5.0254 Computer Ethics

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 29 Jul 1991 21:59:43 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 5, No. 0254. Monday, 29 Jul 1991.

Date: Thu, 25 Jul 91 09:48 EST
Subject: RE: 5.0243 Computer Ethics (Cross-posting) (2/105)

I am afraid that I am somewhat confused by the question of *computer* ethics,
much as I often find myself to be in discussions of *X* ethics. It seems to me
that to phrase the question in this way is to misdirect our attention.

Computers present people with opportunites to behave in some certain kinds of
ways that they could not act in the absence of computers' existence. The same
can be said of kitchen knives, but we do not therefore discuss questions of
*kitchen knife* ethics. We recognize the fact that people who have certain
ethical sensibilites will not do certain things with kitchen knives.

Likewise, it seems to me, the question of *computer* ethics takes the focus
away from the question of the operator. The reason we are so concerned, rightly,
with the potential for mis-use of computers is that we have not paid much
attention to ethical issues in general, being more concerned for the last
generation or so with clarification of values instead of the teaching of
virtues. As a consequence, we have people who will misuse whatever technology
(or other opportunity) to their own advantage if they think they can get away
with it. Hence, the CEO of EXXON sees the EXXON Valdiz "incident" as part of
"the cost of doing business," and a congressman was interviewed talking about
a "new standard of ethics" meaning that they now should not behave in ways they
would be ashamed ot see publicly reported.

The question for humanists ought to be, rather, how can we get poeple to think,
talk, and act ethicsally? And to care about the ethics of their behavior? I
suspect that if people framed questions as ethical questions to themselves, and
judged their own behvaior by those standards, that the answers to ethical
computer use would become more nearly clear, and much less complicated. In
the meantime, it seems likely that efforts to generate a "Code of Ethical
Computer Use" will result in people asking themselves, "Now, the Code says I
can't do X, but if I interpret the code thus-and-so, I can justify doing Y,
which will gain me the same advantage." As we hear people so often justify
that which they know to be wrong with the claim, "But it's not illegal -- there'
no law against it!"

The question is not "What will a code of ethical Computer use allow and/or
prohibit?" but "How should I live my life, a life that includes computers
and many other opportunities to do harm to others or to take some sort of
unfair advantage for myself?"

John F. Covaleskie
Cultural Foundations of Education and Curriculum
Syracuse University