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

3.5 The story so far

I have been discussing ethics as related to labelling things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or using more parochial words as substitutes. Different kinds of things could be said to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, including means, ends, relationships, feelings, appearances, radiation levels and so on. The big ethical problem is how to combine this variety of things to reach a judgement, especially when combining them, it is possible that we end up with ambiguity or contradictions. I have explored the role of rhetoric in presenting an ethical argument, but I also said that there is no universal solution, no universal logic to help us out of difficulties.

In this section I examined the play Call Waiting, and I suggested that it was essentially about relationships, their construction, maintenance and development. The play illustrates that, when we are constructing or maintaining relationships, we engage in actions, and those actions can also be ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Although the context of the play was technological, and it was a technologist who was in trouble, the technologies themselves didn't add too much to the ethical situation. All they did was to enable people to connect, so, although they brought together different sorts of people, they didn't necessarily alter the kinds of discussions these people had. Ironically, in spite of all the communication devices available throughout the play, none of the characters quite knew what was going on, so the information technology was not delivering information. Nevertheless things happened, relationships changed and people were encouraged or discouraged to do things. What brought about those changes were people's utterances, i.e. what they said, and in what they said there were emotions conveyed, and, sometimes, aroused in other people.

Regarding emotions, I looked at Martha Nussbaum's work and her rather special slant on emotions. Partially based on the Stoics' view of emotions, Nussbaum presents a case in which emotions are viewed as being indicative of the value of things. In contrast with the Stoics, however, Nussbaum stresses the contribution that emotions make to our knowledge, and she wants to integrate the experience of emotions into our judgements.

Of course we are applying all of this to the context of Information and Computer Sciences, so were talking about the professional practice of engineers, programmers and developers. Indeed, these technologists make ethical evaluations and judgements – that is partly why they are employed. However, they are informed by a relatively ill-assorted mixture of theory, regulations, experiments, common knowledge and opinions. So what is the role of emotions in this practice? Emotions act as a signpost that guides the synthesis of all the other bits and pieces that we collect that are often disconnected. But those bits of evidence, when we assemble them, will provide the firm case of action of which emotions can only be an indicator. Consequently, we should see emotions as pointing to a conclusion, to what it is we value in a situation, but we still have to make the case well to convince others. In short, emotions are imprecise, but they are a necessary constituent of the technologists' judgements.

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