Contemporary Issues in Ethics and Information Technology

by Robert A. Schultz
IGI Publishing: 2006

New technology alters the ways in which people and organizations react with one another, and there is presently a gap between the pace at which technology is evolving and the way in which we apply ethics to its use.

Since there are various schools of ethics, the author discloses that he subscribes to the notions of John Rawls, who defines "ethics" as acting in a way that is fair to all, in terms of "social contracts" that are voluntary and equitable. He is not going to dwell on the theoretical aspects, and intends on applying them toward a practical ethics.

I - Ethical Issues in Information Technology

What is Ethics?

Ethics concerns itself with what should be done, from a perspective of its impact on people - with a goal to doing what is "right" in any given situation. It is differentiated from the technical limitations or capabilities on what is possible, as well as the economic outcomes on what is profitable.

The Value of IT

Aside of economics and efficiency, there is "value" in information technology in that it serves specific interests. The main question, and the main cause of differences in the opinions of ethical behavior, is whose interest it serves: those directly involved, those indirectly affected, or even "society as a whole."

IT and New Ethical Issues

The author skirts the topic of what is meant by "information technology" by suggesting that the exact embodiment of technology (computers, voice systems, mass media, etc.) are largely incidental to the actions that it enables and the problems that arise.

And in many cases, the issues that arise are not unique to the new technology, merely accelerated or amplified. The objection to Napster (sharing pirated MP3 files over the Internet) is fundamentally no different than the objection to hard-media piracy (sharing recordings on hard media, such as bootleg concert tapes). Technology has merely facilitated the speed, quality, degree of access, etc. - the core ethical issue remains the ame.

Determining Right and Wrong

The author's perspective is that the decision of what is right and wrong are determined by "the person with the most overall view using the highest level principles" - which is to say, a perspective that can be broadly applied and is clear in the distinction between right and wrong.

II - A Background in Ethical Theory

The author provides a quick background in ethics for a reader he presumes to have spent little time considering the topic.

Right, Good, Just

There are three senses in which ethics is applied:

The concept of "good" applies to objects - it is generally utilitarian (an object is good for doing something). However, objects are ethically neutral - they merely exist - but one questions the ethics of actions that an object is used to perform. And in some instances, controlling the object is seen as a method of controlling the action.

The concept of "right" applies to actions - but it is generally limited to their immediate outcome. An action is "right" if it produced the desired effect. As with objects, actions are generally ethically neutral. An action is weighed by its outcome - and like objects, controlling an action is often seen as a method of controlling the outcome.

The concept of "just" applies to outcomes - and it is this level that is of the greatest ethical concern: was the outcome just to all who are affected by it? Most often, the justice or injustice of the outcome is the root from which the "rightness" of an action or the "goodness" of an object are assessed.

And finally, be aware of multiplicity: a given outcome may be achieved by a number of different actions, and an action may have multiple outcomes.

The Rational Basis of Ethics

The author steps into game theory - specifically, the prisoners' dilemma - as a method of looking at outcomes. From an individual perspective, the "right" action is the one that provides the best outcome for that individual; from a societal perspective, the "right" action is the one that benefits the most people.

In addition to the parties directly and willingly involved, there are outcomes for others who may be indirectly involved. The author brings up the concept of "freeloading" as a way to address the desire to benefit from the actions of others, which is generally considered unethical, as a possible exception to the rule of the greatest "social" good.

Theories of Right: Intuitionist vs. End-Based vs. Duty-Based

Historically, there have been three theories of "right" - the intuitionist (one "feels" that something is right), the teleological (something is right if it achieves a proper outcome), and the obedient (something is right because someone else says so).

Teleological approaches are generally the most clear-cut: we can see the outcome and assess it objectively. However, there are a couple of drawbacks:

  1. Utilitarianism is incidental - what is "right" depends on the specific parameters of a situation
  2. Utilitarianism is relative - when it is possible to take two actions, the "more" right is not always the proper choice
  3. Utilitarianism assumes precognition - since it deals with outcomes, it assumes that the actors have perfect knowledge of what will result from them in advance of acting
  4. Utilitarianism is historical - often, the consequences of an action are not fully understood until the action is completed, and there are often unexpected consequences

In a sense, utilitarianism is the basis of rule systems - one make assumptions about the outcomes an action will achieve, and develop a "rule" that is based on those assumptions. The rule system may be complex, with conditions and exceptions, to accommodate various situations

Rights, Duties, Obligations

The author defines these key concepts:

I think this may be splitting hairs: if you haven't done something yet, the conditions of doing it are potential obligations. Once you have done it, your situation changes, and the conditions of having done it are now duties.

Theory of Value

The value of an action is weighed by the benefit one receives from that action. Values can be relative, in terms of the efficiency or effectiveness of actions in achieving the desired benefit.

There is also the concept of "enabling" values - where we take an action to achieve a benefit that, itself, is a means to achieve a different benefit. There may, in fact, be a chain of causation between an action and the ultimate value it will achieve.

Conflicting Principles and Priorities

Deciding whether an action is of value is a simple matter for an individual - it achieves his interest. In social situations, there may be conflicts of interest: there may be instances in which an action (or object) is necessary to achieve different goals for different individuals.

In cases where the separate goals can all be achieved, there's little room for conflict - but in the case where goals are mutually exclusive, or where one party's achievement of its goals will be detrimental to another party, conflict arises.

A Theory of Justice

There are various theories of "justice" that are accepted by different societies at different times. Often, the victimization of some for the benefit of others has largely been accepted (the existence of a privileged class in feudalism, or of a class that has no privileges, in a system of slavery).

The theory of justice most applicable to the US in present times is that of "greatest equal liberty" - fundamentally, ethics is to ensure that al individuals have the greatest possible liberty available to all, with a footnote on the "core" rights of individuals and a fundamental respect for property.

III - The Context of IT Ethical Issues

Within an organization, ethical considerations are generally correlated to the good of the organization (rather than the individual). Employees within a company serve the interests of that company rather than their own personal agendas. Conflicts that arise tend to be over the use of resources (whether spending budget on one thing versus another would be more in the interests of the company), and are decided by individuals who are, by nature of their roles, empowered to arbitrate in situations where conflict occurs.

When employees act on behalf of the company in a larger environment - dealing with other companies, or society at large - the ethical issues become less clear. There may also be "external" impacts of actions that seem, at first glance, to be primarily internal matters.

Partial Compliance

The author identifies three situations where ethics may fail:

The author posits that an evil person does not feel the need to be bothered with ethics at all, and believes his readership to be people who seek to do right, but may have difficulty understanding the principles, when they should be applied, or how to resolve conflicts among interests.

IV - Professional Duties

In professions such as medicine or law, there are ethical codes that go back thousands of years. Since the IT profession is vey new (probably one of the newest), there is not a history to draw upon as a basis for professional ethics, and many are struggling with the task of defining them.

IT Professional Ethics

The author has examine the ethics codes of major industry associations, and found that they cover five basic categories:

  1. The duties and obligations that arise from being a citizen in society
  2. The duties and obligations inherent in the employee-employer relationship
  3. The duties and obligations one must fulfill to maintain the status of being considered a professional
  4. The duties and obligations they have in service to the end-user
  5. The duties and obligations they have to the professional community and its other members

These are, in many ways, similar to the duties of other professions.

Three Codes of Ethics

The author goes into a detailed examination of the codes of ethics of three industry associations. I don't feel the need to repeat his line-by-line critique, as the categories above summarize them - with the exception of certain line-items that the author finds "puzzling" because of the vagueness of the language.

Management Conflicts

It's also worth mentioning that, in terms of IT, there are no clear lines where a professional can be clearly seen to be "right" to put ethical concerns before the demands of his employer. A doctor who provides the proper care for a patient, in defiance of the hospital administration's demands, has a great deal of support from the legal system and society at large.

An IT professional who does the "right" thing for a client, in defiance of his corporate managers, has no such support system. If he chooses the ethical course of action, he may well be fired, and possibly sued by his former employer.

V - Justice in a Market Economy

The author defines two principles of justice:

  1. Greatest Equal Liberty - Means acting in a way so that all members of society have the greatest equal liberty possible, including fair equality of opportunity.
  2. The Difference Principle - Economic inequalities are justified provided that they are not caused by coercion (he uses other words, but I think that's what he's getting at)

Market Economies

An unregulated market economy is a just economy: buyers and sellers act independently and without compulsion, and the market forces are inherently set to discourage unethical behavior in the long run. Monopolies and cartels collapse, a seller who gouges customers soon loses business to a competitor who charges a lesser price, etc.

The author suggests that US government regulation is "good" in that it prevents monopolies or oligopolies from forming (which is a conclusion I disagree with - it is not needed, and can only interfere with balance).

Positive Functions of Monopoly

It is suggested that there are cases where "natural" monopolies can emerge: where the cost of entry to a market is very high, and makes it unlikely other firms will enter. This is (arguably) more efficient than competition, and the market benefits from the lower costs and economies of scale.

A monopoly also breeds standards, which are essential to progress in an industry. For example, having a standard voltage (and plug shape) for electricity, nationwide, enables manufacturers to develop products that are designed to operate with that standard (rather than a multitude of unique options).

Naturally, the author refers to Microsoft a lot. It's not clear whether he's making an excuse for them, or suggestion that they need to be broken up. (EN: I don't see how it is an "ethical" problem at all - they are not a monopoly, merely the market leader in a competitive market).