Responsibility, Resolution, and Residue of Computer Ethics

There are many levels of relativity in value judgments. Some of our values
are relative to our being human. If we were angels or creatures from another
dimension, our core values might be different. And then, of course, different
cultures articulate the core human values differently. And different individuals
within a culture may differ in their assessments of values. Indeed, some
values of one individual may change over time. I have been arguing that
such relativity is compatible with rational discussion of ethical issues and
resolution of at least some ethical disputes. We are, after all, human beings,
not angels or creatures from another dimension. We share core values. This
provides us with a set of standards with which to assess policies even in
situations in which no previous policies exist and with which to assess other
value frameworks when disagreements occur.

Ethical responsibility begins by taking the ethical point of view. We must
respect others and their core values. If we can avoid policies that result in
significant harm to others, that would be a good beginning toward responsible
ethical conduct. Some policies are so obviously harmful that they are
readily rejected by our core-value standards. Selling computer software
which is known to malfunction in a way which is likely to result in death is
an obvious example. Other policies easily meet our standards. Building computer
interfaces which facilitate use by the disabled is a clear example. And
of course, some policies for managing computer technology will be disputed.
However, as I have been emphasizing, some of the ethical policies under
dispute may be subject to further rational discussion and resolution. The
major resolution technique, which I have been emphasizing, is the empirical
investigation of the actual consequences of proposed policies.For instance,
some people might propose a limitation on free speech on the Internet on
the grounds that such freedom would lead to an unstable society or to severe
psychological damage of some citizens. Advocates of free speech might
appeal to its usefulness in transmitting knowledge and its effectiveness
in calling attention to the flaws of government. To some extent these are
empirical claims that can be confirmed or disconfirmed, which in turn
may suggest compromises and modifications of policies.

Another resolution technique is to assume an impartial position when
evaluating policies. Imagine yourself as an outsider not being benefited or
harmed by a policy. Is it a fair policy? Is it a policy which you would advocate
if you were suddenly placed in a position in which you were affected by the
policy? It may be tempting to be the seller of defective software, but nobody
wants to be a buyer of defective software. And finally, analogies are sometimes
useful in resolving disagreements. If a computing professional would
not approve of her stockbroker’s with holding information from her about
the volatility of stock she is considering buying, it would seem by analogy
she should share information with a client about the instability of a computer
program which the client is considering purchasing.

All of these techniques for resolution can help form a consensus about
acceptable policies. But when the resolution techniques have gone as far as
they can, some residue of disagreement may remain. Even in these situations
alternative policies may be available which all parties can accept. But,
a residue of ethical difference is not to be feared. Disputes occur in every
human endeavor and yet progress is made. Computer ethics is no different
in this regard. The chief threat to computer ethics is not the possibility that
a residue of disagreements about which policies are best will remain after
debates on the issues are completed, but a failure to debate the ethical issues
of computing technology at all. If we naively regard the issues of computer
ethics as routine or, even worse, as unsolvable, then we are in the greatest
danger of being harmed by computer technology. Responsibility requires
us to adopt the ethical point of view and to engage in ongoing conceptual
analysis and policy formulation and justification with regard to this ever
evolving technology. Because the computer revolution now engulfs the
entire world, it is crucial that the issues of computer ethics be addressed on
a global level. The global village needs to conduct a global conversation
about the social and ethical impact of computing and what should be
done about it. Fortunately, computing may help us to conduct exactly that
conversation.

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