Ethics Topics: Health Advice

All over the Internet health advice is being dispensed on all manner of sites--blogs, news sites, organization sites, social networks, and so forth. Some of the advice is offered by doctors, but much of it is doled out by people with no medical training whatsoever. Still other advice, such as on herbs and other alternative medicines, the people talking about it have non-traditional medical training. They didn't go to medical school in other words, but they studied their subject somewhere somehow.

The advice ranges from dieting tips to cancer treatments. Search any medical topic, and you'll likely find loads of tips, treatments, and opinions.

Medical applications new exist for phones as well. The website Mashable reported this week that a man claimed his iPhone saved his life in the Haiti earthquake due to a medical application and the GPS that guided him to safety.

The more we search the more we can probably find both good and bad examples of people following health advice through digital means. What are the ethics of giving health advice online?

Ethics Topics: Telecommuting

There's a trend now toward people working from home in order to economize on fuel, using technology then toward advancing an environmentally ethical goal, but this article in Forbes claims telecommuting doesn't actually do anything to help the environment.

Is it or isn't it better? Is it or isn't it a question of ethics?

It could be interesting to research.

Ethics Topics: Children Online

The safety of children is of great concern in online activities as is their exposure to unsuitable web content. This might seem like an easy ethics topic to write about, but in fact it is pretty complicated. For one, we have broad societal consensus that anything harmful to children is unacceptable. In other words, there's no one to argue with if you want to try to persuade people that child cyber-stalking, or child porn, or in any other way preying on children online is wrong. Everybody already agrees that it is wrong.

Thus, if you want to make an ethical argument, you need to find a way to approach the subject in ways that normal people (anyone short of an outright sociopath) might reasonably disagree with.

You might go about this in any number of ways. One approach might be to investigate and debate the choices parents make in an effort to protect children. Does a child or teenager, for example, have privacy rights? Is it wrong for a parent to engage in digital spying in the name of protecting the child? If parents do spy on their children's online activities, how far is too far to take the effort?

You might also look at issues that fall short of actual cyber-stalking but could also be misconstrued or viewed as unethical by some. What about parents friending their children's friends on social networking sites or teachers friending students? That in itself might not be unethical, but what if the adults discuss things with the children or post things that the children see that those children's own parents wouldn't approve of? Where should adults and children draw the line on cyber-relationships?

Then of course there is the issue of schools blocking certain types of Internet sites in an effort to protect children. Sometimes the blocks also keep out educational sites that classrooms might find useful. What are the ethics of this? Where are we right or wrong to make blanket decisions about what classrooms can access?

What do you think? What are some other ways this topic could be addressed?

Ethics Topics: Helping Others

Volunteerism and community service are often cited as positive examples of ethical behavior. It's easy to agree that it is a good thing to give back to your own community or to help others in ways that you have been helped. The book Pay It Forward is a recent popular call to action of this nature.

This week we've seen horrific tragedy take place in Haiti with one of the most devastating earthquakes ever on record. We've also seen one of the first major examples of giving through text messaging as Americans donated millions in relief funds $10 at a time via text.

The information about how to donate by cell phone was spread through tradition television and newspaper media, but it was also spread by individuals through forwarding emails, Tweeting, and posting links to Facebook, MySpace, and other social media outlets.

What are the ethical considerations of these actions? How can individuals use digital media to engage in and/or promote ethical behaviors?

Ethics Topic: Photo Manipulation

Photoshop and other editing programs make changing pictures very easy. We're so accustomed to seeing images that have been manipulated for artistic purposes that they no longer even surprise us. That doesn't mean, however, that when pictures appear to be realistic, we will suspect them of being manipulated. But what if they have been?

There was a case of a journalist who photoshopped pictures from Iraq that caused quite a stir. His photo combining created an image that made it appear as though a British soldier was pointing a gun at an Iraqi child. This made for a more dramatic image but not necessarily truth in reporting.

When is it wrong to photoshop? If a picture is supposed to worth a thousand words, at what point do we change those words beyond recognition by manipulating the image?

Ethics Topic: Anonymity and Comment Wars

News sites, blogs, and all sorts of web resources now come with a comment feature so that the reader can join the conversation started by the article. Look around at popular news articles, though, and you'll find many anonymous comments made by people who used screen names rather than real names. How often do those anonymous comments turn nasty? They can so easily become hostile, disrespectful, and disruptive to the overall conversation. This might happen anyway, but we might assume that the ability to post anonymously makes people feel freer to be rude.

What are the ethical concerns in this situation? Should we be concerned that anonymity lead people to be more disrespectful of others? Should we be concerned about the widespread practice of hostile, uncivil debate that often takes place online? Is engaging in this practice unethical at the individual level? Is it damaging to society at the cultural level?

Ethics Topics: Public Embarrassment

This may not be what people think of first when they think of digital ethics, but do you ever wonder about those websites that are designed for the purpose of mocking others. One example to gain recent notoriety is People of Walmart. It's funny. It's hilarious. But are these real people in the pictures? Do they know they are being photographed? Have they given their permission for their photographs to be used for public mockery? Are these viable ethical concerns?

The site, People of Walmart, actually does have a statement defining at least some of its own ethics on the About page:

This is purely for entertainment purposes only. We don’t need to see pictures of you and your dumb friends dicking around at Walmart. There is no reason to send us pictures of people that are seriously and unfortunately handicapped so don’t be an asshole. We are trying to have some fun here and there is a difference between someone who is mentally challenged and a person who has a fu Manchu and is still rocking MC Hammer pants.
By this logic, there are times when it is okay to mock people and times when it isn't. To a degree, we probably all ascribe to that principle. Where we might differ is in the particulars of when, where, and how mockery is harmless and when, where, and how it is unacceptable.

The Wall Street Journal published an article in 2007 about people who use the Internet to shame others for bad behavior, calling into question the act of public shaming itself. You can find a copy of the article here.

What do you think? What are the ethics of using the Internet to publicly embarrass others either for entertainment purposes or for purposes of correcting bad behavior?