Back to School, with Metaethics Courtesy of Luciano Floridi

So, things have been very quiet around here at Rewiring Virtue for the last 6 weeks.  As it turns out, last year I was on sabbatical to focus on my writing. That gave me lots of time to write articles and such, but also blog.  Six weeks ago, I headed back to the classroom.  You can see what a dent it put into my writing.  Quite a gap.

Now that we are at midterms, it’s time I got back at it. And, like any good teacher, I’ll distract you by giving you an assignment.  Luciano Floridi has written a great, nuanced, and complex moral analysis  (via Michael Geist) of the recently failed Anti-Counterfieting Trade Act (ACTA-pretty much an US/EU version of the failed SOPA/PIPA legislation here in the states).  Floridi is a philosopher and longtime technology ethicists.  He is also the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Chair in Information and Computer Ethics at the University of Hertfordshire.  He has been doing thoughtful work for a long time, and is one of the leaders in the field.  The essay, entitled “ACTA – The Ethical Analysis of a Failure, and Its Lessons,” is worth reading (if a bit complex).

Floridi is a philosopher, so a good part of his job is making distinctions.  In this realm, there are a couple of really valuable things that he does in this paper.

First, Floridi discusses a number of acts within the ACTA negotiation process that have been raised as morally problematic, but which are not necessarily immoral. For instance, the fact that some negotiations are secret is not necessarily immoral. Many negotiations—from treaties to business deals—are done in secret for good reasons.  Similarly, the fact that some policies are developed without consultation is not necessarily immoral either.  In both cases, the moral issue arises out of motivation and consequences: the desire to mislead and exclude, with the effect of erosion of trust within society.  (He probably explains better than I do, so go ahead and read it.) Essentially, Floridi is making the same kind of distinctions that I’ve made between the morality of the action carried out, its intention, and its consequences.    An action as a whole can gain its moral species from any or all of these aspects.  If we want to understand well and argue persuasively, it is important to distinguish exactly where the problems come in.

Second, Floridi uses the helpful distinction between the “state-as-a-structure” and the “state-as-an-infrastructure or environment”.  The “state-as-a-structure” refers to the formal structures necessary for a state to:

fulfil its basic roles, such as exercising control over its borders, collecting taxes, administering justice, providing schooling, and so forth.

It is the mechanical aspects that any society needs to provide an environment in which people can have good lives.

The “state-as-an-infrastructure or environment” refers to the set of informal social structures that:

makes possible and fosters the right sort of social interactions; …[for instance] a culture of trust, of the presence of, and certainties about, the rule of law, of default expectations about the protection of human rights, of a sense of political community, of civilised dialogue among differently-minded people, of ways to reach peaceful resolutions of ethnic, religious, linguistic, or cultural tensions, and so forth. All these expectations, attitudes, practices, in short such an implicit ‘socio-behavioural infrastructure’, which one may take for granted, provides a vital ingredient for the success of any complex society.

As he describes it, if I understand him correctly, we face problems trying to develop functional structures while, at the same time, undermining functional environments.  Indeed, while we recognize the necessity of state-as-a-structure (which is accounted for in things like economics and business), we don’t account for the necessity of the “state-as-an-environment.”

It seems time to acknowledge that the morally good behaviour of a whole population of agents is also a matter of ‘ethical infrastructure’ or infraethics, to be understood not as a kind of second-order ethical discourse or metaethics, but as a first-order framework of implicit expectations, attitudes, and practices that can facilitate and promote morally good decisions and actions. Examples include trust, respect, reliability, privacy, transparency, freedom of expression, openness, fair competition, and so forth.

I appreciate this description, because so often it seems that problems we see in many information policy questions—not just ACTA—hinge on this issue. We cannot create functional structures without functional environments.  Insofar as the environment is non-functional, attempts to compensate in the structures will simply erode the functionality of the environment. And insofar as the structures are non-functional, our environments will change to fit the non-functional reality.

Perhaps it is simply another version of wanting to have our cake and eat it too. We want to be able to express ourselves however we want online, but we don’t want to be expected to have the common decency to restrain from saying vile and hurtful things.   We want free software, but then get upset when we find out the cost is our private data.  Indeed, we want complete freedom on the internet, and then wonder why things are so messed up.

The virtue ethics tradition is grounded in the observation that profound happiness—be it earthly or eternal—depends upon cultivating good habits of mind and action: only by doing good do we become good. Conversely, if we don’t do good, we may very well never be happy.

And if Floridi is right, without the ethical infrastructure, we can’t ever have a fair and just society.

Worth the read.

Leave a comment


  1. Nice take on Floridi’s paper. And the reflection question for the assignment is…?

    • Ah, good question.

      For reflection: Think about the last three comments you posted online. How would you characterize them: kind or mean, supportive or critical, constructive or detracting? If you didn’t already know yourself, would you want to be your friend? Why or why not? And if you visit sites where comments are moderated, do you behave any differently?


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