Why is Email So Complicated? Part 409: Murky Ethics

It is because of this evolutionary history that our society doesn't struggle to manage a "Right to Eat Babies" movement, because nearly all of us have inherited a nearly instinctual morality that characterizes baby-eaters as sick, evil, or both.   Our moral battles instead focus on issues that have arisen relatively recently, in evolutionary terms.  Abortion, for example, didn't become a battleground issue until it became a safe medical procedure in the previous century.

I'm currently reading a fascinating book, Evolving God, by Barbara King.  Professor King uses her years of experience studying apes as a starting point to explore how humanity evolved religion and ethics.  It turns out that we share certain aspects of morality with apes, a sign that some of our basic morality evolved over eons, going back perhaps seventy million years.

Email technology is younger than I am, and I don't seem to have evolved one bit.  Our evolutionary heritage offers no guidance for many of the thorny ethical dilemmas email has created.  Our inability to agree on the definitions of right and wrong surely complicates email immensely.

Take spam:  everyone, save a few sociopaths, loathes it.  But I'll go way out on a limb here and reveal that I don't consider spam immoral.  It's a bad idea that mucks up communication and creates incredible amounts of unnecessary work and expense.   In many ways, it's more of an question of judgement and etiquette than morality. If you leave a big box of candy with a child and he eats it all, he's shown bad judgement and perhaps greediness, but I wouldn't call it immorality.

Now, I'm not trying to start a defense of spam.  I'm as happy as anyone to see spammers shut down, and the worst ones even jailed.  But I see spam as being in large part the fault of a communication system that has eliminated all possibility of regulating behavior through pricing.  Email is, in this sense, what the law calls an attractive nuisance.  A technology deserves some blame for the antisocial uses it facilitates.  Someone who is driving safely but over the speed limit deserves to get a ticket, but hasn't acted immorally in my book.

This may seem like splitting hairs, but a difference of opinion over morality can easily grow into larger disagreements about laws and punishments.  A thousand  years ago, when abortion was a last resort because it usually killed the mother, discussions over its morality were largely academic, but they certainly aren't today.  I have heard -- though I still can't believe it -- people advocate the death penalty for spammers.  If that ever became a serious movement, the question of the morality of spam would take center stage for sure.

Because I believe that spam is caused by greedy, impolite people, I support filtering, voluntary authentication, moderate legal sanctions, and other countermeasures.  Someone who believes spammers violate the laws of God would likely support harsher measures.  Our evolutionary and cultural heritage gives us no guidance; there were no spammers in the savanna.

Each new technology gives us new ethical gray areas, further complicating our lives.  Email has brought us several more ethical complexities, most more subtle than the morality of spam, which I'll discuss here in the future.  For now, though, I've got to go -- there's a chimpanzee who wants my help getting thousands of bananas out of Nigeria, and it seems like too good an opportunity to pass up.