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Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

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Although ethics is often viewed as an academic specialism or an add-on to training programmes in technology and science, it is in fact an area of the utmost relevance to professionals and, indeed, everyone. This free course, Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences, draws upon examples taken from dialogues, plays and the media to discuss ethics and ethical issues within the context of Information and Computer Sciences. The course explores the importance of language and the role of rhetoric in everyday ICS practice, providing a resource of interest to ICS students and professionals alike.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • discuss what ethics is and what constitutes an ethical issue
  • identify and discuss ethical issues that arise in the media, in routine conversations and, in particular, in personal everyday professional practice
  • discuss the role of emotions in ethical deliberations
  • discuss how negotiation might resolve apparent ethical differences
  • identify and discuss the ethical issues presented and rhetorical styles used in play and dialogue excerpts, with focus on explaining how language is used to alter other people's ethical perceptions and convince them of specific points.

By: The Open University

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3.3 Emotions and judgements

As I suggested above, I am adopting Martha Nussbaum's view of emotions put forward in her dialogue ‘Emotions as judgements of value’ (Nussbaum, 1998). In the introduction she writes: ‘When you put a position in the mouth of a real person, especially the person you love you have to make it real’. She is suggesting that, if you do not write dialogue, then something different and abstract emerges. Her dialogue illustrates this since it is in the form of a lecture by Anna (a thinly disguised Martha Nussbaum) with lengthy interjections of a conversation between Anna and her mother and, later, her father. The topic of the text is emotion and its relationship to ethical judgements, and I will present her argument below.

Activity 13

A limited preview of the text is available online, but there are copyright restrictions in place that may make it difficult for you to access the material. If you do gain access to that (or to a printed version – you will find the bibliographical details in the ‘References’ section at the end of this free course), you might like to have a look at the text just to get a feel for the style of presentation, with particular focus on pages 35 (opening and scene-setting), 36 (comments about the project, presented as part of the dialogue) and 37–38 (where the philosophical result of the arguments is presented in a nutshell).

In Martha Nussbaum's view, one important point about emotional reactions is that they can be quite valuable in helping people to identify what matters to them, even though this can be a bit of a disquieting idea. In her dialogue she advances the thesis that emotions are forms of judgement, so she plants them fairly and squarely in the field of judgement and, hence, ethics. Nussbaum takes her lead from the Stoics, and that leads us back to the Ancient Greeks as a starting point.

The Stoics had a twofold perspective on emotions. First of all they saw them as a type of evaluative thought, a way of evaluating things, even though they are potentially unreliable and inaccurate. However, the Stoics’ view, and that's why we use the word ‘stoical’, was that the emotions should be suppressed. We should strive to suppress our emotions as our lifetime's quest. Their argument was that, once emotions are suppressed, rationality will come through. But Nussbaum rejects that second part of this argument, the one referring to suppression. Instead, she wants to recognise the contributions emotions make to our knowledge of things, suggesting that we need to learn how to integrate the experience of emotions into well-considered judgements.

As engineers, designers or programmers, we've got theories, regulations, rules of thumb, prototypes, experiments, opinions of others, all sorts of things, and somehow those different bits and pieces never quite fit together, and some of them only fit rather roughly to what we may be intending to do. Since we experience emotion while considering all of these things, emotions are useful in that they provide an umbrella for the overall experience.

Nussbaum says that ‘emotions are not simply ways of seeing an object but they're beliefs about the object, especially those we're unsure of and cannot influence.’ She is saying that emotions can be a guide to those things that seem to be important, yet intangible or difficult to grasp. The kind of objects she is talking about are not concrete objects, but things like theories, documents, opinions, assertions and assumptions, and the people who articulate those things. For instance, she suggests that, if we experience anger, then that expresses a thought about potential harm or damage. Since we are talking about ethics, then, clearly, it is worth while reflecting on that. We may experience anger but afterwards reflect upon it, and perhaps we will be able to identify the harm or damage felt, possibly subconsciously, that caused the anger.

Nussbaum saw these emotions as being rather unreliable and suggested that we should scrutinise and rationalise them. In other words, we should formulate a reason for the emotion. This is a kind of reflection, one that hopefully brings a sense of proportion and adjustment to enable the otherwise ill-defined experience to be constructive and, crucially, be used in an ethical argument. Adopting Nussbaum's view provides grounds for recognising the bursts of anger and delight, and the responses to them, responses which always alter the course of development of technological projects.

Following from that is the idea that, if we ignore our emotions, then we neglect something, an authentic thought, about an authentic rather than imagined situation. If we work with our logic, then we are always modelling situations. Emotion, however, is much closer to a situation than our reasoning about it. The consequence of ignoring emotions, Nussbaum would suggest, is that our judgements are poorer and deficient. And this is not an uncommon view when you come to investigate philosophical writings.

For instance, Alan Janik, actually a Wittgenstein scholar, noted that the enlightenment profoundly influenced attitudes towards technology in that it proselytised about progress arising from a scientific attitude to life and its technical deployment (Janik, 1995). In addition, he suggests there was a second, often forgotten, theme, a notion supported also by David Hume, that ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’ (A Treatise of Human Nature [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , Book II, Part III, Section III –.

Now, although Nussbaum's view is that emotions have a valuable role in our ethical judgements, she does not see all emotions as being productive. Clearly emotions tell us about how we value things, but we're also skilled at provoking emotions in others. I talked about that when I was talking about relationships earlier in the section. Emotions provide us with the means to impress on others the value we place on things, and we do that by striking up fears, or we can strike up pleasurable thoughts in others.

Interestingly, Socrates was actually aware of this. In Gorgias he said that speechmaking can be a form of gratification, and that is how it gets its influence. But he wanted to avoid that: he is against this kind of emotional provocation. Of course, this raises the question of whether it is right to exploit other people's emotions, either deliberately or, sometimes as we do, without forethought, for example, when our enthusiasm is contagious or our grief is infectious. If this is not ‘right’, then one thing we have to do is to strive to recognise when we are exploiting the emotions of others.

Of course there are all sorts of emotions and categorisations for these, and some indeed are presented as positive whilst some are considered negative. It might be claimed that these classifications emerge from the stoical view. From this view also emerges the notion that the scientific method is dispassionate and offers techniques that avoid emotional influences by, for example, reducing a judgement to a calculation. Nevertheless, even the most pragmatic scientist or technologist would expect to be enthusiastic or disappointed from time to time, so I am not quite sure about science as being totally without ‘passion’. Also, if Nussbaum's view holds, then it sounds as though we've got a great deal to lose by suppressing our emotions even though there are emotions that we would probably agree are wrong. In the extreme, emotional provocation is what people use to torture others, and I guess we would on the whole be against that.

Nussbaum actually picks out two emotions she regards as dangerous: shame and disgust. It is interesting that both shame and disgust are used as forms of punishment or even to justify punishment. Nussbaum's argument is that, when it comes to shame, the trouble is that it attacks the whole person, whereas if you want to castigate somebody, this should be done for a particular act. Shame aimed at the whole character is not appropriate. She also says that if you want to use shame to influence people, this is inconsistent with some ideas we have about removing shame. For example, anti-discrimination laws and rules are about removing shame that people might feel, and so there is an inconsistency in talking about shame. If you want to ‘get at somebody’, she suggests that guilt is a much more directed emotion towards particular acts, which is a view that has a long history. The trouble is that the person who is being acted upon, the person being shamed, may be missing the point and not seeing which act it is that others find offensive. This is hardly productive and potentially inhuman.

Disgust, Nussbaum says, comes from holding up a mirror to ourselves to discover that we are in fact animal in nature, and this is something that we take great pains to avoid. So, if we are talking about disgust of other people, we are trying to say that they have an animal nature and they are distant from us. This is a mode of discrimination, and often discrimination that is supported not by events, but by myths.

To summarise: I think we would find that there are emotions we would not want to exploit, or there are degrees of exploitation we would not want to use. I do not want to go through a list of emotions to see which are worthy and which are not, but I want to stress the point that, in putting an ethical case, we are liable to exploit other people's emotions, and that, in itself, has an ethical dimension. So, if you use other people's emotions and you think some of those emotions are ‘bad’ things to exploit, then the relationship-building is itself an ethical entity. As we are thinking about ethics, then emotions are really rather important, and for people like Nussbaum there is a feeling that emotions can be constructive but only if we reflect upon them and build them into our arguments. On the other hand, they are, for each of us, individually, an important indicator of how much we value things and perhaps emotions provide us with things that are not expressible in words.

Activity 14

This is quite a lot to take in, so I thought it would help you to put some of this in context with an excerpt from the group discussion that took place in the 2008 trial. Please be aware that the quality of the video and audio varies as it was recorded as a Flash Meeting and was therefore dependent on the equipment and connection speeds of the individual participants.

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Skip transcript: Discussion 2

Transcript: Discussion 2

John, I feel a bit Socratic in that sense, because I wonder how can we know when we’re right, how can we know when we’re wrong?
Well I guess that’s what the study of ethics is about, is to try and sort that out. But the trouble is when you get ethicists working on a problem they will give you all kinds of options that are right according to your final vocabulary, the particular logic you’re using and what you include in your arguments, such as emotions or not.
So I’m just thinking I’d like to come back on that because I tend to think that you try and learn from your experience, and yet the world we’re living in is changing and it’s changing, and it never seems to come back to a benchmark where you can think ah, I know where I am again, it’s always moving on. So experience isn’t necessarily a useful measure, but what’s the guide?
Well I guess the fundamentalists have it there don’t they, that they would believe in a particular text and a particular authority interpreting that text, and that would be their guide.
But if you’re not a fundamentalist and you haven’t got such a text and you’re looking for a new text for the new world we live in, then you have to go by gut feeling, and gut feelings are so immeasurable, well that’s what I feel anyway.
Well I’d go along with that, and I guess, I mean we had an email exchange that one of the things that does guide us of course is tradition, and tradition that we get from our parents in many cases, or from our education. But also there are things that rub off by bumping into people in all sorts of activities. Just going to the shops as a child tells you that you pay for things before you take them away. So for me what seals it is tradition.
Yes and for me, right now, tradition doesn’t seem to be working, and it’s life in a pinball machine where you’re bouncing off chance meetings or coincidence, and it’s very scary.
Yeah it is. I don’t know whether anybody else has got any observations to make about how they secure their feelings about what the right thing to do is.
Well I guess that there isn’t a right and wrong, that right and wrong shifts and it also depends on reflective dialogue, and it depends on the perspective of the person observing your actions.
So no help there then.
Well it gets a bit spooky when you think well right and wrong aren’t going to be my guide points here. It’s expediency or integrity or being able to look yourself in the mirror in the morning.
But there are certain things that you as a human will, certain qualities that you will value in life, that will be a good, that you yourself will assign the words kind of good to, that make up what we’ve termed as your final vocabulary. So some people might see great promiscuity as being something to aspire to, some people might see a modest life with a single loved woman, some people might think that all they really want from their life is a job, but you can only really find that if you look inside yourself and go for it.
I guess this is where some people use religion or turn to religion to decide what’s right and wrong for them, and have other people make the decisions rather than have to make it themselves, or look for different points of reference.
Just to be neutral about this, right now for instance would you sell your house or would you wait until the market’s settled down?
I won’t, I just bought my house a year ago and that itself has caused me some concern because I bought it with my girlfriend who I’ve known for three years. So that’s kind of affected my mindset about the relationship and the possession of the house. But now it’s kind of well actually what is more important, the relationship or making a swift buck, or weathering out the financial markets or anything? I mean I think you need to take a view on what is important in your life and the ownership of a house and making money on the market is not to me.
Now I mention it because it’s one of those, this is a situation we’re currently facing, a bit like 9/11 to me, although not quite so dramatic, where the world is not going to be the same. So the guidelines you used to think oh well I know what a reasonable situation is, maybe it’s not going to be like that any more.
I mean that question you ask it seems to demand a very personal response from people. It does depend upon their relationships with others, it does depend upon what their particular financial situation is, and it does depend on where they live. I was just reminded that I lived in Belgium for a while and on the whole people didn’t own the houses. I don’t know whether it’s still the same but they rented so it wouldn’t have been an issue.
Well no, maybe it’s not a generally useful issue, but I’m talking about the situations where the world tomorrow may not be the same as it was in the past, and so you can’t rely necessarily on your past experience, and you can’t, you feel you’ve got to go with the gush of it into a new world. And I must admit as you get older and think of past change that becomes intimidating.
I can identify with that, with what you’re saying Peter, because I’ve been away from Australia for seven years and just came back, and it seems that my country has changed incredibly. We’ve got a new Prime Minister, housing is a big issue, prices of things, so you’re right, if you stay in one place things change, or if you go away and come back to another place things change. So I guess change is part of being human and part of why learning is important.
Absolutely, but there are still some central things by which you evaluate your life and your effect on other people, and the basis behind your choices, just because the world that you’re making the choices in has changed, doesn’t mean that the fundamental reasons that you make your choices, the fundamental reasons behind your choices, there’s no reason why they should change. So you’ll analyse the effect on your money, on your personal life, on other people around you, and you’ll make your choice based on those things. And they won’t change will they?
And they may not, but for instance if your decisions affect others, and you’re in a situation where you’ve got to decide for others, then it becomes not a personal risk but a collective risk, and that’s more difficult when you don’t know if you can rely on - who was it that said, “You can expect the world tomorrow to be much the same as it was today”?
Doesn’t all this depend on using your own best judgement, and in a way that’s working by your own moral code. That’s not to presuppose that your own moral code doesn’t shift and change as outside influences change.
I’m wondering whether now’s the time to move on. Nobody was going to it seems add to that. What we’re saying is that there aren’t any absolute guides and, but people do find comfort and solace in religion, and that’s perhaps the best source if you want to turn to it. The best source of security if you want to turn to it, but of course that requires a faith that perhaps some of us struggle to have. Peter says the consolation of philosophy, I’m not sure about that, I always think philosophy actually just gives you more questions to answer, and perhaps that’s what’s happens. It gives you more questions to answer and you’re so busy doing that that perhaps you haven’t got time to worry about the other things, would seem to be partly what Socrates was about. But I think he made a bit of a living out of his pupils didn’t he? So I’m not sure whether he was in it for the money or the philosophy.
End transcript: Discussion 2
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Discussion 2
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