Aug 24, 2012

Is "Ethical Hacker" An Oxymoron? (part 1 of 2)

According to a recent Forbes piece, Exploding The Myth of The "Ethical Hacker", there have long been ongoing discussions and debates bearing upon the question whether that term or concept really makes sense.  Perhaps, like Martin Heidegger quipped about "Christian philosophy" (a stance, incidentally, whose flaws many pointed out) being as coherent as the notion of "wooden iron," there's something to the almost logical repugnance that many seem to feel arise when "ethical" and "hacker" are conjoined.

The article, contributed by Conrad Constantine and Dominique Karg -- the latter of whom bears the title "Chief Hacking Officer" -- makes some decent, well-articulated arguments against the propriety or prudence of speaking of some hackers as "ethical hackers."  They're raising, or spilling over into, some very interesting moral issues of wider scope, which are worth noting, even exploring a bit here.  The deeper question about connections between terminology, good or bad actions, personality and dispositions, and moral evaluation is one with a long history in moral theory -- addressed, explored, examined by philosophers ranging from Plato and Aristotle, to Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, and Jeremy Bentham.

Bentham's Utilitarian Take on Moral Terms

Here, I'll just stick with a few germane points Aristotle and Jeremy Bentham make, leaving fuller discussion of the rest of these thinkers for future posts.  Bentham, the father of the moral theory of Utilitarianism, is no virtue ethicist, and as I've pointed out before, necessarily though needlessly gets certain key aspects of moral theory wrong that virtue ethicists get right.  But, in addition to being a great, systematic, consolidator and tireless advocate of a very interesting and powerful moral theory, as as living out the demanding role of a public philosopher and legal reformer, Bentham was also a very attentive philosopher of language.  One feature of language which he pointed out, among other places, in the Introduction to . . .. was the consistent negative or positive moral valorization of certain terms.

For instance, in his Principles of Morals and Legislation, discussing how motives of human actions should be evaluated, after arguing that no motive by itself is necessarily good or bad, and that any kind of motive can give rise to good or to bad acts, he points out what he calls  "a certain perversity of structure which prevails more or less throughout all languages."  What is this perversity?  How does it work?

Commonly along with the very name of the motive, is tacitly involved a proposition imputing to it a certain quality; a quality which, in many cases will appear to include that very goodness or badness . . . . To use the common phrase, in most cases, the name of the motive is a word which is employed either only in a good sense, or else only in a bad sense.  Now, when a word is spoken of as being used in a good sense, all that is necessarily meant is this:  that in conjunction with the idea of the object it is put to signify, it conveys an idea of approbation. . . . In like manner, when a word is spoken of as being used in a bad sense, all that is necessarily meant is this:  that in conjunction with the idea of the object it is put to signify, it conveys an idea of disapprobation.
Several examples he gives -- and Bentham thinks there are many more examples of bad than of good terms -- are the positively valorized motives of "piety" and "honor,"  and the negatively valorized motives of "avarice" and "lust."  He laments the effects of what seems to him not only imprecision but mistaken assumptions about words and values.
Confining himself to the language most in use. a man can scarce avoid running, in appearance, into perpetual contradictions .  His propositions will appear, on the one hand, repugnant to truth,; and on the other, averse to utility.  As paradoxes, they will excite contempt: as mischievous paradoxes, indignation.
Proposing -- or just plain using -- the term "ethical hacker" would seem to be a case analogous to this, focusing on action and disposition just as much as motive, in Benthamian terms.  Aren't hackers, by definition, criminal, wrongdoers, thus unethical?  No surprise then that maintaining that there could be a compatibility between "hacker" and "ethical" would excite passions.  It seems that Bentham would actually sit on the side of those who are willing to countenance the term, though -- certainly from his utilitarian perspective, a person who engages in hacking but who thereby generally produces consequences more beneficial than harmful to the community of those affected would be rightly described as "good."

I'm not sure that Bentham's suggestion for handling these sorts of cases would actually help much:
To obviate this inconvenience, completely, he has but this one unpleasant remedy; to lay aside the old phaseology and invent a new one.  Happy the man whose language is ductile enough to permit him this resource.
Practically speaking, in this case that would involve making up an entirely new term -- which is easy enough.  The tough part is getting other people to use it!  What's the second-best alternative?
to enter into a long discussion, to state the whole matter at large, to confess, that for the sake of promoting the purposes, he has violated the established laws of language, and to throw himself upon the mercy of his readers.
Bentham, a writer both stolid and dramatic by turns and at times, seems to me to be suggesting precisely what those who'd like to speak of "ethical hackers" would do -- the sort of discussion, argument, explanation Constantine and Karg respond to in their own essay.

Aristotle's Virtue Ethics and Moral Terms

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle appears to stake out a position clearly opposed to the sort of linguistic revisionism Bentham both advocates and attempts.  It is in the course of a discussion about virtues, vices, and just how you determine the mean between extremes that he says something that actually, on first read, sounds quite at odds with the general approach he advocates and articulates, Virtue Ethics:

Not every action or affect admits of a mean [of virtue].  For indeed, some of them just by being named already imply moral badness, like for instance maliciousness, shamelessness, envy [among affects], and among actions, adultery, theft, and murder.
By contrast, with respect to many affective states or actions,from a Virtue Ethics perspective, they are not in themselves right or wrong, good or bad, base or noble.  This depends on a number of different conditions, of which the virtuous person, the person who follows right reason, the person whose practical wisdom or phronesis is well developed is the best judge.  Getting angry or not getting angry, even acting along the lines of typical responses to that emotion, are not by themselves good or bad.  What determines this is why one gets angry, how long they remain angry, whether their anger is aroused or directed at the right people, whether they have a habit of getting angry too easily, and other similar qualifiers.

Still, there are modes, models, or complexes of behavior, affect, motive, choice which are identifiable as good or bad -- the virtues and vices, fully developed, consolidated into habitual patterns within the personality.  Actions or emotional responses that are of the sort that a virtuous person would do are for that reason good, in a kind of derivative manner. These are actions that are in accordance with a virtue, though not from a virtue -- lacking, to some degree or entirely, the structure of motivation characteristic of a virtuous person --  and therefore not entirely good, but certainly better than their absence or their opposite.  It works the same way with vices.

A greedy person, one who has a habit, literally a "having" (hexis) of vicious motivation, feeling, attitude, and action -- a person who characteristically takes more than their share, enjoys doing so, is pained if prevented from it, and who justifies such a course and choice in their own eyes as good -- is quite simply a bad person in Aristotle's book.  They not only have, but are in some sense possessed by a corruption of human being, injustice rooted within their very soul.  One can -- indeed, for Aristotle -- one ought to point at them, and point their actions out, as being unjust, greedy, bad.

There are many people who commit the kinds of actions, experience the kinds of desires and feelings, perhaps even mouth the sorts of slogans, evaluations, and justifications that a greedy person does -- and, they may well be taken for being a greedy person at first glance -- but for whom this stems from some kind of moral lapse or failure rather than flowing from an already established greedy character.  Aristotle would say that they behave on accordance with the vice, but are not themselves vicious -- not yet at least.  They do something unjust, but are not themselves unjust -- though if they keep it up, they likely will alter their character into that shape and direction.

Greed provides a useful example for thinking through the sorts of moral matters involved in the question about whether "ethical hacker" is an contradiction in terms -- for one can conceive of good greed, can't one?  Or not?  Certainly some people have argued for greed, for covetousness or concupiscence, for desire of possessions going beyond one's necessities, as a moral state, a motive, a characteristic set of actions and desires, that can be called "good," haven't they?  Perhaps good not in the full sense, providing the master-pattern, the paradigm for what a fully human life looks like, but good in some sense?  Perhaps "ethical hacker" is structurally similar, in the moral sphere, to "good greedy person"? Or, "good flatterer"?  Or, "good coward"?  Or "good profligate"?

Alternately, perhaps "hacker" is more like the "adulterer," "thief," "murderer" -- as well as another class despised generally by the Greeks and often mentioned by Aristotle, the "informer," a kind of public traitor within personal life -- possibly guided by the very meaning of the name, a virtue ethicist will necessarily ascribe to "hacker" a deeply and unshakably negative denotation.

Considered either way, an Aristotelian should find the notion of introducing the term "ethical hacker"into our moral language troubling.  As just noted, if "hacker" fits the second kind of situation for moral terms, there can be no question for the virtue ethicist of giving it some sort of positive spin.  one can't even call a hacker "good" in any sort of qualified sense, any more than one can for the adulterer, about whom Aristotle writes:
All of these kinds of actions are condemned for being bad in themselves. . .  There is no way at all to go right in relation to them, but one must always commit a fault in doing them.  With adultery, there's no doing it well or not doing it well, depending on things like: whether one does it with the person one ought to, or when one should, or in the right way. 
As to the first kind of situation, true, "greed is good" long ago became a slogan, even a mantra.  But the mere fact that some people have seen moral matters in that light does not in any way argue that they are correct in doing so, that they have provided a much-needed, innovative reworking of our moral manifold.  From a Virtue Ethics perspective, one can coherently respond that adherence to such a dogma is already a sign of moral confusion, if not necessarily an index of vicious disposition.  So, if "ethical hacker" is like "good greedy person," the "good" proposed can be granted in only such a qualified sense, i.e. "good in such-and-such a way," not "good generally" or "good as such," as to raise cautions against mistaking it for anything other than a very derivative sense of goodness.

All of this said, I'm not yet staking out a stance on whether it's right or meaningful to speak about "ethical hackers."  And, I haven't explicitly examined the arguments set out by Constantine and Karg against using the term. What I wanted to do first -- out of a conviction that classical moral theorists typically have much to contribute to contemporary debates and issues -- was to explore how one might view the moral vocabulary involved, using Aristotle and Bentham as counterfoils. 

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