Intercultural digital ethics: Considering values from many cultures

  • Posted on February 8, 2022

Intercultural digital ethics: considering values from many cultures
When establishing digital ethics guidelines, there is a risk that decision makers will be inattentive to their limited points-of-view, which can be a cause of concern for projects with global impacts. We can all imagine examples of this taking places, where a narrow framework or set of guidelines leads to myopic digital ethics decisions:

  • A development team may release products aligned with their local region’s customs and regulations, but later try to sell those products to people in other regions.
  • Employees may be treated unfairly or excluded in online environments because their beliefs differ from dominant ideology and related policies.
  • Large companies prioritizing commercial interests might impose ethical values on employees, customers, or other stakeholders engaging with their systems.

Expanding our digital ethics point of view
Each of us possess theories about how the world works, and we operate from that point of view: our modus operandi. It is easy to see how considering multiple points of view can generate more harmonious outcomes and reduce the potential for harm. For example, if a team of bakers was instructed to make the best cakes, their individual knowledge and opinions might differ, but collectively they might all have something to add – one group member knowing the best sources for ingredients, another having the best oven, and another being a master of frosting. Ideally (with enough representation) someone in the group might even raise the idea of gluten-free or dairy-free cakes for people with dietary restrictions.

In the same way, digital ethics frameworks, the tools that we use to identify and address potential ethical impacts from digital systems, should have input from a variety of cultures rather than a single, narrow point of view. The principles that people most commonly associate with digital ethics include transparency, justice, fairness, non-maleficence, and responsibility (Jobin et al., 2019). While each of these principles are foundational, how they are understood and achieved across groups can vary in important ways.

To understand different perspectives about these values, we researched some of the most common ethical models from around the world. We asked, for example, if Shinto, Islamic, and Ubuntu models are all equally valid, how can we decide which one should guide our decisions? Can we reduce the potential for cultural bias by looking for a solution that considers each model? We suggest that that best approach is not necessarily to look for compromise as your primary goal, but rather to look for ways to incorporate distinct values from each and find novel solutions that take them into account.

Finding common ground through interculturalism
Our exploration guided us toward the idea of Intercultural Digital Ethics (IDE). Avanade defines digital ethics as the systematic application of values throughout the lifecycle of technologies, and on top of that we can introduce the idea of interculturalism, which considers areas of commonality between groups that are beneficial for harmonizing toward a mutual shared end. Thus, IDE functions to avoid or reverse narrow and imbalanced solutions to ethical tech challenges.

Augmenting existing industry models.
In this four-part blog series, we will outline our intercultural digital ethics research process, present a decision-making model for pluralistic ethical decisions, and provide an IDE change management model to guide practical implementation of these ideas. Our goal is to provide industry leaders with practical ways to incorporate ethical viewpoints from different cultures.

Look for coming posts on the Avanade Insights, Digital Ethics site. As always, we look forward to your input, and if you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion or help on this topic, you can contact us directly or post a comment below.

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