Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Ethical guidelines as alibis

Biella Coleman, in her dissertation on the Debian Linux project, offers up Bakhtin in her discussion of ethics and crisis--and I am reminded why ethical codes and standards make me so uncomfortable:

"In Toward a Philosophy of the Act M.M. Bakhtin offers an ethical theory of action that repudiates the implications embedded in formalistic theories of ethics. He is especially critical of Immanuel Kant's Enlightenment formulation of the categorical imperative for it requires what he interprets as a suspect allegiance to universally conceived theoretical precepts. What Bakhtin finds onerous in Kant's philosophical formulations is its purism and utopianism; there is a danger in the very idea that one could ever formulate a set of precepts that stand above time and place. An over allegiance to theoretical precepts, Bakhtin argues, disables and misdirects responsibility for it directs it toward a 'formula of pure theoreticism' (1997: 27) instead of channeling toward a more productive realm?an active confrontation with the living moment in it full-blooded complexity. The effect of such 'acts of abstraction' Bakhtin says is to be 'controlled by .. autonomous laws' in which people are 'no longer present in it as individually and answerable active human beings' (1997: 7)...

What Bakhtin helps us think about are the dangers and limits that inhere in an over-reliance on codified legal or ethical precepts, especially ones that posit themselves as universally relevant. For Bakhtin the most problematic aspect of abstracted formal ethics is that they provide a false sense of security, 'an alibi' for actual ethical being, one that downplays the necessity of working toward solutions and the inherent risk and conflict of making ethical decisions. The hard labor of ethics, its demanding phenomenology, is an outgrowth of taking risks and especially putting in the effort to engage with others and choosing to confront the unique situation at hand."

My dissertation also calls on Bakhtin's position on ethics, but what really appeals to me here is Biella's focus on the "labour" of ethics and the understanding that an ethical life (however one defines it) is constant hard work. A codified set of universal rules or guidelines may have the best of intentions, but emerges already crippled in its ability to negotiate everyday risks and adapt to changing circumstances. As she points out, crisis is particularly fruitful for engaging others and renewing our ethics but, in times of crisis, people "sometimes cling too literally to codified norms" and action can too easily be supplanted by abstraction.

Bringing this back into technological terms, I remember that technologies have rarely, if ever, emerged as anticipated or predicted--and so establishing ethical guidelines for technologies that don't actually exist seems particularly dangerous to me.

Update (later) - Prompted by recent comments I thought I should mention that when I wrote this I wasn't thinking of, or referring to, Adam Greenfield's ethical guidelines for ubicomp. And actually, now that I do think about them, he raises some interesting points and I'd really like to see more discussion about what might constitute an ethics for pervasive computing. Especially given Bakhtin's reservations.

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