CS 302 Professional Issues

Chapter 7 - Ethical Considerations


§7.0 Introduction §7.3 Applications to Computer Systems
§7.1 Questions & Answers §7.4 Footnotes
§7.2 Ethics - A Better Defined Base


Previous Reading: Professionalism & the Engineering Institutions

§7.0 Introduction

The exhortatory role of professional bodies like the BCS - just like the health and safety issues of a previous chapter - brings us squarely against a range of moral issues.

How we react to them may determine many things ...

Indeed, it may even determine the future!

We can frame a number of questions, of greater or lesser intensity according to your view of what matters in the world. How do you feel about:


§7.1 Questions & Answers

Questions like these

In an attempt to answer that last question (and taking some extreme, non-computing cases as initial exemplars)

The answers to these questions may come partly from the law

Ethical judgements are very demanding and the arguments can be very confused!

Sometimes, for example, our views are prejudiced in ways we can scarcely imagine

We need to be very aware of these unconscious prejudices and of the way they affect our judgements -


§7.2 Ethics - A Better Defined Base

Leaving the ethical high ground (or at least the emotional high ground!)

In simple terms, the answer to this is easy: doing the right thing

Now Juvenal's question was in one sense flippant: he was making a political point, by arguing that, for preservation of his wife's chasitity, a chastity belt was essential, since otherwise she would be able to seduce her guards. But the cynics tell us that every man has his price; and down the centuries Juvenal's question remains unanswerable. And equally unaswerable is the question of who should define right!

Ethical theory assumes a world in which people

  1. are rational

  2. make free choices

Beware! Both assumptions are risky

Both emotion and mistakes are common, are indeed very much a characteristic of humanity, and both can thus violate our simple assumption.

A follower of political fashion may recognise in this the current vogue for vetting administrative systems by way of "a light touch", just as those familiar with Christianity may recognise echoes from Saint John's Gospel, "My yoke is light". In either case the intention of the key phrase is the same, to demonstrate that the activity proposed is wholly ethical, is not burdensome, is - indeed - welcome. And that leads us on, to our next general point:

Note the possibility of devastating exceptions to what is now almost a commentary on behaviour

But if the base concepts are reasonableness and acceptability, how do we go forward to build some sort of formal system to allow us to regulate our lives in a rational and ethical fashion?

One approach to ethics is the construction of a set of "good" rules
- for example Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued (amongst many other points!)

Alas, even the first of these has a flaw; just ponder the possible reactions to the statement, "Please, tell me where is the person I wish to kill."

Another approach, and one very different from Kant's rigid framework of rules, is the construction of a regime of consequences

Alas, there is no simple answer or frame work

So, what do we have for a basis for our ethical considerations? The fundamental points are very simple, and yet very hard to define; we have:

The ideas of ... right
wrong
and something in between acceptable

And we can conclude (remember the earlier quotation from Edmund Burke?) that we have responsibilities

We note the difference between "wrong" and consequential harm

A goal is not necessarily bad of itself, but the context applied to get there can make it so; thus

Laws and ethics are two very different systems, though there may be major overlap between their ideas, for the simple reason that codes of law usually reflect the opinions of society, whilst codes of ethics normally are those opinions.


§7.3 Applications to Computer Systems

If we try to apply these thoughts on ethics to computing systems, what do we get? What forms a topic range for "computing ethics"?

Probably we need to restrict the scope of the term, to narrow it down from points of social or political opinion

But what we can more easily do, is to draw out some guidelines likely to leave us, as computer scientists, with ... well, with ethically clean hands.

Thus we might arrive at such issues as:

All these points can be developed from one or other of BCS' codes of practice and of conduct - or from equivalent codes published elsewhere, for example in America by ACM or by IEEE CS.

Note that the ethical problems which emerge tend to blend with technical problems or (though not in the examples quoted) with legal ones - the area to which we will be turning in the next chapter - but it is important, and down to us as professionals, to keep in view not only the technical and legal issues but also the ethical ones.


§7.4 Footnotes

Four points before we move on ...

The first concerns research which involves anything affecting humans

The second point? Ah, a point for all you who thought you could sidestep these issues because you were going to work in management rather than in the more technical areas of computer science. That doesn't let you off the hook:

Thirdly, if some of these ideas have struck you as matters of curiosity in their own right, you might enjoy the very much wider study (wider than simply ethics, that is) to be found in the following book:

"A Gift of Fire", Sara Baase, Prentice Hall, 2003 (2 ed).

Though do be warned: it is an excellent and fascinating book, but it is also a wholly American book! You may also be interested in - still American, but less stridently so -

"Pandora's Box", Andrew A Adams & Rachel McCrindle, John Wiley, 2008.

which may well form a - or even the - recommended text book for future versions of this class.

The fourth point is rather different. This chapter has been unusually free with the sorts of quotations not often found in Computer Science lectures. So let us end with two more quotations, and with a moral. The essence of ethics is the willingness of each individual to think, and to be willing to think for him or herself. It is that individualism which is the ultimate source of political freedom, something which even in the twenty-first century a large part of the world population does not enjoy. The erstwhile British leader Winston Churchill put one side of that necessity to think:

"You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. Yet in their hearts there is unspoken - unspeakable! - fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home, all the more powerful because they are forbidden. These terrify them. A little mouse - a little tiny mouse! - of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic."

And where are Churchill's words and thoughts traditionally stored? In books. And throughout the ages, to ensure conformity of thought, there have been book burnings, not least those by the Nazis in May 1933 in Berlin's once again beautiful Unter den Linden. Over a century before, speaking of a burning of the Qur'an during the sixteenth century Spanish Inquisition, the German poet Heine had said

"Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen"
(Where they burn books, in the end they will also burn human beings).

That quotation has been heard at many recent Strathclyde graduation ceremonies: it is our responsibility to treasure knowledge, and to continue to work at our own freedom to think.


© Paul Goldfinch 2008 Next Chapter Return to CS 302 Menu