The Virtual Agora
First Monday

The Virtual Agora: Online Ethical Dialogues and Professional Communities

The Greek agora, or market place, was where citizens met to discuss and debate topics of importance. The agora has been resurrected in electronic form, giving voice to many. Like the agora of old this largely unmediated forum provides important new avenues for debate. Examined here is the use of World Wide Web technology in fostering and sustaining ethical debates within and between professional communities.




Ethical debates in the virtual world carry the special characteristic of being on-going, and often unmediated. In this sense they are more genuinely reflective of the ethical concerns of those who participate online, and they are more alive to the possibility of having an influence.

In past times the agora was literally the market place. It was the site of the daily business of everyday life, but it was also the place where philosophers debated ethics. The Greek agora was not a level playing field - women, slaves and other 'non-citizens' did not participate - but it was an intimate and open venue for those who did. As the centuries passed, and as the Greek agora faded in memory, ethical debates became increasingly cloistered, the realm of specialists able to access venerated documents. Universities arose in which ethical debates were undertaken, but sometimes became so rarified that they failed to reflect the larger community. The virtual agora may be able to counter that process, providing access for a wider community to participate. What does that virtual agora look like?

In this essay I will examine the emergence of ethical debate and discourse on the World Wide Web and examine how such debates influence communities. It is my contention that there is considerable ethical debate going on through the World Wide Web, and that this debate is more directly incorporated into the community beliefs and practices than has been previously true. Furthermore, such debates are potentially more relevant to everyday life than many ethical debates that took place in more traditional media. The reason why online ethical debates are more relevant to everyday life is that they are accessed by a wide variety of actors, encountering and engaging in these debates in an unmediated form. Central to this thesis is the necessity for community, among which the debate may be fostered and for which the debate has relevance. In examining this thesis I will use a case study of a debate among dispute resolution professionals on the World Wide Web, discussing the role of community in such debates, examine the nature of dialogues, and assess the impact of such dialogues.

Before turning to these matters some definitions are in order. Socrates, in Plato's Republic, said of ethics,

"We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live." Ethics "... is concerned with values - not what is, but what ought to be. How should I live my life? What is the right thing to do in this situation?" [1]

Ethics is focused ultimately on action - it is not an abstract study, but rather centered on doing. Ethical debates among professionals include such topics as medical ethics, or the behaviour and obligations of health care providers in relieving suffering, legal ethics, or the behaviour and obligations of lawyers in the provision of legal representation, and engineering ethics, or the behaviour and obligations of engineers in the design and construction of various physical objects.

Sclove argues that the polypotency of technology has been much under studied [2]. With regard to revolutions in information technology, such as the World Wide Web, there are many unintended or secondary benefits to be reaped. So, while we may accept that the World Wide Web has linked together many who were previously unlinked, it has also, I argue, had a direct impact on communities and the way in which they understand their own particular ethical issues. While much has been written on the use of the World Wide Web in the globalisation of opinion, the narrow question of how the World Wide Web has facilitated ethical debate is the focus here.

The World Wide Web has had a direct impact on communities and the way in which they understand their own particular ethical issues.

Several online Web resources exist for ethics and ethical debate. For example, Ethics Update is a site operated by the Values Institute at the University of San Diego. This site is targeted towards students and lecturers in ethics, and provides an annotated bibliography, case studies, introductory essays and discussion lists. The object of this site is to augment and supplement the teaching of ethics, rather than to explicitly spark or inform debate within a given professional community. Another interesting ethics site on the World Wide Web is BEARS, or the Brown Electronic Article Review Service, sponsored by the Philosophy Department at Brown University. The founders of BEARS explain their objective:

"Traditional academic publishing is a slow conversation. A year to get your idea into final form, a year to get it accepted somewhere, a year for it to appear. Then a year for anyone to get a reply into final form, another year for them to get it accepted, another for it to appear. Life is too short.

BEARS is a small response. We propose to electronically publish short but substantial reviews of articles that have appeared in the last six months. By keeping them under 1000 words, they can be easily read by those trying to keep up with recent work. Still, this length allows a substantial critical discussion -- reviews of whole books are often no longer.

Without the need to print or mail anything, we can publish reviews worldwide within days of receiving them. For this reason many reviews will appear much sooner than our six month limit. By appearing so quickly, the discussion can get underway immediately. Authors of reviewed pieces will always be invited to reply.

We'll solicit reviews, but we also encourage unsolicited submissions, and will publish the best, most useful ones. If this catches on, we may be able to offer fairly comprehensive coverage in our area: moral and political philosophy.

This is a form of scholarship that has not been possible before. It is not a substitute for articles, but neither is it a mere addition to an already undigestible volume of published material. It enhances the value of ordinary journal articles by providing an immediate, high quality, and fully public critical notice not available in any other form" [3].

The objective of BEARS editors was to speed the process of ethical debate by reacting to articles in the print media. Unfortunately, while the commentary on the articles was of a high quality participation in the project was sparse. At this writing no new articles have been added since early 1998.

Both sites mentioned suffer from a clear link to community. This link to community acts to drive interest in the events online, as well as to provide input for the site itself. An interest in ethics alone is too disparate to generate and create community, thus preventing the creation of a critical mass necessary to drive debates. Ethical debates within professional communities, however, not only provide adequate focus for the debates, but also offer real opportunities to influence practice.


Online communication amongst members of a professional community has created some fundamental changes in the process of ethical debate. No longer do gatekeepers mediate intra-community dialogue. Rather, community members may interact directly with one another, exchanging points of view on ethical matters. These exchanges may take place via e-mail, discussion groups, listservs or newsgroups. Before examining the detail of this change it will be important to define community. A community in most simple terms is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the "state of being shared or held in common; fellowship; state of being shared or held in common". Community suggests a sense of togetherness and commonalty, and recognition that one is a member of a community, (i.e. members are self aware). Communities, of course, existed before and exist after the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The substantial difference - after the invention of and wide access to the Internet - is that communities are potentially more dynamic, and less subject to control by an elite center.

C. Wright Mills wrote in the 1950s about the shift in the way people interacted. Mills argued that increasingly communication in modern democratic societies was moving from the public to the mass. Modern one-to-many publishing and media, such as television and radio, resulted in the ascendency of the mass. In a mass

"... (1) far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. (2) The communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. (3) The realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action. (4) The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion" [4].

The consequence of mass communication was a stultification of ethical debates within professional communities. Such debates had to go through official channels, editorial boards, newsletter editors. Only those opinions and arguments deemed 'worthy' of airing were welcome. In the mass communication scenario the power elite were protected and grew in influence.

Unlike the mass, the public has far fewer constraints placed upon it. Mills believed that the public had given way to the mass, yet it may well be that the online environment has altered that trend. Mills argued the public was characterized by:

"... (1) virtually as many people express opinions as receive them. (2) Public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public. Opinion formed by such discussion (3) readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against - if necessary - the prevailing system of authority. And (4) authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations" [5].

In public, Mills argued, the dominant form of communication was discussion [6]. In the online environment it is technically possible that as many people express opinions as receive them. They are immediate in nature, both being aired and replied to quickly. As any member of the public may express and receive communication, they are equally able to act on that communication, and may well oppose other professionals within their community. Finally, any public that exists online is able to interact without being influenced or controlled from outside. The consequence is that the power elite have far less control and influence over what occurs within these publics. Cyberspace and the World Wide Web has renewed the public sphere, and may put to question "Every single stable power relationship ..." [7].

The power elite has far less control and influence over what occurs in online debates and discussions.

Listservs represent an effective environment in which professional communities may meet and debate ethical matters. Ethical debate is a core activity of professional bodies and groups. These debates help flesh out how professionals should act and help to define appropriate conduct for members of the profession. Traditionally, ethical debates within professional communities were undertaken either informally, often out of view, or through official organs (e.g. newsletters). In the listserv environment, however, the debates may take place in full view, even if not all members actively participate in the debate.

The model illustrated in Figure 1 illustrates how most listservs operate. At their center are core participants who interact often. Around the core are the drop-ins, who may be reading on a constant basis, but who only interact from time to time - they drop in and out of the discussion. Read-deleters are those who read the listserv material, but who quickly delete the material. They only survey the discussion, as opposed to take part in it. Finally, there are the drop-outs, who simply leave the listserv after surveying it briefly. There is no reason why all could not actively participate in the discussion, except perhaps for limitations of time and interest.

Figure 1: A Model of Listserv Participation

In a very real sense professional communities are echoing the qualities of Mills' public. Ethical debates within such professional communities do occur, giving voice to a wide range of community members, and having tangible impacts.


One of the key aspects of ethics among professional communities is the process of debate. These dialogues permit members to investigate different points of view, trial arguments, and gain support. The process of debate is important for professional communities so that ethics does not simply become a process of command, but rather ethical insights are developed in such a way that reflect community standards. This process of debate can be described as 'reflective equilibrium', a term first coined by John Rawls [8]. According to Ebertz,

"Reflective equilibrium is the state of one's beliefs (about justice, in this case when 'principles and judgments coincide.' When a person's beliefs are in reflective equilibrium, the structure of those beliefs, from the particular to the most general, cohere. They are 'in order.' I find it helpful to speak also of 'the reflective process' to refer to the activities which lead one to reflective equilibrium. These include carefully considering individual beliefs, comparing them with one another, considering the beliefs of others, drawing out consequences of beliefs, and so forth " [9].

Achieving reflective equilibrium can be achieved through debate online.

In March 1998 an ethical debate emerged amongst an online community of those involved in dispute resolution. The listserv is and is unmediated, with roughly 800 subscribers. Domain names indicated participation came from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and were from educational, government and commercial sectors. This professional community included mediators, academics, facilitators, arbitrators and lawyers. The debate centered on the following hypothetical scenario.

The town of Cicero, Illinois was to be the site of a march by the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK were seeking town council approval for a march through the streets of Cicero. Cicero is a working class town, undergoing some gentrification. Previously, the town had been the site of racial unrest. The town council was seeking to persuade the KKK to halt the march. In this scenario the town council had agreed to engage in mediation with members of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to look for alternative solutions to the proposed KKK march. In mediation an idea emerged where the town council would agree to distribute KKK literature if they promised in exchange to cancel the march. The logic is simple - the KKK are able to get their message out, while avoiding the incitement to riot and violence. The ethical question for those in the profession of mediation focused on whether the mediator could be party to an agreement that avoided racial violence by utilizing the towns' public resources to distribute KKK propaganda.

The scenario was not begun, however, as smoothly as the above paragraph would suggest. After describing a real life event, in which a town council did strike a deal with the KKK to avoid a march, a member of the discussion group created a hypothetical situation in which a mediator had been involved. A discussion group member asked: "What if the case had been taken to mediation and suddenly the mediator sees this as an agreeable outcome for both parties? Does that create an ethical dilemma? What do you thinkl [sic] you would have done in this case?" In offering the hypothetical and asking the questions, this listserv member established the grounds for reflective equilibrium.

The debate persisted for some two and a half weeks, generating not only heated discussion on the listserv, but a wide range of e-mail between participants. Those who participated were from the core, but there were a large number of others who contributed to the content of the debate who were not among the members of the core. Drop-ins participated to a large degree, though it is impossible to tell how many dropped out of the list altogether at that stage.


The ethical debate had an impact on the community of professional dispute resolvers in a number of ways. First, it played out an important question of practice, and helped to clarify and in some cases complicate important questions of practice. Secondly, it sparked a number of members of the community to focus their attention on the ethical debate and the need to more fully address some of the issues raised in the debate. Thirdly, it led some to include the ethical debate in their teaching.

In seeking to achieve reflective equilibrium members of the professional community examined their own views and the views of others. For example, some members were profoundly concerned with a mediator being involved in any fashion with a mediation involving the KKK. Others were less concerned about that, but concerned about the specifics of the proposed agreement between city counsellors and the KKK. Still others were unconcerned about the question of mediating with the KKK or the nature of the agreement, but were concerned about maintaining the values of mediation, namely neutrality.

A number of listserv participants reflected on the importance of the debate and the relative dearth of background material on the question. Participants identified existing materials. For example, "It is difficult question considered very well years ago by SPIDR [Society of Professionals In Dispute Resolution] Ethics Committee in a publication called, Making the Tough Calls, which is probably still available from SPIDR national." Others went on to suggest that scholars and practitioners should develop books or articles on the specific questions raised in the discussion. Bibliographies were traded and individuals sought out who might be willing or able to undertake the development of such background materials.

The online debate helped foster a stronger sense of community

Finally, a few members of the listserv were sufficiently struck by the debate that they continued the debate with their university students. This extension of the online community into the classroom marks an important link between the online and the off-line worlds.

The end result of the discussion was rather amorphous, in as much as it did not lead to an 'answer'. Yet, it did help highlight the various assumptions, beliefs and views on a difficult question of practice. The debate also helped foster a stronger sense of community; one participant commented that it was "a privilege to participate at this level of discussion about the development of the profession." That sense of community was echoed by another member commenting to another, "Thanks for sharing a little about yourself and where you practice!"


The consequence of ethical debates online is that it broadens access to the debate. Gatekeepers are no longer able to select 'appropriate' messages for community members to consider. Reflective equilibrium is unmediated and is more dynamic in the online environment. In the case of the Cicero/KKK mediation members of the dispute resolution community were able to debate an important and interesting ethical problem. Future action for advancing the debate was identified, and the debate was taken into the classroom, where students could benefit in the process. Importantly, participants came to appreciate - their own opinions notwithstanding - that their own community possesses a wide range of views with no one view dominating.

This case study suggests too that Mills' original assertion that public communication is giving way to mass communication is essentially flawed. Unmediated many-to-many communication is possible, as demonstrated daily on the World Wide Web. Ethical debates can and do occur on the WWW and have an impact on the everyday practice of professionals.

Of course, not every professional community makes use of the World Wide Web. Mills' world of mass communication is not dead in those environments where debate is still one-to-many, mediated by a power elite. If professional communities are uninterested in accessing the World Wide Web, or oppose supporting their members in doing so, then there is ample room for grassroots campaigns, where independent debate and discussion is initiated online.

About the Author

Alan C. Tidwell is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Students at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney, Australia. He is author of Conflict Resolved? A Critical Assessment of Conflict Resolution (London: Pinter, 1998), co-author, with Brian Corbitt, Nigel Hamilton and Elaine Lawerence, of Internet Commerce: Digital Models for Business (Brisbane: Jacaranda Wiley, 1998) and co-editor, with Roger Bell and Tim McDonald, of Negotiating the Pacific Century (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1996).


1. Louis P. Pojman, 1995. Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings., Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, p. 1.

2. Richard Sclove, 1995. Democracy and Technology. London: Guilford Press, p. 20.

3. Brown Electronic Article Review Service in Moral and Political Philosophy.

4. C. Wright Mills, 1959. The Power Elite. London: Oxford University Press, p. 304.

5. Ibid., pp. 303-304.

6. Ibid., p. 304.

7. John Perry Barlow quoted in David Shenk, 1997. Data Smog. San Francisco: Harper, p. 55.

8. Stephen Cohen and Damian Grace, 1998. Business Ethics. London: Oxford University Press, p. 9.

9. Roger Ebertz, 1993. "Is Reflective Equilibrium A Coherentist Model?" Canadian Journal of Philosophy, volume 23, number 2 (June), p. 194.

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