East-West Perspectives on Privacy, Ethical Pluralism and Global Information Ethics

Charles Ess


Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are both primary drivers and facilitating technologies of globalization – and thereby, of exponentially expanding possibilities of cross-cultural encounters. As is well known, however, such encounters – especially when the discussion of potentially global ethical norms, such as those required for a global Information and Computer Ethics (ICE) is underway – always run the risk of devolving into more destructive rather than emancipatory events: first of all, as naïve ethnocentrisms too easily issue in imperialisms that remake “the Other” in one’s own image, i.e., by eliminating the irreducible differences in norms and practices that define distinctive cultures. At the same time, however, these imperialisms may inspire a relativistic, especially postmodernist turn to the sheerly local, on the view that there are no meaningful commonalities or resonances to be shared beyond the boundaries of the local. Fruitful and effective cross-cultural communication – especially as focused on the issues of a global ICE – must thus steer between the two Manichean polarities of ethnocentric imperialism and fragmenting relativism. This difficulty is not new with ICTs and ICE – but is complicated by the increasingly well-established fact that ICTs, most especially the Internet, embed and foster the cultural norms and communicative preferences of their Western roots. An emerging ICE, i.e., an ethics devoted precisely to the normative issues evoked by and surrounding ICTs – if it wants to avoid both overt and covert ethnocentric imperialism (the latter in the shape of endorsing ICTs that in turn foster specific cultural norms and practices), must hence be critically aware of how ICTs function in these ways, and what peoples and cultures may do to offset these embedded practices and norms as they take up ICTs for use within a given local setting. In my remarks, I will first provide an overview of how current research on the cultural dimensions of ICTs contribute to a required critical self-awareness of our own norms, values, and practices as these are embedded in ICTs – specifically with regard to those norms and values (e.g., anonymity) that are pertinent to the dual concerns of avoiding ethnocentric imperialism and developing a global ICE. I will then turn to current discussion of practical issues in an emerging ICE – first of all, conceptions of privacy and efforts at data privacy protection in both Western and Eastern contexts. Using these examples from praxis, I will then highlight a series of possible guidelines and approaches to the sorts of crosscultural dialogues required for an ICE that establishes middle grounds between imperialism and relativism: in addition to critical self-reflection, these would include, e.g., procedural and formalistic approaches to local definitions and understandings of central norms (such as “emancipation,” as developed in the theoretical work of Bernd Carsten Stahl and reinforced in Deborah Wheeler’s documentation of the emancipatory effects of ICTs for women in the Middle-East; Luciano Floridi’s notion of an information ontology that allows for diverse interpretations and applications across different cultures, and others – all from a forthcoming special issue of Ethics and Information Technology). Finally, I will highlight a number of recent theoretical developments in especially East-West dialogues regarding ICE that may serve as promising bridges between cultures that will thereby sustain an ICE that avoids imperialism and relativism. These include, for example, Soraj Hongladarom’s synthesis of Thai Buddhism and Western virtue ethics in his work on positive protection of information privacy, as well as several other examples drawn from our forthcoming anthology, Information Technology Ethics: Cultural Perspectives (Idea Publishing, 2007). Along the way, and as I will highlight by way of conclusion, I will argue that many of these specific issues and theoretical guidelines, approaches, and bridges across cultures can be understood in terms of an ethical pluralism, one that seeks precisely to establish a middle ground between ethnocentric imperialism and fragmenting relativism by understanding shared norms and values as allowing for diverse interpretations / applications / and understandings – specifically, as mediated through phronesis, ethical judgment – that thereby reflects and preserves the distinctive norms and values defining specific cultures. This ethical pluralism – including what comparative philosopher Rolf Elberfeld has described as a “resonance-ethics” [Resonanz-Ethik] – is at work not only in Western ethical traditions, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, but further in, e.g., Islamic, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions. Both at the levels of meta-theory and praxis (e.g., with regard to the issue of privacy), then, such ethical pluralism thus recommends itself as an important component of an emerging ICE.


20th century philosophy; media philosophy; philosophy; Wittgenstein Ludwig; communication; east; ethics; globalisation; information science; internet; pluralism

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