Category Archives: computer ethics

Call for Papers: Well-being in Contemporary Society

Call for Papers: Well-being in Contemporary Society

International Conference on the Philosophy and Science of Well-being and their Practical Importance

Location:             University of Twente, Enschede, Netherlands
Date:                     July 26-27, 2012

Program Chair:
Philip Brey (University of Twente)

Organising committee:
Johnny Hartz Søraker (University of Twente)
Pak-Hang Wong (University of Twente)
Jan-Willem van der Rijt (University of Amsterdam)
Jelle de Boer (University of Amsterdam)

About the Conference

In recent years, well-being has enjoyed a renaissance in philosophical discussions, as well as in fields like psychology, economics, development studies and sociology. Although these approaches share a common goal – to better understand what well-being is and how it can be enhanced – these developments have led to a great diversity in philosophical and scientific approaches to the analysis of well-being. Despite the increasing amount of research, most of the work on well-being is also performed at a highly abstract level. This is especially true in philosophy, but relatively little work has been devoted to the application of theories of well-being also in other fields, in particular when it comes to an understanding of life in contemporary society. Developments such as globalization, consumerism, and the rapid innovation and use of new and emerging technologies, all exert significant impact on the well-being of people living today, and we need a better understanding of their consequences for well-being.

Contemporary society requires that well-being researchers examine these problems – and, if possible, propose solutions to address them. This international conference aims to bring together researchers from various disciplines, including, but not limited to, psychology, economics, sociology, philosophy and development studies, in order to examine the practical role of well-being in contemporary society.

Potential Topics

We are looking for contributions that examine the notion of well-being in the context of contemporary society. The conference particularly welcomes papers that employ a notion of well-being to address social, political and ethical issues in present-day society. Suggested topics for the workshop include, but are not limited to:

  • Theoretical developments and approaches in the philosophy and science of well-being in relation to contemporary society, culture and life.
  • Well-being in social and political philosophy and/or in policy studies
  • Positive psychology (and related research fields) and its practical applicability
  • New and emerging technologies and well-being
  • Intercultural and interpersonal comparisons of well-being
  • Reliability, validity and applicability of well-being measures
  • Other specific practical issues pertaining to well-being in contemporary society

The workshop will include both invited papers and an open call for papers. For the open call, we invite extended abstracts (1500-2000 words).  Please anonymise the abstract, and include title, name and address in the accompanying email. The abstract, and any questions you may have about the conference, should be sent to Your abstract should be submitted before February 15th 2012, and will be subject to blind peer review.


Following the conference we aim to publish the papers, subject to a blind review process, in either an edited volume or a special issue of a relevant journal. We did so successfully with our previous conference, Good Life In a Technological Age, from which select papers were published as book in the prestigious Routledge Studies in Science, Technology and Society series, and will be available in February 2012.

Important Dates

Abstract Submission Deadline:   February 15. 2012
Notification of Acceptance:         March 1, 2012
Conference Dates:                          July 26-27, 2012



The official web site is under construction. Don’t hesitate to contact us on the email address above if you have any questions about the conference.

CEPE panel rant

I delivered this rant as part of a panel entitled “New Directions for Information Ethics Scholarship” at the CEPE (Computer Ethics Philosophical Enquiry) conference 2011. It was given as the last of four rants, in the early morning of the last day of the conference so I’m not sure many attendents really got the main message, and it seems to have been interpreted as more controversial than it really was. Sorry about the typos, but parts of this was written down in a hurry

Mind is they keyLet me start by saying a little bit about the background for this rant. Although academia doesn’t seem to be a harsh existence when we exchange ideas with friends and colleagues at these gatherings, it often requires you to go in directions you didn’t plan, to tackle issues that are placed in front of you rather than chosen by an act of volition. I think we all can relate to the fact that the research we’ve done seems to be a chaotic network determined in large part by chance or external pressure, rather than careful elaboration of a coherent system. Because of this, it came as a surprise to me when I recently realized that there was a red line running through my various ramblings. The common denominator, and this is what I want to emphasize today,  was something that seems to have fallen into disrepute; the common denominator was nothing less than what distinguishes us from physical reality, what distinguishes from brute facts – that which makes us into something more than extended matter. I am of course talking about the mind, our consciousness. It is my firm conviction, and I find this almost as indubitable as Descartes did back in the day, that mind is not only that which sets a small subset of matter apart from everything else, it is also a necessary condition for ethics. Without mind, there is no right and wrong, no good or bad, no beautiful or ugly. More related to this conference, without the mind, there would be no privacy, no intellectual property, no values-in-design, no professional responsibility, no identity theft, no cultural differences – in short, without mind, nothing would matter. Before moving on to some of the implications of this view, I want to clarify that this is not anthropocentric, it is anthropogenic; conscious beings are the origin of value and morality, but this does not entail that we are the only ones worth caring about. Quite the contrary.

I want to continue by addressing a few implications from this emphasis on mind.

First, and please do not misunderstand this point and please apply the principle of charity, the important and enlightening effort to question the sharp dividing line between subject and object, is sometimes taken to extremes that leave the mind out in a concerning manner. I am talking about attempts to ascribe moral rights and personhood to non-sentient beings, to propose the extension of mind while forgetting about the locus of the mind, to regard ‘the human condition’ as independent from subjective contingencies, to regard synthetic emotions as equivalent to felt emotions, to disregard the importance of the subject’s context in understanding embedded values, to evaluate technology’s impact on well-being as independent from conscious experience, to regard syntax as exhaustive of semantics (let alone pragmatics), and to regard interaction between conscious beings as equivalent to interaction between non-conscious nodes in a network. The dividing line between these phenomena can be seen as ontological, epistemological or pragmatical, but ignoring this dividing line is, in short what has been known in philosophy of mind as feigning anaesthesia. Anything that requires mind to exist, such as our ideas, emotions and deliberations, have a mode of existence that is fundamentally different from everything that is non-conscious. I don’t think any of us genuinely think that mind can be removed from the equation, but I do think that we are all pushed in that direction for a number of reasons. Paradoxically, one reason is that bracketing the mind doesn’t immediately conform with common sense, common sense being a term that has gotten the unfortunate connotation of equalling lack of reflection. That taking emotions, deliberations, subjective desires and personal preferences into account, is seen as tantamount to basing your evaluations on gut feeling – tantamount to lack of reflection. Another reason why mind is being ignored is that the move towards neglecting the complexity of our mental states is a natural movement of the pendulum, as a response to placing too much emphasis on the mind, and too sharp a distinction between subject and object – but common sense should be the gravity that pulls the pendulum towards a golden mean. Yes, mental states muddy the water, and they introduce ambiguities and complexities that makes any analytically minded philosopher cringe, but that in itself is not a reason to bracket those concerns. As I tried to argue in yesterday’s talk, I applaud methods that allow us to conceptualize the complexity and subtlety of mental states in a way that lends itself to analysis. But, I feel compelled to emphasize that this can only be one approach in a necessarily pluralist computer ethics. To put it in Wittgensteinian terms, we do not have to uphold Western philosophy’s contempt for the particular case, a contempt rooted in philosophy’s traditional equation between objective truth, on the one hand, and stability, observer-independence and universality on the other. As John Searle has made clear, ontological subjectivity does not entail epistemological subjectivity. If you don’t believe that this is a one dollar bill, you are wrong, even though this truth that is made possible only by consciousness – indeed, only by collective consciousness. In a similar manner, emphasizing the importance of subjective consciousness does not entail ethical relativism. It should not be necessary to remind you that even the strict objectivity of Kant’s deontology –if you allow me to put it crudely for the sake of this short talk – is grounded in self-consciousness. Consciousness is not only emotions and qualia and the ephemeral what-its-like-to-be, it is also self-reflection, autonomy and rationality.

Another reason why I emphasize mind, is that the mind is a form of magic, in the strict sense of the word. It is a reason for awe and wonder that can’t be seen as equivalent to non-conscious processes. I believe that this is something we can all agree about, across religious and cultural backgrounds. When God is dead, the only thing that brings telos and value to this world is consciousness, so even atheists can marvel at the splendour of the mind, and regard the mind as the origin of value, and the anchor we need in order to avoid nihilism. As such, and this is one of my main points, mind and consciousness can form a common denominator for pluralism and cultural sensitivity – a common denominator that does neither presuppose nor exclude religious beliefs or culturally rooted beliefs.

Finally, and less sermon-like: If the best reason for downplaying the importance of mind is methodological, we need to consider the range of methods available to us. That is, if we want to take the mind seriously, we ought to take the science of mind more seriously. For a long time, I have been baffled by the lack of cooperation between philosophy and psychology. Let me emphasize that I do not, as the dreaded referee #2 once accused me of, claim that empirical research should have the final say in philosophical matters. Rather, questions that cannot be settled a priori, should be informed by empirical research. We cannot presuppose a priori that violent video games make us anti-social, that globalisation flattens cultural values, that reduced privacy is an evil, that virtual relationships cannot be meaningful, that intellectual property is necessary for innovation, or that workplace surveillance leads to efficiency. There is psychological research on these topics, research that should play a much larger role in our analyses. Related to this, I want to mention the field of positive psychology in particular. When Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he opened his inaugural speech by saying that psychology should not only be concerned with bringing patients from -.5 to 0, but also to bring humans from 0 to 0.5. That is, psychology should not be concerned only with curing illness, but just as much with leading people towards more fulfilling lives.

Pollyanna (children's book)In a similar manner, I think we need to start paying more attention to how technology can improve our quality of life. We should pay as much attention to the promise of technology as we pay attentions to the threat of technology. However, and this brings me back to my earlier point, being optimistic about technology and looking for ways in which technology can enrich our lives is often seen as naive and unreflected – there is a reason why this attitude is dismissively referred to as Pollyannaism. In the original children story, Polyanna looses her legs, and her optimism disappears. What brings it back it the encouragement of the townspeople, letting her know that her optimism improved their lives. It’s time for Polyanna to walk again. If we want to do the same, there is a large and untapped source of empirical research in positive psychology, findings that enable us to look for new ways in which technology can improve people’s lives. At the same time , this research  is riddled with methodological problems, biases and limited validity. This is why philosophy and ethics – and philosophy and ethics of computing – is the natural meeting point. The place where we can make all-things considered evaluations – and where all-things-considered does not undermine the importance of mind.

Designing a computer ethics course from scratch

Designing a Computer Ethics course - The Devil is in the detailsI’ve always enjoyed teaching computer ethics to engineers, partly because it’s such a challenge to make the material inspiring and relevant. Part of this challenge came from the textbooks I’ve used in the past. Although many of them are well-written, balanced and gives a good introduction to computer ethics as a field (I still think Tavani’s is the best out there), I often find them lacking when it comes to “why should I learn this?”- and some of them spend too much time explaining technicalities when the computer science students already know all about this (CS students, especially graduate students, don’t need an explanation of worms, data mining or encryption techniques – they will know this better than both the authors and the lecturer). With this in mind, I decided to design my computer ethics course from scratch, using only the ‘creme de la creme’ of papers and chapters, from the best journals and anthologies. Continue reading Designing a computer ethics course from scratch

Radiohead makes piracy unethical

I recently wrote about Radiohead’s release of their new album in digital form, downloadable from their Website with a price-tag that you decide yourself — ingenious. One of the interesting consequences of this way of releasing their album is that it make piracy unethical — beyond reasonabe doubt. One of the common arguments pro piracy (or, more politically correct, file sharing) is that sharing an mp3 file is radically different from stealing a album. The latter involves depriving someone (e.g. the record store) of their property, whereas file sharing does not. This argument has some credibility, since the claim is that we cannot simply transfer our moral judgment regarding traditional forms of stealing and apply them straightforwardly to file sharing. Importantly, however, we cannot deduce from this that that piracy is justifiable. This would be, in fact, a logical fallacy of the following form: Continue reading Radiohead makes piracy unethical

Mediadefender and — Blatant entrapment

I’m not going to say much about this, since it has already been covered in great detail elsewhere. However, in case you haven’t come across it yet, I’d like to bring to your attention a somewhat shocking insight into the workings of anti-piracy companies. The company in question is Mediadefender, a company which offers services designed to prevent and stop people who engage in alleged copyright infringements. Recently, 700mb of mediadefender’s emails have been retrieved and posted online (see ‘elsewhere’ link above). Among the many disconcerting strategies revealed in the email, the most shocking one is that they launched a Youtube-like Website called, which was designed to lure hackers into uploading illegal content and then take action accordingly. One of the most clear-cut examples of entrapment I have ever seen. I am not one who supports large-scale piracy, but the use of entrapment is a serious violation of fundamental rule of law.

Violent computer games and decline in crime

I just came across this graph today, showing a correlation between crime victims per 1000 citizens and the release of some of the most criticized computer games (numbers taken from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics). I have been an avid critic of dubious correlations myself, but I thought this graph illustrates a nice point nonetheless (please note, however, that the graph is skewed since it starts at 20 instead of 0, thereby exaggerating the effect — a strategy too often seen in media and politics).

As usual, XKCD puts it nicely: