Sunday, November 23, 2003

Comments, Links

One of the questions I'd like to investigate in economics is how people incorporate intangibilities into their value calculations. This problem of valuing intangibles is especially acute in the Information age, because the process of placing value on information is still fuzzy and subject to interpretation. This has serious implications for moral and ethical systems. The article Three Systems Of Ethics For Diverse Applications makes a convincing case for the co-existence of three systems of ethics in the contemporary world: Guardian, Commercial and Information. What are the first two, and where is the third system different?

I have said that Guardian ethics are best for dealing with zero-sum or negative-sum situations, and Commercial ethics are best for dealing with positive-sum situations. The invention of computers has created unlimited-sum situations... The authors of scientific papers and the programmers of Open Source software want as many people as possible to use their work—as long as they get appropriate credit. The more such information is copied, the more benefits accrue both to the inventor and to the users.

One thing I don't quite agree with right off the bat is the following: If we see someone acting unethically, we may feel that they are unfair or untrustworthy. If we see someone acting immorally, our reaction is usually stronger. Ethics can—and should—change depending on the situation. I'll have to do some more thinking about that.

Near the bottom of the article it echoes an idea I've heard around the net lately; namely that the Free Software movement is untenable, while the separate Open Source movement is more practical and acceptable. I think this idea has merit.

The reason I really like this article is that it takes an analytical, philosophical look at the ethics of the new Information age, rather than shouting "pirating music is bad!" or "I'll download as much as I want!" I think there is still a need to develop an acceptable system of ethics for this new age, and that this article goes a long way towards advancing that cause. To tie this into China, I would say that China's traditional ethical framework was largely obliterated by the past 50 years of economic and political upheaval, and that developing a new system of ethics will be very important for the country's stability, and consequently for the well-being of the Chinese people. It would be encouraging and exciting to see China lead the world in this respect, but I don't see that happening until the economy stabilizes and the academic and cultural world gains a voice outside of China.

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