| Christoph Driessen |
Berlin (dpa) – If you take a moment to forget the convenience of the Internet, a host of ethical questions can crop up.
Is it OK to use taxi alternative Uber because it’s cheaper, even if the local taxi industry say it is endangered?
Is it really that bad to try out a pair of shoes in a store and get advice from a clerk, only to turn around and order the same shoes for less money online?
“The Internet is a new technology that is disrupting older technologies,” says a German ethics professor, Kurt Bayertz of the University of Muenster. “It was just the same when cars came along and all the saddlers lost their jobs.”
Thus, a tool that brings convenience and speeds up life can have clear downsides for many too. That raises some questions about whether the Internet is to be considered a tool for good or bad.
There’s no questioning that in the countries where it operates, global retailer Amazon has driven a lot of small bookstores out of business.
“The question about whether bookstores should survive is not primarily one of ethics, but one of culture,” says Berlin-based ethics professor Markus Tiedemann. After all, there are plenty of people who avoid bookstores because they don’t like to be accosted by salespeople.
“If you come to the conclusion that, ‘Yes, I want a purely digitally communicating and organising society, then I can, with a clear conscience, order everything on the Internet,” says Tiedemann.
It all depends on where you stand. What about the shopping scenario? Where a buyer tries on a pair of shoes in a store, gathers information from a clerk … and then buys them cheaper from an online retailer.
Many people’s gut instincts tell them this isn’t fair.
That is clearly an honesty issue. But as ethicists point out, it has a pragmatic aspect to it as well.
“Over the long term, I’m just going to hurt myself,” says Bayertz. “Because, in the long run, the stores are going to disappear because of this kind of behaviour, and there isn’t going to be anyone to offer me advice. Instead, there will only be the Internet.”
Conversations in Germany about larger wholesalers like Amazon quickly turn to topics such as working conditions for employees. Should reports of mis-treatment at a company trouble potential customers?
Many ethicists point to the writings of US philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) for answers.
Rawls devised a thought experiment known as the Veil of Ignorance. In the experiment, people must try to imagine what it would be like if everyone in the world was newly born one day with no knowledge of the society that had come before them.
The trick is then to figure out what societal rules would be created in such a situation.
In just about every case – including that of the workplace rules in a big company – people who think the issue through conclude that some societal rules should exist to protect against cruelty.
After all, were the veil to descend, there would be no way to know if you would wake up as the high-powered executive or the manual labourer.
“In such a case, we’d probably tend to come up with certain ground rules to protect ourselves,” said Teidemann. “Rawls called this Justice as Fairness. And there would be certain things that would clearly be going to far, for example paying starvation wages only. “This way, we get to ethical results pretty quickly.”
Business ethicist Klaus Peter Rippe, from Karlsruhe, Germany, says the question is not about working conditions – even if these keep him from shopping with Amazon – but about the market power of a company.
“With Amazon, the key point for me is that they really try to use their market power to block competition,” he says. Rippe says such questions require closer examination. Considering taxi service Uber, which relies upon private drivers who can be summoned with a smartphone app, he does not see a question of moral behaviour.
“What we have here is a lack of rules. There’s the question: Are they really private drivers, or doing it for money? At what point are you taken advantage of as a freelancer? We simply have to find rules.”
But no matter what principles one applies, it often happens that the temptation to get something with a quick click trumps principles in the end.
“I don’t always manage to stick to my convictions,” admits Rippe. And everyone has to decide for themselves how far aside he is willing to set his principles. “Some people simply can’t afford more than the cheapest.”