Ethics across boundaries

Ethics across boundaries

Responsible administration




The conversation at the congress ‘Could a robot be honest?’ was about worldwide digital companies like Facebook, Google, Airbnb and WhatsApp. We tried to answer the question why these companies send in an army of expensive lawyers in case a national government is asking a critical question. The answer was astonishingly simple! These companies don’t have ethics. The only ‘ethics’ is to earn money. This might not be true for the company’ founders, but it is true for their managers. They sell a brilliant idea. The workspace is worldwide and therefore they don’t feel connected with the values and culture of a country or its citizens. Only financial damage influences a company’s policy. But even in that case a company like Facebook takes incomprehensible decisions, like the removal of a ‘nude’ printed on a famous painting. Or they refuse a face affected by fire inviting people to donate money. These companies never provide accountability. Policymakers wrap themselves into anonymity. It’s only about growing. That’s why they send lawyers. Globalization of power over information makes good governance and integrity difficult. How do you maintain good national governance when nobody takes it to the heart or feels connected to it?

At the same congress a philosopher formulated an answer with the help of Plato (2500 B.C.). Plato asked the question: How can life be good for the other and me? This question brings you back to yourself. Technology is the logics of techniques, but it remains only a means. Thinking asks a more profound question to the objective: What quality of society do we want?   The mentioned companies evade this question. Offering the means, they refuse to reflect on the consequences and whether their products contribute to our social happiness. For example: The unbridled information on social media seems a good means, but could be very harmful for users and society.


Unlimited freedom for companies causes excesses. It is the government’s duty to define rules and oblige companies to contribute to a good society. Values and norms also apply for global information bastions. However, legislation is not adapted to new circumstances. For example, companies play off countries against each other with dubious tax deals eroding the principle of equal treatment. The company pays 0,05 %; a small bakery 42%. The new reality of irresponsible global firms asks new questions about maintaining good governance. What can governments do? First off, they can sharply monitor whether the companies obey the legislation also applying to citizens. Secondly they can put these firms into juridical defence and not leave the initiative back to them. Thirdly, they can underline our common values within the EU and UN in order to keep the companies’ interests within the ethical norms. Even if we cannot make the robot ethical, then certainly the creators and merchants.

Henk Bruning