Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Giving Ourselves Away, by Callum Hackett

This essay, by Oxford graduate student Callum Hackett, is one of the six shortlisted essays in the graduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics.

‘Giving Ourselves Away: online communication alters the self and society’

Invention is a fertile source of new ethical problems because creating new tools creates questions about how they might be used for better or worse. However, while every invention has its unique uses, the questions we must ask of them are often the same. For example, the harnessing of water and steam in the Industrial Revolution raised the same concern as robotics in contemporary manufacturing for how mechanization affects the economic empowerment of the working class. Naturally, there are fewer underlying ethical problems than there are inventions that cluster around them, but here I wish to explore the possibility that the mass adoption of the internet has brought with it a new problem with which we are just starting to engage. Specifically, while the internet poses a series of difficult questions, I will consider the implications of certain characteristics of online communication for the self, society and politics.

Since their invention in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, computers have had a controversial impact on our self-perception. In the philosophies of mind and consciousness, for example, the theory of computation has been used in arguments about the function of the brain and the potential for sentient artificial intelligence. More practically, however, while computers have taken on much of the work of our brawn and intellect and so given us metaphors (right or wrong) for how we function, the internet has gone beyond any previous computer-based technology in shaping how we can and do connect with each other, and how we create personas that stand in for our real selves.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.