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

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1.6 Final vocabulary

Any ethical analysis has to be grounded on something, otherwise the analysis has no end. And since reasons will be couched in words, I think it is helpful to look at what the philosopher Richard Rorty has called a ‘final vocabulary’. He suggests:

All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes… I shall call these words a person's “final vocabulary”. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them is only helpless passivity or a resort to force.

(Rorty, 1989, p. 73)

I would add to this that, if I were frustrated and my words didn't enable me to justify what I was doing, then I might perhaps resort to insult or emotional outburst, of which passivity and violence that Rorty talks about are extremes. To actually get on with things, we need a set of words we can depend on, words we individually think are related to the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’.

Rorty continues to say that some individuals will be wedded to their final vocabulary while others may have doubts about theirs. The ones who are strongly wedded would be the ‘conservatives’ of this world, while those who have doubts are more likely to be the ‘liberals’ of this world. So your final vocabulary is, no doubt, different from mine. There is not necessarily agreement about what a final vocabulary should be and this will contribute to disputes about what constitutes a ‘good’ reason.

Rorty gives some examples of words that might be part of a final vocabulary. He divided up final vocabularies into two parts, a ‘thin’ and a ‘thick’ vocabulary. The first part ‘is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as “true”, “good”, “right”, and “beautiful”’ (ibid. p. 73). Probably we all use those. The other and larger part ‘contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example “Christ”, “England”, “professional standards”, “decency”, “kindness” …”progressive”, “rigorous”, “creative”’ (ibid. p. 73). By labelling his thick terms as ‘parochial’ Rorty appears to be linking them with a community of interest, implying that different communities may have different parochial final vocabularies. Rorty argues that these parochial terms ‘do most of the work’ (ibid. p. 73). In short, the final vocabulary provides terms that are not normally questioned and act as surrogates for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for different people, groups and situations.

For technology developers, who commonly include things as well as people in their considerations, this final vocabulary may be sometimes distilled into the properties of things: an example might be the vehicle designers who see talk of low emissions as desirable. ‘Low emissions’ is a property of a vehicle. Developers may also present the final vocabulary in the form of rules, rules of thumb – unquestioned rules or constraints on reasons that are accepted by a particular group of technologists. In the field of technology we have these rules of thumbs and final vocabularies, and different groups of technologists will have different rules of thumb and different final vocabularies.

Example 5: Use of lead as a component

In the past most solders making the joints that connect electronic devices contained lead. Knowledge of the toxicity of lead brought in regulations that mandated lead-free solders in most electronic products. It has come to be recognised by most manufacturers that lead is ‘bad’, so having lead-free solder is a self-evident ‘good’ (see, for example, Ogunseitan, 2007). A similar move has taken place in people's final vocabulary regarding petrol: lead-free petrol is ‘good’.

But there are some technologists who worry about lead and do dig deeper. One of the troubles is that, over time, lead-free solder can grow microscopic tin whiskers which can short out electrical connections, particularly where things are very tightly packed, and where things have to have a very long life (see Keller, 2005 for a more extended explanation). This is a particular issue in the defence industries, where equipment is expected to have a long-life and is likely to be miniaturised more than consumer products. So, while in one sector of the electronics industry the phrase ‘lead-free solder’ is an unquestioned ‘good’, in another sector it may not be, and this requires circumspect use of the lead-free solder and hence use of the phrase.

Activity 3

Bearing in mind that a final vocabulary provides terms that act as surrogates for ‘good’ or ‘bad’, have a think about your own way of evaluating things. Can you think of some terms you use in your professional life in lieu of ‘good’ and ‘bad’? What about rules of thumb you may use routinely?


I would add to Rorty's list of thin terms a number of derivatives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, including ‘efficient’, ‘beneficial’, ‘optimal’ or ‘faulty’. To the list of parochial terms I would add ‘sustainable’, ‘low-cost’, ‘modern’ and ‘natural’.

Of course, your final vocabulary does not have to coincide with anyone else's, and the equation with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ might be different for different people. Words like ‘progress’, ‘modern’ or ‘profit’ might be used to indicate unalloyed ‘good’ for some while raising hackles in others. Thus, for some, ‘miniaturisation’ becomes a self-defining goal, and, for others, ‘complexity’ is inevitably ‘bad’. ‘Digital’ is frequently seen as a sign of unquestioned ‘goodness’.

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