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Unpublished Paper
BigData - Can Virtue Ethics Play a Role?.pdf
Minor Theses (2015)
  • Marcus R Wigan

Big Data is a term for masses of information that is usually heterogeneous, usually from multiple sources, in multiple formats and at a scale of at least terabytes, and often substantially larger. It may be a data stream, or an assemblage of exiting large, not necessarily homogeneous datasets; both often contain large personal data content and thus can invoke ethical issues.
As a result of rapid disintermediation of wide areas of the economy and daily life, and the growing data and information intensity that has both enabled this and is creating many fresh forms of Big Data on a real time basis, it is important to ensure that the implications are understood by the communities affected. This had not occurred until recently in the areas of government surveillance (Mathews & Tucker, 2014), and when it did had a massive impact across the world. Expectations were changed (See Fig.1)  and the emergent power asymmetries emphasized. Concerns over the ethical and power implications are now reverberating, with Australia moving to consolidate ever stronger asymmetric information powers over the community (, and the term ‘Snowden Effect’ has now achieved currency(
Fig.1.Order of magnitude changes in search behaviours (,)
Most discussions about Big Data have been slanted towards the already evident economic or financial benefits of its successful application, with some work on privacy aspects. Generally there is still comparatively little usable discussion of the ethical issues involved in the struggles of science and marketing handling huge datasets, and little guidance for the professionals collecting or making use of it, or for policy and operational areas in and out of government embodying it into their capabilities and applications. Even agreements on the general principles that to be applied are far from being resolved: arguably a clear and present ethical quagmire and danger to the world community until this can be secured.
The Aristotelian (VI.13, 1144b1-17) concept of phronesis is essentially terms ‘judgement’. It is indispensible for right conduct: i.e. turning good intentions into appropriate actions. Alternatively, ‘doing well’ has its own internal value, in the excellence of exercising the human intellect yet virtuous actions can and must also require phronesis. This provides a framework free of utilitarian tradeoffs between a variety of good and bad outcomes covering the design, the intent and the actions that Big Data and its supporting analytics enable. This provides a way to discuss the intent and virtue of appropriate actions, enabled by Big Data capacities.
  • ethics,
  • big data,
  • virtue,
  • utilitatian,
  • values,
  • personal responsibility,
  • professional
Publication Date
Winter December 8, 2015
Citation Information
Wigan, M.R. (2015) Big Data - can Virtue Ethics play a role? Minor Thesis: Melbourne University, Masters in Applied and Professional Ethics