Conceptualizing digital ethics for 21st Century ‘grand challenges’

Susan Brown

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Digital discourse- defined here as the language/communications that develop out of sociocultural and digital processes -now significantly shapes our understandings of global ‘grand challenges’ (e.g. climate change; biodiversity loss). If, in the past, the discourse of the few influenced the understandings of the many, digital discourse is now evolved by the many for the many, blurring the division between authorship and audience. Increased access to a global commons, a conflation of authorship and audience, opportunities to move beyond the dominance of discourses related to large vested interests offer unprecedented opportunities for building new discourses and, thereby, rich understandings of grand challenges and how to respond to these. With such opportunity comes responsibility. If each of us can affect understandings of grand challenges through our contributions to evolving digital discourse then we need to see ourselves as responsible agents in digital space. What constitutes responsible digital agency and discourse with respect to these grand challenges is the question informing the conceptualization of digital ethics in this paper. In responding to this question, the paper draws on notions in the fields of education for sustainability (e.g. Sterling, 2004, Wals, 2010), information ethics (Ess, 2006/2009 & Capurro, 2011) environmental ethics (Rolston, 2011) and environmental discourse analysis (Mühlhäusler & Peace, 2006). Central to much of the literature in education for sustainability is the notion that environmental engagement is founded on a holistic rather than binary mind-set. That holistic mind-set is underpinned by an awareness of one’s own assumptions and biases, by an awareness that people’s views are grounded in diverse ways of thinking and by a capacity to engage with ambiguity and complexity. Such a mind-set may be crucial to an information ethic that works towards common ethical values informed by a plurality of visions of the environmental/social good. Nature itself, according to Rolston (2011) is the matrix of multiple values, providing a multifaceted lens through which to view and engage with the World around us. These multiple perspectives can be channelled into dynamic discourses of our integral relationships with the World, discourses which digital space, given its nature and affordances, can facilitate. Such dynamic discourses and the holistic mind-set underpinning these may allow us to formulate together ethics adequate to respect life on Earth, in other words it allows us to formulate what Rolston (ibid) refers to as Earth Ethics in a digital context.The paper also draws on examples of existing discourses in digital space, proposing an initial typology of digital discourses relating to the grand environmental/social challenges to which we need to respond. These examples act as springboards for the initial formulation of digital ethics for environmental/social sustainability articulated in the paper. Capurro, C. (2006), Towards an ontological foundation of information ethics, Ethics and Information Technology,8 (4):175-186. Capurro, R. (2011). Digital ethics. Cahiers de la documentation–Bladen voor documentatie, 2, 11.Ess, C. (2006). Ethical pluralism and global information ethics. Ethics and Information Technology, 8 (4): 215-226.Ess, C. (2009). Brave new worlds? The once and future information ethics. International Review of Information Ethics, 12: 36-44. Mühlhäusler, P. & Peace, A. (2006). Environmental discourses. Annual Review of Anthropology, 35: 457-479.Rolston, H. (2011). The future of environmental ethics. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement. 69:1-28.Sterling, S. (2004), Whole systems thinking as a basis for paradigm change in education: Explorations in the context of sustainability. Unpublished doctoral thesis: University of Bath, available at: (accessed 28 March 2013).Wals, A. (2010), Mirroring, Gestaltswitching and transformative social learning: Stepping stones for developing sustainability competence, International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 11 (4): 380-390.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationhost publication
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013
EventClimate Change, Sustainability and an Ethics of an Open Future - Soesterberg, Netherlands
Duration: 22 Aug 201325 Aug 2013


ConferenceClimate Change, Sustainability and an Ethics of an Open Future
CitySoesterberg, Netherlands


Dive into the research topics of 'Conceptualizing digital ethics for 21st Century ‘grand challenges’'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this