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

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1.4 What is ethics?

I'd like to introduce an idea of ethics based on the work of G. E. Moore, a Cambridge Don who died fifty years ago. Bearing in mind that concerns with ethics date back at least to the Ancient Greeks, you might not be surprised that I bring in some ideas from Moore's Principia Ethica, a text written over 100 years ago but articulated in a particularly clear and plain-speaking style. Moore's take on things is that when ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are involved, then we're in the realm of ethics. He wrote:

This, then, is our first question: What is good? and What is bad? and to the discussion of this question (or these questions) I give the name Ethics, since that science must, at all events, include it.

(Moore 1903, Chapter I: The Subject-Matter of Ethics §2)

Example 4: ‘Excellent’ teachers

An article in the Financial Times (‘Bad teaching can cost exam pass’ – available online at [accessed 18 June 2009]) claims that ‘an “excellent” teacher could boost a pupil's results by one … grade in comparison to a bad teacher, while a good teacher could be worth 0.6 of a grade’. That is an ethical statement about teachers and suggests that there is a kind of scale along which teachers can be evaluated: ‘excellent’ teachers, ‘good’ teachers and ‘bad’ teachers. There is also a relationship between the terms that is translatable, or so the article claims, into exam grades that pupils get. In this way, exam grades gain an ethical status: low grades are a ‘bad’ thing because the ‘bad’ teacher seems to be getting the lowest grades.

Moore also wrote ‘good’ is ‘indefinable’, so we don't quite know what it is, though sometimes, because of connections between things, I might conclude something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by aggregating lots of constituent indefinable ‘goods’ and ‘bads’. I still have to make a decision in the end, but there is no universal way of doing this.

So we have collections of ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ that are indefinable and we may not agree upon, and ways of conflating them that we also may not agree on. Clearly, the topic of ethics is not straightforward.

To illustrate these ideas I would like to use an example taken from a play: George Bernard Shaw's (1903) Major Barbara. You can find a short excerpt in Box 1. In the play, Andrew Undershaft is an arms manufacturer who has the disarming habit of doing the ‘right’ thing for the ‘wrong’ reasons. For instance, in this particular case, people are impressed by his humility when he donates to the Salvation Army anonymously, until they discover (see emboldened text in Box 1) that he wasn't really being humble, he was just protecting himself. But the question is: if in the end the Salvation Army gets the money, and you think that's a ‘good’ thing, then what's wrong with that? The ‘right’ outcome is what is wanted, so do the reasons really matter?

Box 1: Excerpt from George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, Act III

That was rather fine of the old man, you know. Most chaps would have wanted the advertisement.
He said all the charitable institutions would be down on him like kites on a battlefield if he gave his name.
…He never does a proper thing without giving an improper reason for it.

What do you think: if the right outcome is what is wanted, do the reasons matter? Take a few moments to consider this question before reading on.

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