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Ethics in the digital era

Students at The Efi Arazi School of Computer Science are offered new perspectives on moral issues

Dr. Jeremy Fogel. Credit: Naveh Ben Shmuel.
Dr. Jeremy Fogel. Credit: Naveh Ben Shmuel.

A new course offered by Dr. Jeremy Fogel at the Efi Arazi School of Computer Science presents fresh perspectives on issues that Computer Science students at Reichman University will deal with in their careers. According to Dr. Fogel, a lecturer in Jewish philosophy, “The role of an educational institution is not only to transmit information, but also to cultivate and encourage the development of ethical thinking amongst its students and give them the space to do so.”

Students are being asked to discuss moral issues that have arisen as a result of the Digital Revolution, using the viewpoints of great philosophers such as Plato, Socrates, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc. Dr. Fogel believes that analyzing current digital developments through the eyes of these philosophers might give students some insights about these developments. Since reality constantly changes with new initiatives and inventions, it has become very hard to explore their ethical outcomes.

So, what does ethics in the digital era mean? What moral issues arise from all the developments of the digital era? 

Plato’s allegory of the cave , for example, is a great way to explore certain ethical aspects of the current processes of digitization. According to Plato, the prisoners in the cave face a shadowy world of illusions. Philosophy leads outside of the cave, to a world of truth. It is important to note that for Plato, it was obviously worthwhile to attempt to escape the dark cave for the sunlit outdoors. In other words, it was obvious that truth is valuable. Contrary to this, we are currently creating a parallel world, a virtual reality, and are increasingly choosing to live in that cave. Do we still share Plato’s assumption that it is better to leave the cave? Is truth still inherently valuable in the digital age? What are the intellectual or spiritual forces – if any – that could withstand a plunge into a virtual world? Would such a plunge necessarily be a bad thing?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought on “amour-propre” is also a great example of how insights from philosophy can enable us to better reflect on how the Digital Revolution has influenced the way we think or behave. Rousseau characterizes amour-propre as a form of self-esteem that can only be achieved by gaining the approval of others. Rousseau thought that this form of self-appraisal, as opposed to “amour de soi”, which is a healthy form of self-love, is corrupting and dangerous. Returning to the digital era, it seems we are continually encouraged towards amour-propre: we upload photos and write posts on social media expecting to receive some kind of response from our friends, whether it is likes, loves, cares, etc. What effect will this extreme drive towards amour-propre have on future generations? How can we still encourage healthy forms of self-love?

And how does this affect our students? 

Dr. Fogel explains that there’s an ethical component in every action we take in our lives, such as what we eat, where we work, etc. When our students develop their new application or software, they will have to ask themselves, “What are the moral and ethical issues that could arise by using this?” Dr. Fogel also says that “The students I have met, want to make the world a better place. I am not teaching them anything new; they already have these ethical questions in their minds. I am just giving them the tools and inspiration to try and answer them.”

In his view, our generation is the one that will shape the Digital Revolution, and the way we shape will have a profound impact on the future of human development. Computer Science students, who will develop technologies that carry weight in our daily lives, have many ethical challenges to deal with. “My wish”, says Dr. Fogel, “Is that when they arrive at the crossroad of ethical decisions, they will have the awareness of the moral implications and possibilities that philosophy offers them.”

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