Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mill et al.

     John Stuart Mill makes four main points related to information ethics in chapter two of his 1869 work, "On Liberty". Having struggled sleepily through page after page of his plodding style, I was delighted to find them neatly summarized in paragraphs 41-43. I think it should be a requirement that all dull people offer easy summaries of their points for those of us affected by that most modern of conditions: ADD. Mill, to put it mildly, was against censorship. He thought all citizens should have access to all information, and every conceivable opinion, constantly available to them. "But John," one might have asked, "if an idea or opinion is clearly untrue, isn't there a lot of harm, and very little good, that can follow from its dissemination?" To this, Mill would say:

1) Are you perfect? Have you never made a mistake? Since you are not perfect, your opinion of which ideas are true or false is quite possibly incorrect. Therefore, it is essential that all ideas are available in the public square, just in case they one day prove to be correct.

2) Much like a bad poem can contain one or two delightful lines, an untrue opinion can contain portions of the truth. Things are not always black or white, right or wrong. Truth often sits somewhere in the middle.

3) If an idea or opinion is so well accepted that no dissension is ever heard, the public is never forced to comprehend the rationality of that opinion, but just passively accepts it. This leads to:

4) Dogma. Ideas repeated without critical inquiry lose their meaning.

     I get the impression that the ethical dilemmas outlined by Fallis (our second reading) would not have been dilemmas for Mill. Warning labels on encyclopedias containing erroneous information? See points 1 and 2. Racist books? See points 3 and 4. While Mill provides us with important principles to guide us and to which we should strive, in the real world things are often a bit more problematic. Sure that book advocating the torture and murder of babies might contain a portion of the truth (Mill's second point), but is it worth the inevitable lawsuit when someone checks it out and follows its instructions?
     The most important point Fallis makes is that no ethical theory can always provide an easy answer. The value of these theories is the way they force a librarian to justify a decision based on ethical reasoning. This requires careful consideration, meaning a better chance that the decision will be a good one (Fallis 31). It seems to this blogger that Fallis does the best job of the three in seeing the gray areas.
     For an American raised in the land of distrust of government, the arguments of Puttnam are somewhat disquieting, as I'm sure they would also be for Mill, were he still around. Addressing a British audience, Puttnam argues for direct government control of what information ought to be available to the public. When he quotes Aristotle advocating morally uplifting stories only for children and essentially backs this viewpoint (Puttnam 5), it caused me to shiver at the thought of some bureaucrat deciding which television shows are appropriate for me to watch, and which might unduly harm my moral fiber. That being said, he does bring up some important points about the digital age, and how one's access to information is directly affected by one's ability to comprehend and utilize technology. If one does not have the technological tools to access information, that information is essentially censored anyway.
     All in all, a great set of readings to kick off the semester, and to set the stage for many ethical debates to come!

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