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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.

By the end of this free 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 your own 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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5.5 Rhetorical devices

I talked a bit about Ned's motivations, but I am not quite sure about what he is trying to do to be persuasive. He has this interest in aesthetics, but in giving a detailed explanation of a military technology he is working on, he, from time to time, uses an analogy. One analogy he uses is the ‘flocking of starlings’, which illustrates rather the principle of operation of the technology and suggests that it is a kind of an existence proof. It implies this technology might actually work. But, of course, the analogy also shifts the context as is so often in ethical arguments. People use analogies to shift away from the thing that perhaps is causing some trouble. It shifts the context away from military application to that of nature and introduces the idea of beauty in flight, the beautiful organic movements of the starlings. Through the analogy, he romanticises the work he is engaged in. Later on he evokes a pleasing aesthetic, when he talks about the technology generating a ‘symphony in the sky’. In a slightly different vein, he talks about the technology not as a ‘thing’ that will do a particular job, but as a gesture. Technology becomes a deterrent to violent action. Just as threats, mere words, can deter violent action, so the technology becomes a gesture that will perhaps threaten others and, hence, remove the possibility of violence. Therefore, the technology is no longer a weapon: it becomes a symbol of intent or conviction that persuades others not to act.

This collection of analogies and gestures distances Ned's device and, hence, Ned, from violent action. It is somehow natural, pleasing and aesthetic, and it's just a gesture towards those who might be thinking about being violent towards us. It is difficult to know whether Ned does this consciously or unconsciously, but the effect of such analogies is perhaps to get us to thinking in different terms. Although we may, perhaps, object to the idea of weapons, we might agree with the beauty of what is being created, and that seems to me to fit in with the idea of someone being enamoured with the technology.

Activity 22

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Skip transcript: Discussion 4

Transcript: Discussion 4

Oh, sorry, just reading the chat log as well. John, have we covered their naïvety sufficiently because if you enter into a world where you know that you’re dealing with military technology, you must have thought through the consequences. Weaponising a drone from a military point of view is a very good idea; from a humanitarian point of view, probably not.
Yes, you do get the idea that Ned is incredibly naïve about a lot of the arguments that he puts forward, and it seems amazing that anyone’s gone into his line of work without actually considering the real aspects. It seems like he’s just a technologist, just like a little kid, really intrigued about the cool funky stuff he can build, but not even thinking about the way that they’re going to be used until it’s far too late and he has to sign this horrible contract.
Yes, I’d agree with that but I’m also thinking that most of us will often hide things that we don’t want to know about from ourselves. I mean this may be perhaps a bit of an extreme example but people will go into a job because there are reasons why they know that they’re going to enjoy it and perhaps that causes them to hide from the realities they don’t like.
Yes, actually the playwright, I’ve heard the playwright talk about this play and he said perhaps he made Ned a bit too naïve but he’s written the play and it’s been performed and perhaps if he were writing it again he wouldn’t do it quite in the same way. And the actors too said they found that particularly difficult to get over. I think they did a really good job when they performed it on the stage but I think the point about Ned’s naïvety is well made.
And it wasn’t only naïvety. Ned was looking for a paradigm shift and he wanted to retain control.
Yes, I wondered whether the naïvety in the play had been exaggerated in order to make the point that a naïve scientist can get himself involved in some quite dangerous stuff. This is a warning really but I also think that there are some incredibly naïve people around in all walks of life and I don’t suppose scientists are any more immune from being naïve than anybody else.
Yes, just going back to what Peter was saying about the paradigm shift and the control. I think I got the impression, at any rate, that Ned felt that he would be able to exercise control through the contractual side of things so the naïvety was in not realising how hard he’d be pushed contractually.
Perhaps Ned was simply so enamoured by the technology that he didn’t see beyond it.
That’s also very probably true.
Can you be enamoured by a weaponised drone?
He wouldn’t be the first person to get enamoured by a piece of technology in my experience, that’s for sure, and yes, I think people can get enamoured by the weaponisation, if that’s what you want to call it. I think if you look at the history of weapons development, people have got quite excited about the technology and I think some of the stuff around the Hiroshima and Nagasaki I think shows that.
Yes, I think also if you think about how people talk about their own work, the idea that something is my brain child, I think probably people do get enamoured in very much in the way that they love their children. They want it to be the best in the world, they’re proud of themselves for having produced it or whatever. But in Ned’s case, surely he was well and truly enamoured of it before it was weaponised and while he still thought that it was a relatively neutral piece of technology.
Sorry, I didn’t mean to butt in there, I pressed the wrong button. Yes, I think I can see what you’re saying about it was like a child to him and like a bad child you’re trying to give it all the time, a child turned bad.
He also makes the point though that when he was coming up with this technology, we weren’t in Iraq and Israel hadn’t invaded Gaza yet so the world was a far better place. So either he’s being naïve about the possibilities of things going wrong in the world or he genuinely didn’t see the bad applications and thought it would be only used for peace.
Of course, it could be that the playwright actually exaggerated because he wanted to make a point and perhaps the playwright got it in for these kind of technologists.
Yes, just thinking about not being in Iraq and those sort of things. Yes, the other point that came to me was when he’s talking to Ros later on about it and he’s describing it in very aesthetic ways and again, this seems to show that he sees his invention, his brain child as something quite different from what’s actually going to be produced out in the real world.
End transcript: Discussion 4
Discussion 4

Scene two is where the negotiation takes place. The scene opens with Ros attempting to build a cooperative relationship. She enters straight away into small talk and, in so doing, she makes the same mistake as Dan: she talks about the flat, but then discovers he is only renting it. She then shifts to talking about children as an alternative strategy, but, of course, Ned does not have any. She then compliments Ned on his work, and she really strikes a chord when she admires a geometrical design for the cooling device that appears on his laptop. She says, ‘This is what I love about your stuff, it's so eclectic, it's like where does it come from, your brain must be enormous.’ You may be reminded of the section were we looked at Socrates. Socrates said what rhetoric is flattery, but, it seems to me, here we've got a clear example of flattery being deployed to get Ned on Ros’ side. She even goes on to equate his work with that of Da Vinci which, of course, Ned seemed to tacitly agree with. The result of all of this is that Ned signals that serious discussion should take place.

They discuss, at first, possible modifications to the technology, but Ned is actually a bit unhappy about this. Ned somehow senses that he needs to be in a more powerful position than he perhaps is. He uses a tactic of challenging Ros’ use of words. This is not a logical attack, nor is it a direct attack, but he tries to put her off-guard, in a way. His first attack is on the use of the word ‘selling’ to mean ‘promote’ when she says she's ‘selling the idea’. Ned protests, ‘We’re not selling it to them!’, to which Ros replies, ‘No but I mean I have to sell them on it.’ It is a figure of speech, and Ros is clearly on her guard.

A while later they talk about weapon safety, and the discussion is quite interesting. Ros uses the word ‘difficult’, ‘difficult to operate’, where she might have better talked about the tool being ‘demanding’ of the operator or requiring undue skill. But Ned picks up this word ‘difficult’ and asks, ‘What if it's too easy to use?’ He takes a slightly different meaning of the word ‘difficult’ to her. He means it is lacking in safeguards. And he continues, ‘It should be difficult to use.’ He means it should have safeguards, but she meant it is a bit complicated to use.

Throughout that conversation, he is constantly challenging her, picking up on her grammar or her word use rather than explaining what it is he is objecting to. Perhaps he does not know what he is objecting to. Perhaps he just feels it, and he is just trying to provide some sort of resistance. But in the end, of course, it emerges he is worried about the sale of the device and about the modifications that will allow others to stake a claim. When Ros says we need an indicator on this device, Ned turns it into a moral issue about the irresponsibility of putting the weapon systems into the hands of untrained users. ‘If they need an indicator, they don't know what they're doing, they're not proper operators. How can we possibly sell it to these people?’

Ned uses underhand tactics also with his brother. In an attempt to close off an argument, he pounces on his brother's rather ill-judged comment, objecting to Dan's ignorance of the brilliance of the avionics. He does two things with the one single phrase. He shuts up Dan by telling him he is ignorant, and he sings his own praises by mentioning the brilliance of the avionics. In a way, this little bit of conversation reveals that Ned views any criticism of the weapon as a criticism of Ned himself. It is as though the weapon is a part of Ned. His ideas are embedded and embodied in that weapon and it has become a part of his identity. That may be one reason why he defends the weapon and ignores some of the criticism: the weapon is Ned, is an embodiment of Ned and his ideas. Towards the end of Act 1, Ned actually says, ‘I have to get this thing made! It's what I do, it's my life!’ You can see his very strong affiliation, identification with a piece of technology.

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