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

1.9 Final vocabularies in context

As I discussed earlier, there are different ways of looking at things and valuing them, as there are different kinds of things we value. I also suggested that you might, in your arguments, try and value reasons: are they ‘good’ reasons for doing things? We might also be concerned with outcomes, but because outcomes require a route to achieving them, the means or process also needs to be assessed. As we'll see in the next section, Socrates says, in the Platonic dialogues, you might take a medicine that tastes bad in order to get better. In this case you have an ethic that admits a not-so-good means to achieve a desired end. This illustrates the issue that you might want to look for ‘good’ means and ‘good’ ends, but in some instances an ethic might accommodate an unpleasant means as long as the outcome is ‘good’.

And so these different things, reasons, means, ends, the agents, the people that are doing the work, or combinations of these things, all of these are worthy of consideration in ethics, and these are things we will be looking at throughout this course. However, this type analysis doesn't answer certain kinds of questions. For example, I introduced and began exploring the concept of final vocabularies, but I did not mention that the same final vocabulary may be put to very different uses. Sometimes people use words in very different situations and to very different effects. Take the words ‘modern’ and ‘sustainable’, for example. People using the word ‘sustainable’ might have quite different views on what ‘sustainable’ is; some people may think is relates to keeping things as they are, which means they are adopting a conservative view, whilst others may take ‘sustainable’ in a sense of ‘changing things so that they become sustainable’. The latter is a radical rather than a conservative view.

So, because different people may be using final vocabulary in different ways, it is important to focus on the use of this vocabulary. Take the term ‘risk’, for example. For a professional, ‘risk’ is often a matter of degree, a numerical probability associated with a particular outcome. On the other hand, for individuals, ‘risk’ actually reveals a possibility. The debate in the United Kingdom surrounding the MMR vaccine illustrates this difference quite well. Specialists say that there is a very low ‘risk’ to a child, which is acceptable from a professional perspective, but as far as parents are concerned, ‘risk’ means that there is a possibility of a problem. Specialists and parents, therefore, are using the same word in subtly different ways.

Crucial to these differences in interpretation are the differences in the relationships at play. For the government specialist concerned with vaccination in his or her professional role the relationships are with the population as a whole and the aggregate good. For the parent, the relationship is with the individual child.

The form of relationships with other people not only shape our ethical arguments but personal relationships (including self-interest) are things people value. In considering outcomes and means are we concerned about individuals or are we considering a wider community? If we are thinking about, let's say, wealth, are we talking about the wealth of individuals or the wealth of the community as being important? But also changes in relationships for the better or worse may itself be an outcome. I will return to the question of relationships later in the course.

I hope the previous activity highlighted that ethical statements tend to be fairly complex things, even if, on a first look, the argumentation itself may appear mundane. In other words, it is not only the evaluation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ that needs to interest us here, but also the way in which the argument or justification is articulated (as well as the context in which it appears). To close this section I would like to propose an activity that asks you to engage with some audio-visual material. Although this format allows for very different ways of putting across an argument, this gives you another example of how a fairly short argument can indeed conceal a lot of complexity once it begins to be unpacked.

Activity 6

Watch John Monk's short video snippet Ethics. If you are reading this course as an ebook, you can access the video here: Ethics. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] Watch the video once and immediately afterwards jot down some brief notes about:

  • a.the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ that are considered relevant in each option mentioned;

  • b.the essential differences between the options;

  • you feel about each option;

  • d.the style of presentation of the options.

Look at it again if you want to, but do not modify your notes. Instead, if you think your earlier impression was misguided, make a second set of notes and compare them. Can you make some observations on the final vocabulary used?

You can find a transcript of the video snippet by clicking the link below.

John Monk's 'Ethics'


The video explains that a system that might pepper the countryside offering wireless communication would cause visual intrusions, and it also introduces worries about exposure to radiation. The technologists planning such a system has choices: lots of short masts introducing lots of minor visual intrusions and operating at low radiation levels; fewer tall masts which are more visually intrusive and require higher radiation levels. Also, a few small masts are not out of the question, but power levels would have to be increased.

The final vocabulary appears to include the terms ‘visual intrusion’ and ‘radiation’. There are many other factors that should be brought in, including the ‘effectiveness’ of communication. Some choices don't involve only technical matters. When it comes to radiation, for example, dangers to health have not been demonstrated for lower levels, but people may be fearful, and fear is also harmful and discomforting. Should the discomfort and fear be something the technologist needs to consider in examining the acceptability of a design? The answer to that is probably yes. Indeed, some technologies, like weapons and fairground rides gain their effectiveness through ‘shock and awe’. Another important aspect of the video is that it relies on the authority of the speaker alone, that is, there are no references to other views, opinions or (assumed) facts related by others.

As you will have seen earlier in the course, a trial course was run in 2008 with volunteer participants from amongst OpenLearn users, and the Ethics video generated a particularly lively conversation within the group. The next activity gives you an opportunity to listen to what the group had to say.

Activity 7

Watch the video snippet below, which presents a discussion of the Ethics video carried out by participants in the 2008 trial. Please be aware that the quality of the video and audio varies as it was recorded as a Flash Meeting and was therefore dependent on the equipment and connection speeds of the individual participants.

Download this video clip.Video player: Discussion 1
Skip transcript: Discussion 1

Transcript: Discussion 1

Great, yes, I was going to say about the, well what I perceived as the purpose of the video which was to highlight the different values involved in making the decision about where the radio masts should be and possibly even if there should be radio masts at all. Coming back to John’s previous point, in the last lecture where maybe increased communication with trains might save one passenger out of every 120,000 but if the roadside people, the roadside workers were to die, I think it was one out of every 6,000, then maybe more people would be killed because of this action rather than without doing anything at all.
Oh, did we lose Frank there?
No, I just said my piece, really, and I found it interesting that some people would value the view the higher masts would be better to some people because there would be fewer of them, then some people with children might be more concerned about the radiation effects from higher power transmitters. So there was a whole load of different judgments that need to be made but each different technological solution to the problem is going to have its different varied effects and you have to give a value to each one, and assigning values and quantities to those values is very subjective, so that’s where the ethics come in.
I think the other side of the argument, which perhaps didn’t come across in the video, is that if we didn’t have any masts there’d be no mobile phone service and what sort of impact would that have on people’s lives.
I’ve had a couple of thoughts on this. If you’ve read the forum, I’ve tried to suggest there are more than two possibilities about short and long masts. A combination of the two would be some short and some long. And I don’t know the technology well enough but why not make the train into an aerial and so only the people on the train would be affected by the radiation during the period of their journey.
I’m reminded, they’re going to build a big housing estate almost next door to me, and they said they were going to consult, and they did. They said do I want tiles on the roof of the new houses or slates, and there were another couple of questions like that, did I want wooden cladding or tiled cladding on these houses. I wasn’t asked about the siting of the houses or whether there should be any statements on. So your point, Peter, is that often in an ethical argument, things are, technical possibilities are often missed out deliberately, we don’t want people going in that direction, and one of the things I wanted to get out of that video was there’s an awful lot was not being said there.
I think the nub of the radiation issue isn’t what the science says or anything like that. It’s the fact that if you build a mast, anyone within reach of that mast is subjected to the radiation whether or not they choose to. It’s the removal of the element of choice from the individual.
So there’s an ideological statement that you think individuals should have that choice and you’re removing freedoms so a good basis for building ethical arguments it seems to me.
Yes, just going back a point or two, just the thing that struck me most about the brief video was that there was absolutely no argument about whether the masts were needed; it was simply what kind of masts do you want.
I don’t think I necessarily believe that there’s any reason why we shouldn’t have the masts. I’m just saying that the real issue isn’t the case of whether science says the radiation is or is not harmful. It’s the fact that nobody has a choice. So if you personally believe that it’s harmful, even if that belief is misplaced and unfounded, it’s still a belief you hold and you’re not able to choose to absent yourself from the radiation. It’s a bit like the issue with smoking in public places, isn’t it, if I don’t smoke, why should I have to suffer other people’s smoke? And now, of course, we don’t because of legislation that’s come in.
Yes, I’d agree with that but again then there has to come a point at which you have to think about how reasonable the objections are. I’m not saying that people who object to masts are unreasonable but in any kind of argument you’ve always got to consider the balance between those who want the masts, let’s say, and those who feel threatened by it.
Yes, I completely agree and it’s how, as a society, we find the balance between those who want the benefits of mobile phones, which is a very large proportion of the population now, and those who are afraid that the dangers of the radiation as they perceive it. Perhaps at this point it ought to be fair of me to point out that I worked in the mobile phone industry, I’ve built hundreds of these base stations, so I have been involved in all sorts of debates with people over the years. Many of whom, of course, didn’t want the base stations being built near their homes.
There’s one thing I don’t want to lose that kind of appeared in a comment was that it’s people’s beliefs, it’s people’s fears sometimes that are an influence on, of course, how they react. Naturally it is. The question is if we’re constructing an ethical argument and we don’t have those fears, should we take other people’s fears into account. I guess you’d have to say that fear itself can be harmful and certainly discomforting and so fear is perhaps something else we ought to add in to our list of things that might be included in ethical debate.
There’s also an awful lot that I personally don’t know about this. I mean how serious is the radiation risk, is it directional, is there protection against this in directions that you don’t want it to go in, is there a range on it, etc., etc.
I was just going to say the same as you there that it depends whether it’s something that’s affecting you personally at the time and I also feel that you need a lot more information to make decisions but I’m one of these people that just wants to gather lots of information and not always make the decision.
Normally questions such as location and height of a mast is dealt with in planning terms and general planning principles would say that people on a train are only affected, if that’s the correct word, by a mast for a very brief moment in time as they go past it. So they’re only affected in terms of their visual impact or possibly the radiation if you believe that there’s a problem with that. Whereas people that live next to it are exposed to it constantly and that’s obviously a very different matter.
Yes, just following up on what was said before that it all seems to come down to information again and how authoritative the information is that’s being presented and quality of information.
I’m not entirely sure that I would agree with that because one of the real problems with any information about whether it’s mobile phone radiation or pollution in the environment is that science isn’t clear and never will be clear, so I think there are actually some value judgments in there.
The other thing is there is always limited time and limited opportunities for putting across the case and, of course, things will be missed out.
Yes, I agree that a lot of these things do involve a certain amount of value judgment and my concern is that it isn’t always easy to distinguish between authoritative or good quality information and people who are irrationally stirring up fear.
I thought the motor presentation was quite interesting because, on the surface of it, the video looked as though it was purely factual. It was telling us facts about the difference between high and low masts and the amount of power. But if you looked at the way it was presented, we had the radiation I think was shown in red and red is like a kind of danger signal to us so there were some messages there. And also the cityscape was shown quite distant from the railway track implying that there weren’t any people living close and they wouldn’t be affected.
Similarly to that point and picking up on Janet’s point, this is where the final vocabulary can actually work against us where advertising and people trying to sway the public opinion can actually tune very much into the final vocabulary and sway people’s judgment just by knowing what buttons to press.
Yes, I would agree with that and there’s been some highly irresponsible media coverage about all sorts of issues. The MMR vaccine that John was talking about earlier is one that springs to mind where the scientists behind that I think have now been fairly comprehensively discredited.
End transcript: Discussion 1
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