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

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2.4 Relationships and conduct

Socratic dialogues tend to involve Socrates and just one significant interlocutor at a time. In practice, we have networks of relationships, all of which we value in different ways and which are sustained by conversations that extend over different and long sequences of encounters. Crucially, the actions we take and the conversations we have change those relationships and the value we attribute to them. Therefore, ‘relationships’ constitute yet another thing that we need to look at, something we should be aware of when analysing ethical argument. A dialogue with two parties can be instructive in showing how different relationships can impose constraints on one another as self-interest rubs against a relationship with an interlocutor. However, more parties have to be brought into a discussion to illustrate some of the effects of how a variety of relationships affect the argument and how it evolves since relationships also have a temporal dimension, and different parts of our networks develop at different rates and at different times.

In Arthur Miller's play All My Sons (click for a synopsis), Joe has an engineering company that manufactures cylinder blocks for aircraft engines, and a faulty batch was installed in planes that crashed in action. Steve, Joe's deputy manager, is wrongly imprisoned because Joe lies. Joe claims he was in bed when these faulty blocks were despatched. Later in the play Joe's loyal wife innocently remarks that ‘Joe hasn't been laid up in fifteen years’ and, of course, his mendacity, his lie, is noted. By then, however, his deputy manager has already been imprisoned for some time before being released. Joe is then faced with having to justify his behaviour, but he has relationships with his neighbours, with his wife, with his children, all of which were disrupted by the discovery of his deception, so he wants to restore those relationships. And he has a defence. His defence is that he was owed a favour, since in the past he acted dishonestly to bail out Steve.

There is an element of logic in this defence. Joe assumes that doing something dishonest that is beneficial for someone else should accrue a credit that can be spent on doing dishonest things for your own benefit. Although this may be dubious, he's attempting to justify his position, at least to himself, and restore his collapsing relationships with others. But, others cannot accept his logic and, in fact, attempting to present his case undermines valued relationships and worsens the tragedy. All My Sons is an example of a play which has a number of characters and a number of relationshipsthat is worth studying from an ethical point of view.

Another excellent example of a play in which you have a number of relationships is Sophocles’ Antigone (click for a synopsis). In the play Creon rules the city of Thebes, and his nephew dies as a rebel, a renegade fighting against the city. Antigone is Creon's niece, and she wishes to give her brother an honourable burial, but Creon objects since her brother was the city's adversary, and citizens of Thebes didn't bury their enemies. But Antigone wants to bury her brother to honour him, and eventually she does. Creon, outraged by her dismissal of the city's rules, orders a punishment that leads to her death and further tragedy for the whole family.

Tragedy arises because Creon is stubborn and sticks to the rules of the city, and Antigone is stubborn and sticks to the rules of honour of the family. Each has evaluated the situation in different ways. In a way, the two rules that they were using – ‘to obey the laws of the city’ and ‘to honour the family’ – are two perfectly understandable rules, but the situation is such that a conflict occurs. Antigaone says, ‘I'll do my duty to my brother’ and Antigone's sister says, ‘Has Creon not expressly banned that act?’ Such conflicts and dilemmas, of course, are at the heart of ethical analysis. The play Antigone shows that following well-intentioned rules does not necessarily avoid situations that can be resolved through argument alone. The tragedy could only be avoided by Antigone or Creon showing some humility and accepting each other's good intentions.

Another play where there are some interesting things mentioned about rules that don't work, is David Hare's play The Permanent Way (click for a synopsis). The play is a docudrama about the British railways. Characters in the opening talk about the poor performance of Britain's engineered infrastructures and turn it into an ethical issue by saying there's something wrong with the British way of life. The characters in the play attribute the failings to a lack of practical intelligence amongst the British people and a lack of know-how, which turns ‘know-how’ and ‘practical intelligence’ into wrongly neglected ‘goods’ in the British ethical constellation. So know-how seems to have become a ‘good’, something that I think Socrates would agree with. Later on, the play deals with a number of accidents that occurred on the railways, a number of incidents where there were fatalities. In one scene the policeman in charge of dealing with the accident comments on the insensitivity of the procedural manual towards the bereaved. Because of that he rejected the procedural manual and later he rewrote it. So here we have a code, a perfectly good code that people wrote in good faith, that has been rejected, because the people who wrote the manual couldn't imagine the situation in which it was going to be used. The trouble is that, although we do have codes and laws, it seems that there are situations when the previously written rules seem out of place and we might think it is ‘right’ to breach the written code.

This possibility that there are situations when breaching a code may actually be the ‘right’ thing to do raises problems for professionals and the institutions that regulate their practice. Professional institutions have responsibility for regulating the professions, and most of them publish codes of conduct. Take the American Institution of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE); here is an extract from their code of conduct, interestingly titled Code of Ethics: ‘It's the duty of an engineer to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible.’ That presents ethics as a search for a solution to the problem of finding projects that avoid conflict. Consequently, it sounds as though what engineers ought to do is to find projects that avoid conflict. Of course, this immediately prompts the question of whether conflicts of interest, real or perceived, can be avoided or even detected.

In fact, rules such as this are a gift to the dramatist. Take, for example, these two extracts from the Engineering Council UK Statement of Ethical Principles, which talks about things that engineers should do: ‘hold paramount the health and safety of others’ and ‘reject bribery or improper influence’. If I were a dramatist, I'd say ‘oh, this looks good, I'll write a play about this. I'll write a play about someone who is injured because bribery is rejected.’ You can see that these rules can be brought into conflict with one another.

Let me give you another example, this time taken from an earlier version of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Rules of Conduct. One rule stated that ‘members who become aware, or have reasonable grounds for believing, that another member is engaged in conduct or has engaged in conduct which is in breach of the Code of Conduct shall inform the Institution in writing of that belief.’ On the other hand, Rule 19 stated that ‘members shall not without proper authority disclose any confidential information concerning the business of their employer or any past employer.’ So, whilst people were asked to inform an institution if something was going on in their company that shouldn't be going on, they were also told they shouldn't disclose any confidential information, and it is fairly easy to invent a situation where informing on what's been going on discloses confidential information. So although codes of conduct are presented to try and clear things up, there are situations, and as Antigone in the play Antigone illustrates, where one rule is set against another and the set of rules carries potential contradictions.

Activity 11

The link below will take you to a list of codes of conduct from around the world covering a variety of different areas and professions:

  • Codes of Conduct/Practice/Ethics from Around the World

You might like to choose an example from the list and try to create a situation where one rule is set against another.

If we have these conflicts or potential conflicts and the rules don't help or people are adopting or adhering to different rules, then a way out that avoids coercion is negotiation. It seems that the antagonists possibly including a technology developer in opposition to a professional in another field must compromise. To make a proposal acceptable they need confidence and, therefore, a rational basis for their case. On the other hand, that case will need to be simplified, abbreviated and translated into terms that other professionals find acceptable. Without the time or an audience that can cope with technical details, the developer has to find other ways of convincing others in a different manner to that they would use in persuading a professional in his or her own field. The skills of Gorgias offer a solution since the goal is not to provide a watertight logical case, but to instill conviction in each of the negotiators about the course of action.

In spite of Socrates’ assertions about rhetoric, problems of dealing with a crowd and the need for a lifetime of knowledge, the Socratic dialogues provide many examples of rhetorical devices that would grip a crowd. These include the use of allegories and analogies, as I discussed earlier. In addition to the dialogues as examples, Socrates also presents a view of experts and of good statesmen and seems to imply knowledge is valuable, and, where this is absent, inspired good opinion will substitute. Experience in translating and extending ethical arguments and adopting the translated and extended arguments of other professionals as part of a negotiation can provide a route to expanding a personal lexicon of feelings about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ and contribute to a secure personal repertoire of good opinions.

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