Thomas M. Powers

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(back to index) Thomas M. Powers (born 1965 in Honolulu, Hawaii) is an American Philosophy Professor at the University of Delaware.

Thomas M. Powers
Birthname Thomas M. Powers
Date of Birth 1965
Birth Place Honolulu, Hawaii
Nationality American
Occupation American Philosophy Professor at the University of Delaware
Biography Research in ethics and technology



Powers began his career at The College of William and Mary as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy. He then held the same position at Central Michigan University before becoming a Lecturer in Philosophy and an Adjunct Professor of Computer Engineering at Santa Clara University. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Delaware, as well as a Faculty Research Fellow of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. His research focuses on ethics and technology, particularly information ethics.

Other important positions that Powers held include NSF Research Fellow at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, Co-editor of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for "Ethics and Information Technology", and Director of the Science, Ethics, and Public Policy Program at the University of Delaware.


Powers' article "Real Wrongs in Virtual Communities" addresses the question of whether or not it is possible to commit moral wrongs against others if the interaction occurs entirely in cyberspace. He argues that there are, in fact, real moral wrongs in virtual communities. These “communities” include forums, chats, and discussion boards, as well as virtual worlds like MUDS, MOOs, and MMORPGs.

The article specifically analyzes the incident of the Virtual Rape that occurred in the online community LambdaMOO (first discussed by Julian Dibbell). The incident involved a real life “controller” assaulting two online characters through his own character. Dibbell suggested that the controller harmed these two people via their online characters. Shocked users on the site sought an authority for punishment and to establish rules for any similar behavior that could occur in the future. Powers argues that the behavior of the controller was wrong, but that this behavior was not wrong on the same level as rape. He argues that moral wrongs in new online environments provide for “new ground for traditional philosophy”.

In the article, Powers considers two questions:

  • 1. Are interactions in cyberspace real events, or are the domains of the virtual and the real mutually exclusive?
  • 2. Are the harms that some people claim to have suffered in cyberspace real moral wrongs?

The article also introduces the concept of CPR, or Causal Principle of Reality. This concept holds that real causes have real effects, and vice-versa. There are no imaginary causes of real effects, and no real causes that go without an effect. The concept connects actions with affects such as pain, harm, and moral wrongs. Moral wrongs cannot be real unless it is believed that real actions caused them.

Several behaviors, such as flaming, spamming, spoofing, and “grief playing” have become forms of deviance in these online communities. Powers finds through the CPR that that moral patients suffer real moral wrongs, and it becomes necessary to blame moral agents for committing them. In these online communities, the agents and patients are real people behind the characters they control. A real human is to blame for these occurrences, not merely a virtual character. Thus, the actions committed on LambdaMOO and sites like it are real actions of users and members of the community, not actions of characters on a screen. Powers concludes that the harms people suffer as a result of interaction on these virtual sites are real and intentional.

Other Publications:

  • “Incrementalism in Machine Ethics”, IEEE Robotics and Automation
  • “Prospects for a Kantian Machine”, Machine Ethics, eds. M. Anderson and S. Leigh Anderson
  • “Machines and Moral Reasoning”, Philosophy Now, (March/April 2009)
  • “Nanotech Development: You Can’t Please All of the People, All of the Time”, Nanotech Now, (February 2009)
  • “Ethics and Technology: A Program for Future Research” (with Deborah Johnson), Society, Ethics, and Technology, 4th edition, eds. M. Winston and R. Edelbach, (2009)
  • “Environmental Holism and Nanotechnology”, Nanotechnology and Society: Current and Emerging Ethical Issues, eds. F. Allhoff and P. Lin, (2008)
  • “Computers as Surrogate Agents” (with Deborah Johnson), Information Technology and Moral Philosophy, eds. M. J. van den Hoven and J. Weckert, (2008)
  • “Prospects for a Kantian Machine”, IEEE Intelligent Systems, (July 2006)
  • “Computer Systems and Responsibility: A Normative Look at Technological Complexity” (with Deborah Johnson), Ethics and Information Technology, Vol. 7, No. 2, (2005).
  • “Consequentialism”, Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, ed. C. Mitcham, (2005)
  • “Deontology”, Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, ed. C. Mitcham, (2005).
  • “Deontological Machine Ethics”, Technical Report, American Association for Artificial Intelligence, (2005).
  • “Ideas, Expressions, Universals, and Particulars: Metaphysics in the Realm of Software Copyright Law”, Intellectual Property Rights in a Networked World, eds. H. Tavani and R. Spinello, (2004).
  • “Real Wrongs in Virtual Communities”, Ethics and Information Technology, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2004).
  • “Responsibility in Software Engineering: Uncovering an Ethical Model”, The Transformation of Organizations in the Information Age, (2002).
  • “The Legacy of Kantian Rationalism for Social Theory”, From Kant to Weber: Freedom and Culture in Classical German Social Theory, eds. T. Powers and P. Kamolnick, (1999).
  • “The Integrity of Body: Kantian Moral Constraints on the Physical Self”, Philosophy and Medicine, Vol. 60 (1999).

See Also

External Links

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