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Unavoidable Ethical Questions Social Networking

This resource is based on the approaches to ethics outlined in the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ Framework for Ethical Decision Making.

From a Utilitarian Perspective

The recent hacking of Petaluma High School student MySpace accounts and the posting of threatening messages highlight some possible harms of social networking. MySpace, FaceBook, and other sites have been the scene of cyberbullying and online predation. But the same technology allows people to connect with others they might never have met and form meaningful relationships. How do we balance these harms and benefits, reducing the one and increasing the possibility of the other?

From a Rights Perspective
Do social networkers have a right to privacy? More and more users of Facebook and MySpace are finding that prospective employers are perusing their sites, despite the fact that they may conceive of their online presence as personal space. Also, what is a private person’s right to control the images and information about them available on line? David Weisbrot, president of the Australia Law Reform Commission, which has been investigating online privacy, comments, “Laws designed to protect privacy in the outside world struggle to cope with the issues raised by online communities. For example, online publication of photo-graphs, which may be sensitive and revealing, raises new challenges in relation to consent.”

From a Fairness Perspective
Some people believe social networking sites offer the ultimate in egalitarianism. When we interact with others online, we have no real way of knowing whether they are white or black, male or female, fat or thin, young or old. Will this disembodied quality of the online world lead to greater fairness, or will we lose the ability to engage concretely with others, and therefore truly overcome differences?

From a Common Good Perspective
Pope Paul IV described the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.” Certainly, many people turn to social networking sites to connect with social groups that share their interests and values. What would the common good look like in this context? Does fulfillment have the same meaning online as it does in the “real world?” Are there ways to structure online communities so that they better promote the common good of their members?

From a Virtue Perspective
Many of the interpersonal virtues we value evolved in the context of face-to-face communication. Honesty, openness, and patience, for example, are honed in the negotiations we must manage when we meet people in person. What impact will digital media have on these virtues? What, for example, would honesty mean in the context of a world where people are represented by avatars? Will other virtues emerge as more important in social networking, where we can be constantly connected to a large reservoir of others and can shut off communications easily when we are bored or encounter difficulties?

Jan 1, 2010

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