Judith A. Perrolle
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Northeastern Univerity
Boston, MA 02115


Interface designs for human/human communications involve elements of surveillance and control of users. Security and protections for intellectual property are frequently given as the reasons for these design features. While institutional surveillance and controls seem appropriate for regulating the moral behavior of individuals in what cognitive moral theorist Lawrence Kohlberg calls the pre-conventional stage of moral reasoning, they are theoretically inappropriate for individuals operating at the higher conventional and principled stages. Learning and exercising higher forms of moral reasoning require the social conditions of what the theorist Jürgen Habermas calls communicative action, in which groups create communities with negotiated behavioral norms.

Privacy is required in both computer supported cooperative work interfaces and in social interfaces in order for groups of individuals to operate in what the social theorist Erving Goffman called "backstage" areas. There, free from the immediate supervision of formal authorities, they can work out mutually agreed upon patterns of acceptible behavior. Without these shared private spaces, the theoretical conditions for communicative action and moral development are restricted by the interface design.

In our enthusiasm to civilize the unruly world of online communications, social theory strongly suggests that we avoid the temptation to build technologies of surveillance and control as a solution to online behavior. Especially in educational and community environments, private spaces where social interactions among people regulate behavior are essential for moral development.

TABLE 1. Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Judgment

TABLE 2. Habermas' Stages of Interaction, Social Perspectives, and Moral Stages

TABLE 3. Design Features and Stages of Moral Development


Habermas, Jürgen. 1995. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1992. "Individuation through Socialization: On George Herbert Mead's Theory of Subjectivity," pages 149-204 in Postmetaphysical Thinking. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1981. Essays on Moral Development. San Francisco.

Perrolle, Judith A. 1995. "Surveillance and Privacy in Computer Supported Cooperative Work" (in David Lyon and Elia Zureik, eds., New Technology, Surveillance and Social Control. University of Minnesota Press. Available online.

Perrolle, Judith A. 1991. "Conversations and Trust in Computer Interfaces," In Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling, eds. Computers and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices. New York: Academic Press.


Judith A. Perrolle was a member of the committee which drafted the ACM Code of Ethics and was the principal investigator of a National Science Foundation study, "Ethical Reasoning about Computers and Society." She is currently studying practical issues in web-based online instruction.