Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences
Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

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1 Good, bad, right or wrong?

1.1 ‘People, not guns, kill people’?

Navigation, which, like oratory, saves not only people's lives from extreme danger but also the persons and property which belongs to them. Navigation is a modest art that knows her place; she does not put on airs or make out she has performed some brilliant feat, even though she achieves as much as forensic[public] oratory; she brings people safe from Aegina for no more than two obols, I believe, and even if they come from Egypt or Pontus or ever so far away, the very most she charges for this great service, for conveying in safety, as I said, a man and his children and property and women, is two drachmae when he disembarks at the Piraeus.

The quote above is taken from Plato's dialogue Gorgias (§511d–e). In this and the following passage, which is likely to seem more than a little insensitive to present day readers, Socrates compares the work of two professions — the navigators or ship's skippers and the engineers – with that of orators. Earlier in the dialogue, Socrates’ interlocutor, Gorgias, had arrogantly claimed that orators inhabited a province that is the ‘greatest and best human of concerns’ (§451d) and which ‘serves … to produce the kind of conviction needed in courts of law and other large masses of people … and the subject of this kind of conviction is right and wrong’ (§454b). Socrates then attempts to show that the engineer and the navigator, with little fuss, also provide services to a wide community. Nevertheless, Socrates adds that the engineer and the navigator recognise that that community will inevitably include ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people.

But why, then, is the ferry's skipper so modest? Why does the skilled navigator, after landing, walk ‘about the shore beside his ship in an unassuming way’? Socrates puts the answer rather bluntly. He suggests the navigator can deploy his skills to keep people safe but also to deliberately put people in danger and therefore has the opportunity to conduct merciful drownings, but he cannot know which of his charges deserve a safe passage and which are less deserving, or whose unbearable pain could be relieved. In a less brutal way he then explains that the ferryman ‘knows he has landed [his passengers] in no better condition, in body or soul, than when they embarked’, consequently ‘the skipper, although he saves lives, is not in the habit of magnifying his office’. Similarly, the engineer, who in Plato's day was responsible for the defensive walls around a city that kept the citizens safe, and whose ‘ability to save [lives] is as great as that of a general’, cannot know which of the citizens that have been protected are ‘worthy’ and which are ‘unworthy’.

The engineer and the navigator generally do not know how the users of their products or services have lived their lives, so they cannot know what benefit or misery their products or services will perpetuate. That is why, Socrates surmises, the engineer as well as the navigator seldom make a fuss about what they do. Socrates is attempting to belittle the vainglory of the orator, but an implication here is that the engineer, navigator or orator cannot be expected to take any part of the blame for the misdeeds of the users of their products or services, nor are they able to act in practising their chosen profession to challenge or interfere with the activities of their beneficiaries. That is, their products and services do not provide a medium for moderating other people's malign behaviour. This is closely consistent with the cliché that says ‘people, not guns, kill people’ (‘The gun Menace’ in New York Times 18 May 1972, p. 46 – see also Peter M. Nichols ‘Listening to the Shouting about Shooting’ in New York Times 27 June 1999, Section 13, p. 4). Taking the ferryman and the gun maker as representatives of different technologies, it would seem that both Plato's account and the cliché absolve the gun maker and the ferryman from any responsibilities.

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