Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 27–39 | Cite as

Discourse ethics for computer ethics: a heuristic for engaged dialogical reflection

  • William Rehg
Original Paper


Attempts to employ discourse ethics for assessing communication and information technologies have tended to focus on managerial and policy-oriented contexts. These initiatives presuppose institutional resources for organizing sophisticated consultation processes that elicit stakeholder input. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas’s discourse ethics, this paper supplements those initiatives by developing a more widely usable framework for moral inquiry and reflection on problematic cyberpractices. Given the highly idealized character of discourse ethics, a usable framework must answer two questions: (1) How should those who lack organizational power (e.g., concerned citizens, students) conduct their moral inquiry under non-ideal conditions of discourse? (2) How ought they to understand the moral force of the judgments they reach under such conditions? In response, I develop the heuristic implications of Habermas’s principle of universalization. To render that principle usable for non-ideal discourse, I propose a modification that yields a scalar measure of “dialogically robust” judgments that are responsive to the actual state of discussion. To illustrate the use of these principles, I sketch two case studies, which examine the moral acceptability of violent video gaming and government cyber-surveillance.


Appraisal Computer ethics Discourse ethics Dialogue Habermas Universalization 



I thank Garth Hallett and Erin Chambers for their feedback on earlier versions of this paper. I also thank Professor Chambers and the Computer Ethics class (Saint Louis University, Spring 2014), whose discussion of issues and case studies in this paper has shaped my analysis.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophySaint Louis UniversitySt. LouisUSA

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