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The transformation of society through networking, digitization, and AI

has given rise to a discourse comprising the needs of ethics and ethical actions in the context of digital transformation, artificial intelligence and machine learning. In common usage, ethics often is used synonymously with the term morality. If one looks the actual meaning shows that ethics as a science deals with the conditions and the evaluation of morally justifiable actions of people. While this requires extensive reflection on moral action, it is by no means synonymous with the meaning of morality. Even in ancient Greece, ethics was understood as character or moral attitude and contrasted with common habits, customs and practices. The Greek philosophers Socrates and Aristotle are considered the founders of ethics as a philosophical discipline.

Morality - from the Latin mos / mores - corresponds to the terms custom, habit, usage and represents a socially shaped behavioral norm. Morality is therefore dependent on the social context and can lead to different moral norms in different societies - different moral norms of groups result in different morals. From this, morally conditioned dogmas develop and thus mutate into some kind of a raised forefinger (Foerster, Heinz v. ; Schmidt, Siegfried J. (Ed.): Wissen und Gewissen. Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp, 1993). The notion of moral norms of groups requires a definition of something like identity. Languages could be used for this purpose. A look at the number of speaking languages paints a very complex picture. There are currently 5,600 (Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 2019.) languages spoken in the world, of which the diversity is further increased due to different dialects. It seems reasonable to associate different customs and traditions with each language. This leads to different moral requirements. If one also considers other group specifics, it is fair to assume that even the Mafia has its own morals (Thurnhofer, Hubert: Gibt es allgemein verbindliche Grundwerte? 2018.).

Ethics, in contrast, examines the condition of the possibility of different moral norms and tries to find universally valid statements for good and bad actions, which should be applied as a principle to all interpersonal actions. Ethics is thus to be understood as a reflexive (scientifically observing) consideration of moral rules and poses the question of the right action/s. A brief consideration of two such principles, formulated by widely known philosophers, should clarify this. Immanuel Kant’s thoughts significantly influenced the Age of Enlightenment - his formulations of the so-called Categorical Imperative defined a fundamental principle of ethics and it applies to all beings to whom reason is ascribed. Accordingly, every human being should examine and judge their actions to see if they would always and without exception follow this principle. The so-called purpose formulation of this principle is: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant, Immanuel: Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp, 2007).

The demand thereby made, never to abuse people as a means to an end, leads to challenging questions, especially in the political and economic contexts. In the field of economics, the concept of the invisible hand as posited by Adam Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher who also devoted himself intensively to national economics, plays a significant role. The principles of economics formulated by Adam Smith also cause his invisible hand to be invoked by liberal-minded economists as soon as the automatisms of markets are at issue. The idea of the social ethicist Smith is found several times in his writings in connection with economic considerations - on the one hand in the field of microeconomics - “Theory of Moral Sentiments” - (Smith, Adam: Theorie der ethischen Gefühle. Hamburg : Meiner, 2010), a second time in a macroeconomic context (Smith, Adam: Der Wohlstand der Nationen - eine Untersuchung seiner Natur und seiner Ursachen. München : Beck, 1974) with the description of microeconomic effects - he refers to the ethically assessable effects of these economically determined actions. Smith states that actions of persons oriented for their own good are also beneficial to the common good through a self-regulation that cannot be explained. The thoughts and formulations of Kant and Smith have naturally been subjected to critical considerations, in some cases presented as impracticable or even logically inconsistent.

It would go beyond the scope of these sentences to go into these criticisms in detail. Nevertheless, these two principles are still present in today’s world and, together with other formulations, have become the foundations of our understanding of society. These principles are guaranteed as much as possible by constitutions and laws and thus represent the basis for people’s trust in their living environment. With increased use of technologies in the context of our lifeworlds even special aspects must be added to the fundamental considerations of Kant and Smith.

Our research projects at Istrela try to find, name and discuss the challenging aspects of ethics in our digitized world - taking into account that technical, economic, geopolitical aspects play an eminent role. We look forward to engaging with researchers from different fields of knowledge to gain transdisciplinary insights.