Digital Ethics and Moral Theory Explained

Three branches of ethics

Let’s start off with the different branches of ethics that are central to conversation, and generally studied by philosophers. I’m not talking about moral theory yet (utilitarianism, etceteras) but rather about different perspectives of approaching ethics as a concept:

  1. Meta-ethics
  2. Applied Ethics

Normative ethics

Normative ethics seeks to answer how people should act in a moral sense. It’s concerned with questions like “how should I be” and “how should I act”. It rests on the idea that moral principles need justification and explanation. There are of course many moral theories but these are the big three categories.

  1. Deontology rests on the premise that the morality of an action should be judged on whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules, rather than based on the consequences of the action. Put simply: if the outcome of an action is harmful, the action can still be considered moral if it was performed according to a predefined set of morally approved behaviors. i.e. “Something bad happened but I still did the right thing.”
  2. Consequentialism is a class of moral theories that treat the consequences of actions as the ultimate basis for judging whether an action is right or wrong. The most well-known of many consequentialist theories is utilitarianism, and speficially hedonistic utilitarianism. This theory says that aggregate happiness is what matters, i.e. the happiness of everyone, and not the happiness of any particular person.


The study of meta-ethics looks at what moral judgment even is. What is goodness and how can we even tell what is good from what is bad. You can express it as trying to understand the assumptions that are part of normative ethics.

  1. Moral ontology looks at moral theories and judgments, trying to understand if they are absolute (“thou shalt not kill”) or relative (“unless someone tries to kill you”) and if moral principles differ between people or societies.
  2. Moral epistemology strives to understand if moral judgments can be verified by determining how beliefs and knowledge are related, including what it means to say that we “know” something.

Applied ethics

In the third and final main branch of ethics I’m referencing in this article, it’s now time to act. Regardless of moral theory, humans perform acts all the time without running them through a process of determining what theory within normative ethics may be applicable.

The rise of digital ethics

Digital ethics is growing out of the rapid advances in digital technology and internet-based devices and services. As the more sinister effects of digital technology are becoming apparent, the call for ethics in digital development is permeating throughout society.

Seeing the potential for harm

Most digital products are developed not with the multi-disciplinary expertise required for ethical consideration, but with the expertise required to build something (often as quickly as possible) and get it shipped. Common drivers for building and investing in digital products and services are financial growth and improved efficiency for a defined subset of people.

Choosing moral theory

Working on a team with other people in a busy environment with tight budgets and timelines doesn’t present itself as the optimum foundation for reflective reasoning and considered compassion. Especially if there is a lack of awareness, expertise or mandate for managing ethical challenges.

Examples of applied ethics approaches

This is no exhaustive list of the ways that workplaces approach applied ethics, but I hope to provide an understanding of how moral reasoning is often simplified (with good reason) to help more people without an understanding of normative ethics get into the mindset of moral decision-making.


A very popular form of applied ethics, principlism is designed to avoid debate at the level of normative ethics. If offers a practical approach to dealing with ethical dilemmas in the here and now of everyday work. You could consider it a form of rule consequentialism.

  1. Beneficence. We have an obligation to act for the benefit of others.
  2. Non-maleficence. We refrain from causing deliberate harm or intentionally avoid actions that might be expected to cause harm.
  3. Justice. We do what we can to ensure that costs and benefits are fairly distributed.

Case-based reasoning (CBR)

If you have had a problem with your computer that you manage to solve, and then later help a friend with their computer that is exhibiting similar symtoms, you are using case-based reasoning. The idea of a legal precedent is also an example of case-based reasoning. Case-law rests on the idea that by forming rules based on previous outcomes will help us reach similar and predictable outcomes today and in the future.

  1. Reuse. Apply the information from memory to the current situation.
  2. Revise. Test the new concept or solution to gauge its performance with your expectations. You may need to revise and test again.
  3. Retain. Add this to memory for later retrieval. This is now a new case to be retrieved in the future.

Manifestos and Codes of ethics

As a professional coach I ascribe to the ICF Code of Ethics. This is a way of codifying what is deemed as good and bad behavior. Through my education I have role-played and had extensive conversations about different scenarios to become more aware of ethical dilemmas and how I am expected to act in coaching situations where moral decision-making is needed.

Where to go from here

In my work on digital ethics there is a balance between prescribing what the right thing to do is, and what the right thing to bring up for consideration is. While I of course have my thoughts malum in se, my efforts as a teacher are not intended to impose rules about right and wrong. I want to inspire and encourage reflective thinking about what individuals and teams want to accomplish related to “being good” and which of their own actions may have an adverse impact on that goal.

  1. there is a lack of stated aspiration, as the elements won’t themselves tell you why or why not there is a notion of good or bad tied to each topic area

Is digital ethics to broad?

A question that sometimes arises is if digital ethics itself is too broad of a subject to deserve its own umbrella term within applied ethics. Indeed, there are many related sub-topics that already are being worked on by researchers, such as AI ethics, privacy and deceptive design. Some of these are exemplified by one or more elements in the chart.



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Per Axbom

Per Axbom

Making tech safe and compassionate through design, coaching and teaching. Independent consultant. Co-host of UX Podcast. Primary publication: