A theory of morality, utilitarianism, maintains that an action is ethical if it makes all or most people happy. In business decisions, utilitarianism would support the betterment of society or the majority (Mann and Roberts 17). One of the developers of this theory, Jeremy Bentham, maintained that ethical decisions promote happiness or pleasure while unethical ones produce sadness for the people affected by the action. An action may spark controversy but is justifiable so long as it benefits most people. Utilitarianism applies in many business decisions, which involve the evaluation of benefits and costs. Utilitarian ethics exists in two forms, particularly in business decisions. Rule utilitarianism argues in support of the use of the fairest methods to maximize happiness for the majority. Act utilitarianism implies making the most ethical actions to benefit most people. Rule utilitarianism is more stringent than act utilitarianism because it supports the application of particular principles. In act utilitarianism, the decision-maker may engage in a perceivably immoral action but later seem right because many people have benefited.
Conversely, deontology suggests that actions may be bad or good depending on established rules. Deontology is derived from the Greek term ‘deon,’ which means duty. Ethical actions are those that comply with the set rules. One of the best-known developers of deontology, Immanuel Kant, maintained that people reason in decision-making, implying they can follow particular guidelines or rules (Mann and Roberts 18). People are under a duty to treat others with dignity and expect the same treatment. Thus, they may not engage in actions that go against their perception of dignity or rules that promote treating others ethically. Thus, the treatment of other people may not be a mere means to an end. In this context, universal rules are essential in ensuring that no one acts unethically. These rules must be logical to avoid controversy or contradiction. For example, if society should have a rule against killing people, it should define its limits, such as people who kill others deserve death by hanging.
In “The Social Dilemma,” there are numerous examples of unethical practices by social media companies. One of the ethically ambiguous practices mentioned in the film is surveillance capitalism. According to Tristan Harris, a former ethicist for Google, Facebook, and other social media companies design their tech products in a way that manipulates users. They make their platforms so addictive to drive engagement. Social media users are unaware that these companies have AI-powered algorithms that track and analyze their online activities (The Social Dilemma). The companies then sell the data collected from these users, even though they claim the users are unidentifiable. Tristan Harris argues that since social media users do not pay for the services, they are the product. Social media companies also compete for user attention to keep people engaged.
Social media users provide their time, part of which they see or listen to advertisements. Companies like Facebook maintain that advertisers pay social media users to access the services for “free.” Social media companies manipulate how users think or behave to appeal to advertisers. This enables them to stay in business and generate as much revenue as possible (The Social Dilemma). After gathering user data, the companies create a model that can predict what people will do in the future. The film refers to this as trading in human futures at scale. Social media algorithms help companies achieve three goals: engagement, growth, and advertising. Engagement involves unending conversations; growth entails getting more users, and advertising makes money from these two. Social media users also experiment with users to understand and manipulate them.
Deontologists would consider surveillance capitalism ethical because the social media companies set rules, even though they favor them. For example, Facebook has policies to stop third-party companies from collecting the users’ identifiable information (The Social Dilemma). Besides, Facebook states that users can access the platform freely because of the revenue generated from advertisements. Social media companies may also maintain that they operate within the law and are in the business that benefits from user data. They may also argue that advertisers cannot rely on them if they do not have algorithms to predict future behavior. The only problem with surveillance capitalism is that users do not understand how the rules work against them. However, only enlightened users may know that they provide data essential for these companies by using social media platforms.
However, utilitarianists would view surveillance capitalism as unethical because social media users get minimal benefit from using the platforms. While many users derive pleasure from posting on these platforms and following relevant stories, they provide personal data that ultimately benefit social media companies. Utilitarianists would argue against their use, considering the major negative impacts of social media on most users. For example, as implied in the film, social media users get information that may not help them. Some users believe in advertisements because the posts pop up amid other conversations. Social media companies capitalize on the emotions and activities of their users, creating a sad situation in which people no longer think about the decisions they make (The Social Dilemma). Since the benefits of social media go to a few people who control the tech industry, the utilitarian theory would consider the platforms unethical.
In conclusion, the utilitarian and deontological approaches have helped analyze surveillance capitalism, a practice explored in The Social Dilemma. Facebook, Google, and other tech companies use AI-powered algorithms that enable tracking, analyzing, and use of personal data. Predicting the user’s behavior is critical for social media companies because it helps them grow their business through advertising. Deontologists may defend these companies that have implemented policies that may protect users, even though these may not always be effective. However, utilitarianists would argue that the use of personal data for business is unethical.
Mann, Richard A., and Barry S. Roberts. Business Law and the Regulation of Business. 12th ed., Cengage Learning, 2016.
Orlowski, Jeff. The Social Dilemma. Exposure Labs; Argent Pictures; The Space Program, 2020.