Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stories and Ethics

Another important, but underused, role for stories is in the exploration of ethical issues, especially ethical issues arising from the use of new technologies. I wrote a number of papers many years ago on the role of stories in computer ethics. The premise behind that work was that traditional approaches to ethical analysis may not be adequate for the ethics of technology. A common approach to ethical analysis known as consequentialism attempts to determine the ethical quality of an act based upon its consequences. This seems perfectly reasonable. But what if you don’t know what the consequences may be? This is often the case with decisions about the appropriate use of new technology.

But all is not lost. We can often speculate on the possible consequences and evaluate our ethical options based on the possible consequences. And an important vehicle in exploring possible consequences is the use of stories. Stories allow us to explore possible outcomes and select the outcome that is most likely and/or most desirable.

In fact, I am teaching a class this Spring on exactly this topic. It is called Writing Stories to Explore the Ethics of Technology. In the past, I have allowed a wide variety of emerging technologies as the focus for the stories. But, this Spring I am going to focus on the ethical issues that arise from Virtual Worlds such as Second Life and Video Games such as World of Warcraft. I think it will be both fun and enlightening.

I need to make one more point before closing this short piece. Notice how, in this notion of writing stories to explore the ethics of virtual worlds, several very different ideas are brought together. The idea includes ethics, writing, and virtual worlds – all themes in this blog. But the point is that almost any idea or any area of study or investigation relates, in some way, to every other idea, or area of study or investigation. And this is an important clue to how we advance our understanding of the world. Not every combination of ideas will produce an important insight. But most missing insights are just missing the right combination of ideas.

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