“The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and
recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior.” Normative ethics is a subfield
that seeks to develop a set of morals or guiding principles to influence the
conduct of individuals and groups within a population (such as a profession,
religion, or society at large). Three main strategies for arriving at these moral
standards have emerged over time:
• Consequentialism espouses that the “end justifies the means.” For example, a
consequentialist argument regarding torture would evaluate the benefits of the
information gained in relation to the loss of an individual’s rights.
• Deontology, or duty-based ethics, looks at the rightness or wrongness of the acts
themselves and the duty to follow rules. For example, a deontological argument might
state that it’s never acceptable to torture anyone, for any reason.
• Virtue ethics considers the character of the person making the choice, rather than
the act or its consequences. For example, you would consider an individual’s strong
moral foundation and history of acting in virtuous ways when evaluating his or her
decision to use torture.
The definition of computer ethics has various interpretations in line with these
broader definitions. One of the most oft-cited definitions is from James Moor:
“A typical problem in computer ethics arises because there is a policy vacuum about
how computer technology should be used. Computers provide us with new capabilities and
these in turn give us new choices for action. Often, either no policies for conduct
in these situations exist or existing policies seem inadequate. A central task of
computer ethics is to determine what we should do in such cases—that is, to formulate
policies to guide our actions.”
Unfortunately, although the rich field of ethics offers us a way to consistently and
coherently reason about specific ethical issues, the gap between these approaches
and a practical ethical framework is tremendous. In this work we seek to be neither
proscriptive nor prescriptive, as we believe it presumptuous to propose such a
framework in an area that lacks consensus and shows little active debate. Instead, our
goal here is to raise the issue of community involvement.