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Business Technology: Moral Relativism 101

The concept of moral relativism seems to hover somewhere on the fringes of most people's consciousness, not because they're afraid to confront it but because they recognize it's a construct that's patently wrong and dangerous. It's almost always a one-way ticket down an oil-slicked slope. A perfect example of this moral muckiness comes from the less-than-perfect moral touchstone of The Sopranos wherein the teen-age son has been sent home from school for having vandalized the swimming pool. Asked why he did it, he says, "I don't know, we just did it." His father, the guy described by some TV reviewers as "the gangster we hate to love," swats the kid on the head and chastises him for two primary reasons: first, for the disrespect shown in that it was done "on yer mudder's boitday," and second, because it could screw up the kid's football career. Talk about priorities.

Two great works of art force us to think about the edges of moral relativism: in Les Misérables, Jean Valjean steals bread to feed his starving family and is sent to prison for life; in Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood knocks the snot out of the conniving Sheriff of Nottingham, steals his money, and gives it to the poor--does the end justify the means? Closer to home in time and place, terrorists fly jets into the World Trade Center towers and slaughter 2,900 people in the name of God and their religion, and some commentators are inspired to conclude, "The United States deserved it." Attempting to inform the world about the crazy events of the past several months in a fashion that's supposed to be evenhanded and fair but that's actually cowardly and deceptive, Reuters, the news service, forbids its reporters or editors to use the word "terrorist" because, the company says, "terrorist" is a "subjective" term and therefore open to interpretation; after all, says a Reuters executive, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

I don't mean to profane the events of Sept. 11 with a comparison to the relatively trivial, but the concept of moral equivalence that those events brought out of the haze and into sharp relief in our daily lives also is revealing itself in multiple ways in the world of business technology, and specifically in the realm of hackers. Or, to use the hair-splitting terminology that legitimizes one group but vilifies the other, hackers and crackers (hackers being the intruders who just wander passively around, and crackers being the malevolent intruders who trash everything they can). This is a fight that all of us had better plan to jump into right now with lots of ammo because, otherwise, we're welcoming the arrival of moral mushiness and ambiguity in waves that can utterly swamp us.

In the past couple of weeks, InformationWeek has been following the exploits of a pair called the Deceptive Duo as they hack their way into highly sensitive networks under the guise of protecting the weak or informing the ignorant or punishing the bad or whatever other rationalizations they choose to employ. The Duo say they're selflessly saving the rest of us morons from ourselves by pointing out how lax security is in so many critical places; as they put it, "We'd rather act on it than speak on it." Hey, while they're at it, how about a few other projects: Wal-Mart had a pretty good year, so why shouldn't they take a few billion out of Wal-Mart's bank accounts and give it to struggling Kmart? Senior managers at some companies earn more than new employees--where the hell is the fairness in that? A supplier of plastic products makes a 9% profit on its sales to one customer, but only 6% on its sales to another--how about a few keystrokes to bring some parity into play?

Ridiculous? Maybe. But say you get home late one night from work and find your house trashed, your belongings strewn about, your children's rooms invaded, your privacy violated--and the intruder's left a note saying, "Put better locks on your doors." Moral relativists might say you should pay that intruder for his selfless labors, that he should be a hero--but that's the ultimate sound and fury signifying less than nothing. The more important point is not what they say, but what you--what all of us, individually and collectively--are going to do about it.


To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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