Study Guide

Overview: what is ethics

  • If we look in an old dictionary we find the following definition:
"the science of human duty; the body of rules of duty drawn from this science; a particular system of principles and rules concertning duty, whether true or false; rules of practice in respect to a single class of human actions; as, political or social ethics; medical ethics É" and today computer ethics. Ethics is the reasoning that we do in order to make decisions that will not violate our conscience. As the Greeks would say, "to keep one's soul pure".
  • Computer ethics tries to clarify and provide solutions to the issues that are raised by computers in areas such as privacy, personal property, damage to others' property, safety, and so forth. Computer ethics falls in the area of normative ethics, that is the quest for the practical truth of how one's choices and actions will be good and worthwhile. 

Various ethical theories

  • Throughout history many ethical theories have developed. Each individual must choose one, or a combination of them. 
  • The are two basic approaches to ethics: 
    • Teleological theories which consider the consequences of an action as a measure of an action's good. 
    • Deontological theories which put the rightness of an action above its "goodness." 
  • Teleological: Utilitarianism, first advocated by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill 
    • Utilitarianism claims that the good is that which provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This theory advocated that one's acts should maximize the amount of good and happiness for everyone affected by the actions. One's decision should be based on the consequences that can be deduced before the action has taken place. Please note that utilitarianism stresses that one should think about everyone and not just the one(s) making the decision. As an example our decision to cut down forests should also include in the analysis how that will affect our grandchildren. 
  • Deontological: duty-based ethics -- developed by Immanuel Kant.
    • This theory stresses that fidelity to principle and duty are the most important. The consequences of an action, according to Kant do not matter. What matters is that the act itself is right, that one does one's duty. One's actions should be ruled by the following imperative " I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law." That is, if one believes that everyone should act this way and if everyone acting this does not logically lead to a contradiction, the action is valid. Spinello gives a good example: The rule, " It is permissible for everyone to break promises when it is in their best interest to do so," cannot be a valid ethical rule since it leads to a contradiction. That is, if everyone broke promises, the whole notion of promises would collapse. 

      Another philosopher, W.D. Ross built upon Kant's theory and listed a few basic duties. One should:

      1. Tell the truth. 
      2. Right the wrongs that one has done to others. 
      3. Act justly. 
      4. Help other in respect to virtue, intelligence, and happiness. 
      5. Improve oneself with respect to virtue and intelligence. 
      6. Give thanks. 
      7. Avoid injury to others. 

      According to Ross when two of these conflict one should act according to the more stringent of the above.

  • Deontological: Rights-based ethics -- based on the tradition of Locke and Hobbes. 
    • This theory is based on upholding an individual's human or legal rights, such as the rights to privacy and ownership of property. 

      In the philosophical arena, rights are split up into positive and negative rights. Negative rights refer to freedom from outside interference in certain activities which are defined by the social norm of the moment. Such rights are freedom of speech, the right to liberty and privacy.

      Positive rights "are those that give one what is needed to freely pursue his or her interests. " Such rights are right to health care, education and other similar things. Spinello notes that "In American society there has been far more emphasis on negative rights then on positive rights"

      Contractarianism is a rights-based approach to morality and ethics. According to this approach, morality is based on the social contact between government and its citizens. This contract provides certain inalienable rights such as life, liberty and property. Contractarianism stresses that a system must be fair and accord all its participants due respect.

Some steps for ethical analysis Spinello

  1. Identify and formulate the basic issues in each case. 
  2. Consider your first impressions or reactions to these issues. In other words, what does your moral intuition say about the action or policy under consideration. Is it right or wrong? 
  3. Are there any normative principles relevant? If so, what impact do they have on resolving the ethical problem(s)? 
  4. Consider the issues also from the viewpoint of one or more of the ethical theories and pose some of the questions raised above. 
  5. Do the normative principles and the ethiccal theories point to one decision or course of action or do they bring you to the different conclusions? If so, which avenue of reasoning should take precedence? 
  6. What is the normative conclusion about the case, that is, what should be the organizational or individuals course of action? 
  7. Finally what are the public policy implications of this case and your normative conclusion? Should the recommended behavior be prescribed through legislation or regulations?