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

3.4 Negotiation and adaptation

I suggested that one way out of our contradictions is to begin to negotiate. This implies that negotiation and what you do during negotiation is a part of the business of ethics. Ethical texts normally focus on contradictions, but, as I also mentioned above, actually people do agree a lot of the time, so life is not all contradictions.

Contradictions, however, do pose a problem, and I used the play Antigone to illustrate that conflict can arise. In the case of Antigone, it involved three things. Firstly, there were two views of what should be done, Antigone's view and Creon's view, which were in conflict in a particular situation. Antigone's views and Creon's views looked perfectly reasonable to both of them, except in that very specific situation, which is the third element. It's that kind of confluence of two different lines of reasoning in a specific and testing circumstance that brings about the conflict.

If the contradiction occurs, if two positions, two different lines of reasoning that are well established and persistent, then, of course, people will tend to stick to those lines, and the conflict will arouse emotions as they try and reconcile the irreconcilable. For an individual, contradictions of this kind can lead to breakdown. If we are talking about communities, it can lead to violent conflict. Hence, one reason we want to avoid contradictions is that contradictions lead to conflict, and conflict is unpleasant for all involved, and indeed lethal at times. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein reminded us that contradictions can be viewed as properties of particular language games, and the contradiction can be removed by adjusting the rules of the game.

It would seem, then, that we've got three choices: we can battle on against one another, we can adjust the language game by agreement or, because these things happen in particular circumstances, we can try and alter the circumstances. An excellent example of how circumstances can be altered is provided by Isaac Asimov's work. Asimov, you may know, wrote three laws of robotics and then produced a whole series of novels that revolved around testing out these laws. Several of his followers also thought this was a good wheeze for writing novels, but as they imagined new situations, they kept on finding they had to adjust the laws to fit their circumstances, so that they could bring their novel to an end, or they had to restrict their imagination to the situations that permitted machines to obey the rules.

In Harry Harrison and Marvin Minsky's novel The Turing Option, Beckworth, the villain, is confronted by a robot. The robot, who is programmed according to Asimov's Laws, roars out ‘Killing forbidden!’ It hurls itself forward reaching for Beckworth and clutches the man in an unbreakable embrace. Beckworth fires into the brain case of the robot, and, as every single branch of the manipulator springs apart, the tiny twigs of metal slash through the man's body, killing him.

The villain is killed in that case, but notice the act of killing was executed by the remnants of the shattered robot. In other words, it was not the robot that killed him, but its disintegration into bits that killed him. In this way the robot and its programmers are released from their obligations by the villain being killed by the bits of the robot rather than the programmed robot itself. The situation is only resolved because the events were under the control of an author, that is, the author wrote it that way. Of course, however, in most situations we cannot rewrite the script, so we are stuck with the situation as it is, and the alternative that remains is to adapt the rules.

In fact, again in Antigone, Creon's son reminds Creon that he was the one who imposed the brutal punishment on Antigone, adding that the trees that bend save themselves. So it seems that the way out of the conflict is to adapt. In practice, the adaptation often takes place through negotiation, when two different parties with two different views get together. This is very relevant to technologists, who are educated to see a kind of technical landscape that may actually be invisible or impenetrable to others. Often the technologist is an intermediary, and they have to persuade others to do things without having a powerful enough argument, an argument that other people would recognise.

Consider the case of a designer who has designed something and wants it produced, but their case for the design does not convince the investors. Now, either or both sides have to do some work if they are going to profit from the design. If the investors are not going to invest in it, what the designer might do is to modify the language game and restate their case using the final vocabulary of the investors. In other words, the designer might consider changing the words they use, adapt them so that the investors can evaluate the case using terms they find dependable. This does not mean that the original case, the original reasons the designer had, have become invalid. Nor does it mean that the designer is comfortable with the vocabulary of the investors. It is simply that an alternative form of justification is used that might be convincing. As a bonus, this move has the potential to extend the designer's vocabulary and add to the sophistication of their future ethical assertions. The designer has had the chance to practice with a new vocabulary, extending their vocabulary in a way that experience has enabled.

In some cases, of course, this translation into another domain will result in a case that is unacceptable to the investors, and the designer will be disappointed. Alternatively, the designer may actually feel uneasy with the reformulated case. There may be features of the case that were not evident originally, so the designer may discover that they indeed feel badly about the proposal. In this case, because the designer is unfamiliar with the language, perhaps their emotions will be more informative than any understanding. Emotions will signal whether or not this unexplored, unfamiliar formulation reaches a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ conclusion. If these feelings are to be integrated into the negotiation, then the designer needs to put an effort into expressing that emotion, that distaste or hopefully approval.

If we look at negotiation in that way, as translating into perhaps an unfamiliar language or adapting the language game, then it appears that technologists have to be sensitive to their own emotions, to see how they feel about the case that they are putting together. They have to be able to express those feelings to persuade others that the proposed actions are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Also, they must be able to accept that persuasion may rightly fail as a consequence of their actually not originally having a complete view, so they should be prepared to retire with some grace.

There is an analogy here between the logic that makes technology work and the interface that makes it acceptable. Whilst the logic of the programming may be pretty rigorous, depending on who it is that is going to use, understand, be able to use the functionality, a different interface might be necessary, hence a different interface for a child, an adult, another machine. People, different people, perhaps of different ages will operate with different kinds of gestures, will be familiar with different kinds of gestures, and may not be able to certainly cope with the sorts of gestures of language that a programmer might use. So, in terms of communication, I may have the feeling that I want to say something, but there is another step there. I want to say something because I want the person to whom I'm going to say it, to understand it, to accept it, to see it. Now I may have to change completely the vocabulary I want to express to a vocabulary that will be understood and accepted. There is no point in saying it unless it's received.

You can also think in terms of marketing, because you pick the target market that you're talking to and basically tailor the message that you want to get across to that market, and try and persuade that market. Therefore, here too we are talking about relationships: you've got to think about the relationship that you are dealing with, and what would best suit that relationship When you are marketing, you are trying to tell people that something is ‘good’ for them, so marketing too is an exercise in ethics.

If we accept Nussbaum's view that emotion tells us something that can help us make better judgements, we might expect the ‘virtuous’ technologist to make efforts to be aware of their own emotions, to be aware of the way in which they exploit the emotions of others, and also to show restraint. Therefore, translating and extending ethical arguments as part of a negotiation can provide a route to expanding a personal vocabulary of feelings that might constitute a repertoire of ‘good’ opinions. Ultimately a technologist's role is to represent some artefact and construct a case for its construction, modification or disposal. Remember that a technologist can be arguing against building something, as well as for building something. But to be effective within the emotional ‘soup’, and to play a full part in the process associated with an eventual decision, they will have to be persuasive, fluent, assertive and, perhaps above all, empathetic.


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