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

1.8 ‘Ethics’, ‘ethical’ and authority

There is some confusion over the uses of the terms ‘ethical’ and ‘ethics’. Often people use the adjective ‘ethical’ to signal things that they would expect virtuous people to do. That is they use the word ‘ethical’ instead of ‘good’. Companies, institutions and even governments might claim to have ‘ethical’ policies. Probably such a policy declares the ideology. For example, saying that ‘sustainability is ethical’ may be part of an individual's ethic but it is a tautology that is not an essential part of ethics.

Ethics commonly addresses the synthesis of people's feelings, attitudes, premises and ideologies and provides a critique of those things. Ethics cannot give instructions on what final vocabulary to adopt, how reasons should be formed or how to judge the rightness of a conclusion. As such ethics can be a source of frustration when the ethicist shows how a range of different conclusions might be reached by adopting different stances or forms of argument. Ethics is not about ‘getting an ethic’ – being comfortable with the evaluations of fellow professionals – but about recognising that different people will evaluate things in different ways and assess collections of ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ in different ways.

It is also important to clarify the difference between evaluation and decision making. Ethics is not concerned with decision making, whether personal or involving others where clashes of view may occur. Decisions come after we make judgements. A decision is a commitment to act, and before you make the commitment, you engage in judgement. Judgement is something I consider to be a part of ethics; decisions come at the tail-end of ethics. However, people tend to get a sense of security when they adopt ethical assumptions, but ethical analysis is likely to show that all kinds of assumptions are not as secure as we might think. A while ago, a colleague of mine called in an ethicist to help with a decision in a bio-engineering project, and all the ethicist did was to point out that there were half a dozen positions that could be used, each resulting in a different judgement about potential actions. The point is this: the study of ethics and engagement with ethics doesn't necessarily help arriving at decisions, although ethical analysis does encourage people to think more carefully about the decisions they make.

As I have already mentioned, people use past experience to help them to evaluate how others make decisions and justify what they subsequently do, and how these contribute to the perceived authority of individuals (or groups). This can certainly lead to a degree of polarisation when you have a number of groups each with their own final vocabulary. We indeed live in a polarised world of specialist groups. Expert communities establish their authority partly by developing their justifications in terms of their idiosyncratic final vocabularies. One important message from ethics is that from time to time we need to question what the experts are saying, that is challenge justifications that are expressed in a final vocabulary sustained only through habit within the closed expert community.

Activity 5

In Box 3 you'll find an excerpt from a TV Set User's Manual. Although this appears a fairly mundane piece of text, it provides an ethical argument. In what ways can this be the case?

Box 3: Excerpt from TV Set User's Manual

Your TV consumes energy in the stand by mode.

Energy consumption contributes to air and water pollution.

We advise to [sic] switch off your TV overnight instead of leaving it on stand by.

You save energy and the picture tube is demagnetised which maintains good picture quality.


To examine this question we need to look at the way in which the text is put together. First of all, the manual says that the TV consumes energy in the standby mode, which is an authoritative assertion: have to believe that. Then it goes on to say that energy consumption contributes to air and water pollution. There is a theory at work here: that energy consumption contributes to air and water pollution, which someone has worked out, presumably. I may know that theory or I may accept that theory, but it's making the link between the first statement about consuming energy, through energy consumption, to water pollution. So it seems from that argument that my TV in standby mode creates pollution, and maybe pollution is part of my final vocabulary and I think pollution is a bad thing. So there's an ideological implication there.

What follows is some practical action. It says ‘we advise (you) to switch off your TV overnight instead of leaving it on’. In other words, not only is there an ethical argument there, but there's a hint about practical action. If you don't accept that, the authors try another line. They say you save energy. So they sound as though they're expecting you to say ‘oh, that's good, I think saving energy is good’, or ‘I think avoiding pollution is good, saving energy is good’. And if I'm not convinced by that, they tackle another angle. They go on to say, indirectly, that when you turn the TV off the screen is demagnetised and you get a good picture as a result.

In short, the first statement in the excerpt is an authoritative assertion, then there's a bit of theory and an ideological implication which says I'll get pollution. This is followed by advice on practical action and, then, actually two more statements that appeal to my sense of ‘goodness’. There it is: an ethical argument in a technological context and, of all places, in a TV user manual!

In a way this statement appears rather odd because it was in the user manual provided by the maker of a television, not a power company or the government. So why did they, in a TV manual, talk about pollution? I guess they imagined you would think it was a ‘bad’ thing, but not everybody is going to agree that pollution is a bad thing. Also, not everybody will know exactly what is meant here by pollution, or they might not be convinced how it happens. Nor were the people who wrote the manual, or so it seems, because they add further lines of argument, as I explained above, ‘you save energy’ or ‘you get a good picture’, as they are trying to appeal to people's different senses of value.

And, of course, you might say that a more persuasive argument, and one you know that works, is that if you turn your television off at night it saves you money, and irrespective of what people feel about pollution, energy, water, they will more than likely respond to arguments which describe outcomes with financial consequences. So, if I can say it saves you cash, you may be more easily persuaded to turn your television off. Even though people do value their money, would such a statement constitute an ethical argument? The difficulty here is subtle. If you tell people to turn their television off and it'll save them money, you're making just an ideological assertion. There are no justifications in this claim, there isn't really a complete argument because there are missing elements. Steps in an argument might be ‘turn your TV off’, ‘that reduces energy consumption’, ‘energy costs money’, ‘you'll save money’. Alternatively, you can avoid presenting an argument and present yourself as an authority. If you present yourself as an authority, then, of course, to be effective others must accept your authority in the matter.


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