Ethics and the Internet

UW-Parkside Religious Issues Forum

December 3, 2001

© Morris Firebaugh




1. the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation

2. a: A set of moral principles or values

b: A theory or system of moral values: (the present-day materialistic ethic)

c: The principles of conduct governing an individual or a group (profession ethics)

Note heavy cross reference to "moral." So . . . .


1. The lesson or principle contained in or taught by a fable, a story, or an event.
2. A concisely expressed precept or general truth; a maxim.
3. morals Rules or habits of conduct, especially of sexual conduct, with reference to standards of right and wrong: a person of loose morals; a decline in the public morals.

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

Sex, Pornography and Censorship

The problem is not with sex

Richard Dawkins says, in River out of Eden, BasicBooks (1995):

Never were so many facts explained by so few assumptions. Not only does the Darwinian theory command superabundant power to explain. Its economy in doing so has a sinewy elegance, a poetic beauty that outclasses even the most haunting of the world's origin myths. . . . (from Preface)

. . . .That is why we love life and love sex and love children. It is because we all, without a single exception, inherit all our genes from an unbroken line of successful ancestors. (from Chapter 1)

The problem is that the Internet enables new modes of

These modes include

Internet characteristics relevant to sexual ethics

Pornography is the graphical representation of sexual anatomy and activity

Venus in her Seashell

A reasonably objective Overview of Online Pornography is given at

Problems of Internet Pornography

RACINE — A Waukegan, Ill. schoolteacher appeared in court Wednesday afternoon on charges that he used the Internet to arrange a sexual encounter with a young girl.

Xxxxx X. Xxxxxxx, 26, of Kenosha, will face up to 55 years in prison if he is convicted of attempted second-degree sexual assault, child enticement and solicitation to commit child enticement. . . . . .

Racine Journal Times, November, 2001

An example of traditional religion's response to these ethical issues, and one worth considering, is given in

Christian Internet Code of Ethics

More problematic ethical issues involving social policy and inviting censorship include:

All of these cases involve the conflict between the First Ammendment rights of free speech vs. public concerns about the general welfare and quality of life. Irving Kristol discusses these issues in


Short Quiz:

Which of the following is obscene?

Broader Social and Legal Issues

Ethics and Technology

It is useful to expand our considerations from personal ethics to broader issues of the "good and bad" of particular technologies

Wolf Häfele, a leading figure in German nuclear energy, visited me in Oak Ridge shortly after Copenhagen was presented here. I suggested that, having been a student of Carl von Weizsäcker, he might ask his former adviser about the visit. Weizsäcker had accompanied Heisenberg on his 1941 lecture tour of Denmark, but was not present at the Heisenberg-Bohr meeting. Here is an excerpt from Häfele's reply:

I read the play and studied other available documents. Then I contacted Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. This is my description of the 1941 Copenhagen meeting as I understand it: Heisenberg did not want to build the bomb. You must realize the difficulties and dangers imposed by the ever-present Gestapo. A way of deflecting suspicion was to point to the extreme difficulties of the uranium-235 separation. Heisenberg was also plagued by the thought that the Americans and the British could develop the bomb. He strongly believed in the ethics of the brotherhood of physicists across borders and races. Von Weizsäcker threw in the idea of contacting Niels Bohr, and managed to organize a scientific event in Copenhagen with the help of the German Foreign Office . . . Heisenberg wanted to convey [to Bohr] the message that the German scientists would not develop the bomb, and that the others should not develop it either . . . Heisenberg and Bohr met. Afterward, Heisenberg came to von Weizsäcker in despair: Bohr had only heard and understood the hint that Heisenberg knew in principle how to build the bomb. The real point of Heisenberg's message did not come through at all.

Alvin M. Weinberg
Oak Ridge Associated Universities
Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Ref: Physics Today, December 3, 2001

Several of the issues listed below are covered in the course Religion 185.04 by Wendy Robinson at Duke University

The Information Ether

The Concept: All near-earth space (the ether) is filled with human-accessible information

The Virtual Community & Cyberculture

The Concept: The Internet enables communications, community, and culture previously impossible

The hope and general impression is that the Internet will help build human community and ameliorate social problems. However, there are contrary views. Astronomer/author Clifford Stoll writes:

The key ingredient of their silicon snake oil is that a technocratic belief that computers and networks will make a better society. Access to information, better communication and electronic programs can cure social problems.

I don't believe them. There are no simple technological solutions to social problems. There's plenty of distrust and animosity between people who communicate perfectly well. . . .

Silicon Snake Oil — Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, p. 50, Doubleday, (1995)

Computer Crime and Hackers

The Problem: Computers hackers (non-authorized users) break into computers and steal or destroy information

Consider the Justice Department solution to foreigh hackers:

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department, using the recently approved anti-terrorism law, can now prosecute foreign hackers when they attack computers in their own or other countries outside the United States.

Critics said Wednesday the change could make the United States the world's Internet policeman and set a precedent that would apply American values to the worldwide network. . . .

Racine Journal Times, 11/22/2001

Intellectual Property - Copyright, Patents, and Trademarks

The Problem: How do copyright, patent, and trademark laws apply to Internet content, and what is "Fair Usage"?

The Solution:

Privacy Issues - Surveillance and Confidentiality

The Problem: Combining information available on the Internet with other publicly accessible files on each of us may result in a much more detailed personal profile than we would like.

Computers make the sorting and merging of such information much easier, particularly with key fields such as SSN.

The Solution:

Unique Internet Issues

A Truly Free Market

The conditions for free market capitalism include:

The Internet provides the critical, often missing, third condition

Personal examples:

  • Travel Reservations
  • Stock Trading
  • Blue Book Example of Dodge minivan - $2K savings

Virtual Reality Sex — Teledildonics

Ted Nelson, the inventor of hypertext, coined the term dildonics in 1974.

Howard Rheingold further refines the term teledildonics as:

Put together a highly refined version of "smart skin" with enough computing power, cleverly designed software, and some effector system, and a high-speed telecommunication network, and you have a teledildonics system.

Virtual Reality, p. 348, Summit Books, (1991)

He goes on to observe:

The secondary social effects of technosex are potentially revolutionary. If technology enables you to experience erotic frissons or deep physical, social, emotional communion with another person with no possibility of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease, what then of conventional morality, and what of the social rituals and cultural codes that exist solely to enforce that morality? Is disembodiment the ultimate sexual revolution and/or the first step toward abandoning our bodies? . . .

Privacy and identity and intimacy will become tightly coupled into something we don't have a name for yet. . . .

Rheingold evaluated the technology of 1991 and concluded that we are "very far" from achieving teledildonics.

However, it is now 10 years later. Consider the article, Pornography and Technology, from the Stanford University course, CS-201.

Conclude: "very far" is about 10 years!

And, if you think devices cannot be controlled at a distance, consider the Light on the Net Project

Memes on the Internet

DefinitionOxford English Dictionary

meme An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation

Origin of Meme Concept

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, p. 189-201,
Oxford University Press, 1976, 1989

In Richard Dawkins: biography and background the motivation for inventing memes and the relationship between mems and genes is desctibed:

But looking at the richness and complexity of life on Earth, Dawkins freely acknowledged that an ethology of the gene alone was simply not robust enough to explain evolution. So he applied a Darwinian view of culture, as well. Dawkins argued for the concept of memes - ideas that are, to use the felicitous phrase of William Burroughs, "viruses of the mind." Memes are to cultural inheritance what genes are to biological heredity. A meme for, say, astrology, could parasitize a mind just as surely as a hookworm could infest someone's bowels. Ideas - like genes - could compete and cooperate, mutate and conserve. They, too, are operated on by natural selection. Human evolution, Dawkins postulates, is a function of a co-evolution between genes and memes.

My friend Dr. Susan Blackmore has bravely attempted to develop memetics into a proper hypothesis of the human mind in her recent book, The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, (1999).

One of the best surveys of memetics is her article The Power of Memes, Scientific American, Vol 283 No 4, October 2000, p 52-61

Note some properties of memes and genes:

Susan says:

Thinking memetically gives rise to a new vision of the world, one that, when you "get" it, transforms everything. From the meme’s-eye view, every human is a machine for making more memes—a vehicle for propagation, an opportunity for replication and a resource to compete for. We are neither the slaves of our genes nor rational free agents creating culture, art, science and technology for our own happiness. Instead we are part of a vast evolutionary process in which memes are the evolving replicators and we are the meme machines.

So . . . What do memes have to do with the Internet ?

Concept 1: The Internet is the ideal medium for the introduction, habitation and horizontal propagation of memes

Concept 2: The Internet is the ideal instrument for measuring the birth, growth, evolution, and death of memes

Concept 3: "It makes more sense when you think of the memes as having created the Web to aid their own replication, and competing with each other to get your attention." (The Meme Machine, p. 216)

Example 1:

The meme of memetics itself is spreading rapidly through the Internet

Example 2:

The myth of Leda and the Swan

Example 3:

The meme of teledildonics (as reported by Rheingold in Virtual Reality, p. 348-349)

I wrote a short riff on teledildonics, not too different in content from this chapter, and posted it on the WELL; . . . .

I thought that my piece would stimulate discussion that could help me think through the various implications of sex at a distance. The weird part came when I started receiving electronic mail from around the country within hours of posting that essay. . . .

The teledildonics story was also published in Mondo 2000, an avant-garde, technology-oriented "mutazine." I got even more weird phone calls after that. I can't help believing, from the reaction I've received in response to an essay I wrote in ten minutes, for fun, that the interest in this possibility will remain high.

Example 4:

Spawning whole new religions — see the Church of Virus

St. Charles (1809-1882)


Memetics carries explanatory power for the evolution of concepts comparable to the explanatory power of genetic theory for the evolution of organisms, and the Internet is the "field" for the study of memetics as well as the propagation of memes.


Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden — A Darwinian View of Life, Basic Books, (1995)

Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, (1999)

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, (1976, 1989)

Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, Summit Books, (1991)

Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil - Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, Doubleday, New York, (1995)