the questions are not even close to settled. Look at the codification in the ten commandments, "thou shalt not kill." Is it ethical to kill? But what if the law (the same law that makes downloading unethical) allows you to kill - in a war, as capital punishment, in self-defense? Is the commandment now, "Thou shalt not kill without the proper paperwork"?

I comment, in response to Charles Nelson, on my website: "when you are told what your ethics should be, you don't have to go through the trouble (and learning!) of deciding for yourself what is right and wrong. Part of the whole idea of empowering the learner is having them make just such judgments, to reach them on their own grounds, and to be able to defend them (beyond mere illiterate appeal to some predefined code) when challenged."

Again, what bothers me is the presumption that the issues are settled, and worse, that we - somehow - can settle them for students. That's why my original criticism in this discussion was to question the actual ethical precepts proposed. Is it true that we ought to seek permission before posting? Well, in the publishers' and propagandists' nirvana, maybe. But not in a world of open and free enquiry.

I have written extensively on how to evaluate web posts. My 1995 Guide to the Logical Fallacies is probably the most popular work I have ever written. So when you recommend, as one item in a code of ethics, that students actually commit one of the fallacies, I begin to wonder.

I have also written a more recent, and equally extensive, piece on how to evaluate web pages and web posts. Now I would ask, why would the code of ethics proposed touch on only one or two ways to evaluate websites, and ignore most of the rest? What makes questioning motives (which I consider a fallacy anyways) important, while following up sources, trusting your own experience, and the like, don't even make the list?

It is, indeed, because the discussion have been approached from the perspective that these ethical issues have already been decided, that the concept of a code is even plausible. As though the outcome, and even the domain, of ethical precepts, is currently known. Which is utterly ridiculous.

One wonders, for example, why the ethics of linking did not make the list at all. So, some questions. For example, is it ethical, as is done in this post, to cite two points of view, and to link to neither of them? Or, is it ethical, in a post to someone else's blog, for me to link to my own site no fewer than four times, as I have done in this comment?

Indeed, what are the ethics of the purpose of a blog? Is it ethical to use a blog in order to promote oneself, possibly in order to obtain more business? Is it ethical to shade your policies, linking only to those who link to you, say, in order to fulfill this objective (I am not accusing anyone of any specific practices here, and I haven't examined your linking policy at all, except for the one post mentioned above, so don't take this as an attack please).

But I will ask this, more specifically. Is it ethical to link preferentially to people with whom you are associated through a business? Must such actions be disclosed? When you link in the sidebar (knowing each link will be counted by Technorati, and used to rank blogs) only to bloggers who post through that business, and do not post a disclaimer about that association, is this ethical? When the same company promotes this same group as the edublogging A-List, is this ethical? Would altering your content because of this relationship be unethical - perhaps, say, steering away from copyright and patent issues because the company has a vested interest in trademarking commonly used terms?

It seems to me, that these would be points of ethics: that if you are paid to blog, you should say so. That if your blog is part of a business arrangement, you should say so. That if your business arrangement affects your opinion, you should say so. No? Now again, I am not accusing anybody of anything here. But it is fascinating that none of these sorts of issues arise in the proposed code of ethics. Why not?

One wonders - why would these be the topic of a code of ethics, and not an examination of the language of a sentence like this: "The consumers of your information product..." If you think of your work as an 'information product' and your readers as 'consumers' then you will have one view about downloading and citing and all the rest. But if you view your writing as 'contributions' and your readers as 'discussants' then the picture changes.

With every post, with every action, the question must be, "have I done the right thing," and not merely, "have I followed the code of ethics?" The mere existence of a code of ethics makes the latter, and not the former, much more likely. And when you stop asking what's right, entire realms of unethical behaviour, not even considered, suddenly become acceptable. Ethical, even.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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