Almost every week there is a story in the national press about the Internet that has moral implications. For example, in the last week, there have been stories about people facing criminal prosecution if they set up fake social networking accounts for abusive purposes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-35712772); and police being unable to cope with levels of cyber-crime (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3477857/Police-swamped-online-abuse-cases-new-laws-needed-help-officers-cope-says-force-chief.html).
The response to these stories from policy makers, the police and other interested parties is often a call for increased regulation of the Internet. However, in the cyber-worlds that many of us inhabit, rules and laws are hard to establish and uphold. Website giants such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter find it hard (or are sometimes unwilling) to regulate personal profiles, or impose rules regarding their use. Furthermore, even when the rules are understood, people can easily bypass them they by going online anonymously. Most of us are guilty of dodging any attempts to regulate our Internet use. For example do you read all the legal statement before you join a website, or do you, like me, simply scroll to the bottom of the page and click the ‘accept’ button? My own research has shown that young people think that the rules are different online then offline and they report they are more likely to bully online, but not face-to-face; plagiarise online, but not from a book; download a film illegally online, but not steal a DVD from a shop.
If we are serious about dealing with the many moral challenges the Internet poises, perhaps it is time to think about new strategies and approaches to educating us all to be ‘wiser’ Internet users.
Surprisingly, the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle could help us tackle some of the most salient moral concerns found online today. The strength of Aristotelian inspired virtue ethics is that it emphasises good character as the best guide for ‘doing the right thing’, alongside an adherence to rules. As rules are hard to establish and uphold, and consequences are hard to predict in the virtual world, an approach to dealing with online moral issues that is based on the education of character virtues is perhaps particularly appealing. Such approaches should aim at the development of digitally wise citizens who are able to ‘self-police’ their online activities.
Of course the required virtues can’t simply be taught didactically, they must be learnt through practice, through experience and through the development of what Aristotle called phronesis or practical wisdom: in this case cyber-phronesis. The challenge therefore is to create educational strategies inspired by virtue ethics that can successfully be implemented by parents, teachers, employers and the many other parties who have some responsibility in this area.
The (re)emergence of character education offers a great platform for the development of online practical wisdom. Character education, delivered well, should encourage us reflect on our strengths and weaknesses and assess our actions and behaviour, with the view to moderating them if required. Character education is mostly ‘caught’ through the culture and ethos of a home, school or place of work, however it can and perhaps should be deliberately and consciously ‘taught’ also. For example, at the Jubilee Centre we are helping computer-science teachers to re-imagine the curriculum, so that it aims not simply at making students more computer literate, but also at the development of good digital citizens.
The teaching tools and resources to support this reimagined curriculum could be hosted on websites and include structured online reflection blogs, or online moral dilemma games, where students have to practise making difficult ethical decisions. Such tools would help young people to develop the capacity to acquire cyber-phronesis and take the compassionate / honest / courageous action, even when no-one is watching. Applying virtue ethical principles to the modern world might just make virtual reality a more virtuous reality.
Dr Tom Harrison, Director of Education