Utilitarian Analysis On Social Network Companies

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Question :

Should social network companies be allowed to sell information of users to third parties, assuming the sale of this information is a stated condition of using the service? 

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Answer :

Ethical theories

Utilitarian Analysis

Utilitarian theory is the theory of ethics that decides what is right or wrong on the basis of the results obtained from the task. This is beyond the scope of self-interest of the person performing the task. There are two kinds of Utilitarian theories – one proposed by Bentham’s Principle of Utility and the other is proposed by John Stuart Mill – a hedonistic view of Bentham’s philosophy. 

Bentham’s Philosophy revolves around the identification of the role that pain and pleasure play in the human life on the basis of which the respective action taken by an individual that provide approval or disapproval of the same depending on its consequences. In this theory, good is represented with pleasure and evil is associated with pain and also believes that these entities arte measurable. Bentham measures these two entities on the basis of four factors – intensity, duration, certainty, and near- or farness. The fertility and purity of the respective entity is also being considered while their measurement. Its affect on large number of people must also be taken into account while measuring them.

According to John S. Mill, happiness has more weight than pleasure and it is the quantification of happiness that must be centralized while explaining utilitarianism. It also claims that the concept of quantifying emotional entities like happiness is unreasonable and there is no sure calculus for the same. It feels that ‘Utilitarianism’ is being promoted as the ability of achieving greatest happiness. 

The ‘Principle of Utility’ is being implemented to individual actions in the form of two rules – act- utilitarianism and rule- utilitarianism. Act-Utilitarianism is performed on each alternative in case an individual has choices for its actions. The rightfulness of the action would then be decided by the best results brought about by the respective action. This idea of the rule can be questioned in terms of full knowledge and certainty of the consequences brought about by the action. It is quite possible that with this rule an immoral action gets justified. For instance, in a war, the children of enemy soldiers are tortured just to know the hideouts of their fathers who are amongst those soldiers. 

According to Rule-utilitarianism, it is testified that how valid is the rules of conduct or moral principles defined for the code of conduct such as the rule of up-keeping promises would be made by witnessing that people tend to break their promises by their own will and there need to be binding promises to avoid such situation. The rightness or wrongness of the actions would be defined on the basis whether the rules have been broken or not. This rule can be criticized by the fact that if too many exceptions would be given in this rule then it would act just like act-utilitarianism. On the other side, there would also be higher chances of creating unjust rules that might not give happiness to all the people associated with that action. For instance, practicing slavery in Greece might be declared as right till the time it is providing overall happiness to entire Greece population without any regard to the section of population that have been mistreated.

This theory can be applied to the argument that whether social network companies should be allowed to sell user information to third party players in contrasting ways. It is evident that selling of user information is a condition stated for using the service. But not revealing user information cannot be considered as breaking of the rules of the agreement made with the user. Therefore, it is no mandate to sell the information to third parties. Therefore, rule-utilitarianism can be applied by the company in a positive sense to disagree the selling of personal information of the user. Even in this condition if the company sells the information then it can be considered as morally incorrect action on the company’s part that may break the faith of the user on social networks after knowing this action. 

From the perspective of act-utilitarianism, before selling the information to the company it must confirm whether the information revealed must not harm the reputation of that person even if that information is useful for the investigation against an anti-social element. Therefore, the information through the social networking companies must be revealed only after ascertaining the consequences of the same on that person and also the company. Any immoral action may cause the company to lose its reputation and popularity (Guide to Ethics and Moral philosophy).

Kantian Analysis

Kantian theory follows the moral principles on the basis of standards of rationality defined as ‘Categorical Imperative’ (CI). This rationality is considered as necessary and absolutely unconditional that is recommended to be followed despite of having the contrary inclinations. The entire moral requirements specified in this rule are completely justified that declares every immoral action as an irrational act for the violation of CI act. 

The moral requirements are usually based on the standards of practicality. These standards may be instrumental in satisfying the rationality of fulfilling one’s desires or the external principles that have been explored because of some reason. It is agreed in this theory that a practical reason behind the action must be explained by the rationale of instrumental principles. Nevertheless, he also emphasized the conformity to CI as an essential rationality for moral requirements. 

He supported the doctrine of rationale being autonomous or be free or non-binding from any kind of law. This fact cause individuals to believe that the principle of morality is indirectly considered as the law of autonomous will. Hence at the depth of Kant’s moral philosophy is a concept based on reason which has a high reach to practical affairs that goes beyond the act of human slavery to the passions. Hence, it is the presence of self-governing reason that serves as a ground of taking valuable decisions in every individual looking at every option with equal worth and dedicating same respect to each of them. 

The creation of Kant, The Groundwork of metaphysics of Morals, but his point of view in this notion later got modified with his other books such as Critique of Practical Reasons, Anthropology from Practical Point of View, etc. He has also written historical books and delivered lectures on Ethics. The fundamental principle used by him for this novel is defined as ‘Categorical Imperative’. It is considered as Imperative as it is instructed to the rational agents who may or may not be able to follow them. It is also termed as Categorical as it an unconditional and implied rule because of the rational willingness without any reference of the ends of the action that may or may not be present. It may or may not be applicable to the individuals in the condition that they have already adopted certain goals for themselves. 

There are some essential conditions other than the moral duties that need to be understood by the individuals but they might be different from those moral duties in being based on a different kind of principle and hence become the source for a hypothetical imperative. A hypothetical imperative is defined as a command that is also applicable in the virtue of having a rational willingness but this is not a plain reason for this. It gives the freedom to an individual for exercising their will in a particular that is an antecedent thought willfully thought of as an end. Hence, this command is considered as a conditional form. But any other kind of command in this same form cannot be considered as a hypothetical imperative in the sense of Kant. For example, a happy condition can make an individual clap its hands but clapping hands cannot be considered as an imperative condition of being happy. 

Hence until and unless there is willingness of performing the action imperatively it cannot be applicable for being categorically imperative with a passive desire. The willingness involves choosing the end thoughtfully rather than just desiring for it. But it would not be irrational in not willing a thoughtful end under practical rationality. Hence it is not hypothetical. 

In terms of revelation of user information to third parties it can be suggested in Kant’s sense the company must know whether the user is willing to share its information on that social network or not or whether the outcome desired after sharing the information is being achieved after sharing the information or not. However, the desire needs to have certain rationale according to Kantian theory. Just desiring any unachievable outcome does not seem to be practical from the point of view of practicality (Standard Encyclopaedia, 2004). 

Additional Theory

Other than the Utilitarian and Kantian theory for sharing user information to third parties, there is also another theory named as ‘Critical theory’ which is socially based theory instead of being based on ethics that talks not about the individual but about changing the overall society. It works by uncovering the assumptions of how the world is working. It is totally a Marxist ideology and is developed by a group of renowned sociologists who follow Marxist’s idea of society. 

Karl Marx was a severe critique of the economy and society. He has developed a theoretical relationship between economy and an ideal superstructure built on the understanding of how power is related with domination and how each of them works together with each other. The other theories following the Marxist’s ideology reveals the cultural and ideological face of power with domination. 

These theories talk about the social forces that prevent the society from viewing and understanding different forms of power and dominating effect existing in society and affecting the lives of people. It was clear that the individuals facilitating power and domination act as true barriers to freedom. These individuals practice contemporary politics and try to build economic structures of ancient times as they have huge influence on their thoughts and writing. This is because they have seen the rise of national socialism inclusive of Nazi regime, state capitalism and mass-produced culture.

Later it was suggested by Max Horkheimer that Critical theory must include two important ideas that are, looking and presenting the society on the basis of historical context and it must offer a critique and holistic approach towards the deep understanding of social sciences. He later asserted that a theory must be considered as true critical theory if it is explanatory, practical, and normative. In other terms, it must appropriately explain the social issues existing in the society and their practical solutions for responding to these issues and bring changes additionally abiding to the norms of criticism developed under this theory. With this ideology, the traditional theories are being criticized as they are not able to question the intensity of power, status quo, etc. 

Critical theory critiques the centralization of economy, social and political control being transpired around the society. In today’s world, the goals of ‘Critical Theory’ generally revolves around feminist activism in the form of feminist approach towards the world of social sciences in several theories such as critical race theory, cultural theory with respect to gender, queer theory, media theory, as well as media study (Crossman, 2018). 

According to this theory, the one who has power can easily dominate over society. If the third parties that need critical user information have power and can easily dominate over the social network companies than the user information would be shared by the companies irrespective of whether there is an agreement with the user for the same or whether it is ethical or not. The modern day might talk about feminist power but even if the females are not a part of third parties but they are able to influence legal decisions then also they would be able to harness user information from the social network companies. 

But directly there is no cultural or social explanation to revealing the user information to third parties. However, it can be claimed to be socially immoral from the company’s part to declare the private information of the user without its permission. 

Theory Extension

This report discusses the issue of social networking companies taking advantage of the stated condition of revealing the user information to third parties as per the agreement. But it must also consider the reason behind retrieving the personal information of an individual by a third party. It can be Big data which is a massive collection of data retrieved from the human and the machine. 

There are several ethical issues being generated for illegitimately sharing and using the user information by social network companies. These ethical arguments are sometimes being supported by the ethical theories that consist of moral issues. By the deep insight in these theories an individual can understand the context and logic behind these moral arguments by deeply understanding a rational mechanism for evaluating a deliberate action and to decide whether the result obtained from that action is ethically correct or not. 

The Utilitarian theory has already been discussed in this report earlier which is different from Kantian theory by actually examining the result or consequences of the action performed. From this perspective, utilitarianism keeps a check on the application of utilitarian principles on the moral actions and moral rules of the individual. The action producing maximum happiness within the society is considered to be right and the ac reducing the overall happiness in the society is morally wrong. 

If the right rules of moral conduct will be adopted by everyone on the society then the net increase in the happiness of the society would be maximum. Hence, ethically those actions must be considered under utilitarianism that gives best results. Therefore, before performing any kind of action one must think of the good and bad components of the society to evaluate the overall consequences and impact on the society of that action. Therefore, unlike Kantian theory that evaluates willingness for motivating any action, the utilitarian theory examines happiness or the highest amount of well-being achieved by an action. 

Explaining the case study from a Utilitarian perspective is quite complex as the action performed and rule defined needs to be evaluated by using utilitarian calculus that can measure both good and bad components easily. Hence, the advantages and disadvantages of the act of sharing user information must be quantified in relation to the experience, duration, possibility, closeness of experiences, ability to produce more such experiences, dilution of pleasure by pain, and the number of people affected. 

For declaring the practiced of sharing user information by social network companies as right or wrong one must total the entire positive and negative experiences. The consequence of highest amount would be the final decision. This also comes to choosing between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Under rule-utilitarianism, the decisions would be made on the basis of direct outcomes whether positive or negative. But this seems to be an ambiguous approach. It also has biasness to a certain extent in evaluating both positives and negatives. 

In this attempt, the individual may deliberately try to reach unanimity of the positivity or negativity of sharing user information to third parties since the cost and benefit evaluation need to be quantified on the common platform of economic unit of analysis. Such type of analysis may be inherently biased as there may be certain problems weighing more than the other factors in the analysis. Estimating harms and benefits in the consequences might be a good idea but in this case it is complicated as it is a stated condition in the agreement of service with the user. 

It is also difficult to perform because different factors weigh differently and the presence of even one high weighing factor may transform the positive into negative and vice-versa. The societies may think it as morally wrong even if the information is being used for a social cause of society. 


The ethical debate of revealing the user information without its knowledge to a third party has become a matter of argument in many instances. There are different ethical frameworks being used to determine the ethical behavior from different point of views. The ethics form the basis of supporting the arguments by using logical and rational approach in deciding what is wrong, what is right. 

It is straight that the ethical theories generally consider people other than the decision makers for their evaluation assuming the objectivity of the moral principles and generally depend upon their reasoning from different facts and common values. These workable ethical theories, therefore, help in articulating the concerns with sharing user information on the basis of different moral values. 

Big data has become the major driving force in today’s society and tends to affect each other’s knowledge and the decisions taken because of them. It is not only humans but mechanical actions are also contributing equally in developing this knowledge. By comparing different ethical theories, different point of views in relation to collecting critical user information was understood and therefore the intended action of sharing information is better evaluated. 

But from the perspectives of different theories, a negative image of sharing user information to third parties has been outlined and suggests that further research is needed for reducing the ethical shortcomings witnessed in these theories. But since the data is also being used for conducting various kinds of experiments for the good of human being in terms of medication, sustainability, analysis of behavior, and globalization. Hence, the case being discussed surely has something positive about it that balances the negative image created about the social network companies from this act. 

The drawback of quantifying the social factors is that the qualitative results that work behind creating the image of social networking to be used in the society are not taken into consideration. A survey also needs to be conducted through survey forms or interviews that must suggest the application of ethical theories in terms of qualitative factors. The results obtained in these surveys will form the foundation of ‘Social network Ethics’ or ‘Big Data Ethics’ that brings together the voice of the company and the user generating sufficient security measures for safe sharing of user information