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

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Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

1.5 Reasons

One thing that reasons do is to provide explanations as to why someone acted in a certain way. If someone gives ‘wrong’ reasons, then doubts may arise about the quality of any deliberations undertaken by that person. So, ‘wrong’ reasons raise doubts concerning his or her future actions and the products of those actions. Quite a lot hinges on people's experiences of other people's judgements, so if someone's judgements seem to have given satisfactory results in the past, then we're inclined to give those people some authority and their explanations some credence. Of course relying on explanations does open the opportunity for others to use rhetoric to ‘fake’ good judgement, to rewrite history, basically, to do less than benign things. These are all tricky areas. The bottom line here is that reasons, or, rather, justifications, are about building trust. We want to see people give ‘good’ reasons because, if they give us ‘good’ reasons this time, perhaps we might trust their judgement next time. Proficiency in ethical reasoning is mainly about building and reinforcing trust, which is essential to a professional building and maintaining his or her identity. Consequently, reasons do matter because much of the work of professionals is about building ‘good’ reasons for what they do or recommend.

With its focus on the written word, academic study of ethics is less about doing things and more about the reasons for doing things. Academics in a specialist area ask questions such as:

  • Is the reasoning sound?

  • Are the reasons based on sound premises?

  • What assumptions are being made?

On the other hand, there are also outcomes and actions that cause an outcome, aside from the reasons for action. All, actions, reasons and outcomes, could be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and one does not exclude the other, as the words in the play excerpt in the previous section so nicely illustrated. For instance, a clumsily executed action may have a ‘good’ outcome, or a well-executed action may have objectionable results. All of these things could be treated separately, but if we're involved in the study of ethics, then in the academic world we tend to look at reasons. Reasons can be analysed, and that's where academics tend to focus the study of ethics: on justifications. Sometimes the focus of analysis is on outcomes. When reasons have not been clearly expressed, ethicists often look at outcomes and try and find out what the reasons might have been.

Naturally, reasons are not essential. We all do things without reasoning about them, through instinct, habit, intuition, guesswork and so on. But action, particularly if you're a technology developer, requires the capability to act, so you need to be able to use the tools or, more often than not because technology is a team effort, you need the authority to get others to act on your behalf. Neither the capability nor the authority may be forthcoming. Assembling the reasons is part of the effort to gain, first of all, self-confidence (‘do I know what I'm doing?’) and, secondly the trust and authority that will ensure the co-operation of others. The academic study of ethics tends to focus on reasons for doing things, which is useful because as technologists we need to develop our skill in reasoning, in presenting reasons for doing things, because reasons can persuade other people that those things should be done.

G.E. Moore wrote that both outcomes and the means to achieve them have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects and neither should be ignored. In other words, both the product (end) and the process (means) matter, and, since developers are often part of the process, then their conduct matters too.

Artefacts and services are not only used, they have to be constructed, and they often have to be maintained and, ultimately, discarded. Materials have to be sourced. At each stage questions of harm and reward can arise: harm or reward to the workforce, harm or benefit to the environment and harm and benefit to the users and possibly the harm and benefit to the mis-users. All of this is in the hands of technology developers!

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