There's an excellent article in today's NY Times Magazine, The Moral Instinct, in which Steven Pinker summarizes recent neuroscience research on the human moral sense. This bears directly on how we think about justice and morality in cyberspace.
He covers the enormous progress (at least since I was in college) in our understanding of where the human moral sense comes from, including what is universal, what is cultural and how we can be easily mislead by "an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish."
Illusions are a favorite tool of perception scientists for exposing the workings of the five senses, and of philosophers for shaking people out of the naïve belief that our minds give us a transparent window onto the world (since if our eyes can be fooled by an illusion, why should we trust them at other times?). Today, a new field is using illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense. Moral intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
While the article doesn't mention the Internet, a better understanding of our moral sense can only help temper our approach to law and culture in the new social relationships facilitated by the Internet. Depending upon the cultural setting, subjects as diverse as ethnic humor, pornography and religious discussion can be completely acceptable or morally outrageous and yet, except for some language effect, the Internet cuts across cultural boundaries. Then there are Internet-related tragedies like the death of Megan Meier which provoke discussion and calls for sweeping laws to regulate cyber-behavior.
Undoubtedly, our laws and culture will evolve in response to the Internet age, but hopefully we do this with care, taking advantage of what we can learn from history and from the new science of the moral sense.
Here are a few short quotes from Pinker that struck me:
There are many other issues for which we are too quick to hit the moralization button and look for villains rather than bug fixes.
Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.
Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
If you are at all interested in morality, neuroscience or evolutionary biology, I highly recommend the Pinker article.