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

4.6 What matters?

When the laptop is confirmed to be uncompromised, it is interesting that none of the characters cheers, although they all seem to be relieved. In other words, when the statement comes up, ‘laptop is uncompromised’, people seem to think that is ‘good’, the outcome is fine. They seem to have forgotten that the technician is probably dead at the time. So, in their deliberations, a person's life is forgotten. I am sure that, if they were reminded of it, they would, of course, say that this is a tragedy or a great sadness, but somehow or other, in the business of running the company, what becomes of concern is that the laptop is uncompromised, and the play moves on.

Another interesting justification is offered regarding Phil, when Sara says that ‘he was an engineer, not a bloody spy’. Gray uses an analogy by suggesting that the company is fighting a war. You will probably agree with me that it is very hard to talk about hurting somebody to gain some benefit; that is a point that is possibly impossible to justify. But if you say they are fighting a war, suddenly you move the argument to another field. By bringing in the idea of ‘war’, Gray is able to say that it is not possible to fight a war without having casualties, so he uses ‘war’ as an analogy that invites people to agree that loss is acceptable. He uses the analogy and reflects it on another situation where people get hurt, which suddenly makes the hurt that people get seem justified. Using an analogy in this way is a sneaky rhetorical trick in that provides a more secure domain in which to conduct the argument.

You can raise the question of whether it is really possible to justify war in the first place. In Section 1 we looked at Shaw's Major Barbara and the faith of the armourer, so this is a question of whether you feel something is so evil that you are in some sense justified in acting violently. There is a parallel here with the example of the gun I discussed in Activity 15. Of course, this constitutes a major ethical question that would require much more space to discuss than is available in this course. An important point to make, however, is that, whilst you and I may have difficulty in justifying a war under most, perhaps any, circumstances, other people do find they can justify it, so we get wars.

The play raises questions of benefits to society, which I have hinted at earlier when discussing Sara's actions. There is a perceived need to work together as a team and keep this company going, so things need to be kept quiet, otherwise the company will fold and the benefit to the local society will collapse. So, the ‘benefits of the local society’ justifies something that might otherwise be thought of as a ‘bad’ action, keeping things, rather dubious things, secret.

Another area of questioning regards means or ends. When Gray says that ‘we're still committed to make things better for people’, he implies that the aim of the company is to make things better for people. But, of course, the play kind of challenges that notion. Nevertheless, Sara, the press officer, is still expected to say that the company makes things better for people. She needs to create an impression that ensures the survival of the company. But actually what she does is to issue a statement, and the statement is a means to a different end, namely, the survival of the company. So you have to distinguish between statements and actions: what Sara does is to make a statement that says the company makes things better for people, but that will ensure the company survives, and survival seems to be what people are trying to do. I mentioned above familiar, comfortable work situations, and here the characters are trying to grasp at that. What you are going to do or what you plan to achieve, when these things are written down, they are no longer an end: they become a statement. This is a subtle yet quite significant distinction.

I mentioned that loyalty to the company is one of the major themes in the play, but there are other types of loyalty questions raised as well. In the play Tim says that he should have read the kids a story instead of watching Steve Jobs. We all have responsibilities for the future, the future of our family, our own futures, and, because many of us are involved in relationships, the future of others around us. So watching Steve Jobs was, perhaps, something that he should have done, because he would have learned something that might help him in the future. On the other hand, perhaps the ‘right’ choice would be to read the kids a story. What is more important? I am again talking about relationships here, and there are two relationships at work in this particular instance: there is the family relationship and the work relationship. We all have personal relationships and, often, work relationships, but they do not necessarily work in unison with one another. I repeat the question: what is more important?

Talking about relationships, there is an interesting moment in the play when Richard, the magazine editor, gets in touch with Sara and mentions ‘Lancaster’. I jumped to the conclusion that they had been at Lancaster University together, as he said ‘we used to know each other’. In any case, they have a history, and it is interesting that that relationship was forged perhaps ten years before and a single word, ‘Lancaster’, revived the relationship. In this way they can talk together in a quite different way to if they had not had that earlier connection. The word gave them a more comfortable and immediate relationship.

Of course, there are all sorts of other relationships, including those related to being part of the workforce. Carol, Phil's wife, says, ‘He does what he's asked to do.’ But, as an engineer or, perhaps, a programmer, don't you think he should be kind of asking a little more, perhaps what it is he is doing and why he is doing it? Patrick dodged the question about whether any more had been explained to Phil. The question then becomes: if people are not knowledgeable about things, can they act for the ‘good’? Is part of being ‘virtuous’ finding out about things? How can a ‘contractor’, someone who is an expert in a particular area and is asked to do a specific job, be ‘virtuous’?

I think there are parallels in some conflicts like the above and those shown in the play. There are all sorts of deceptions going on in the play, where people don't quite ‘tell it as it is’. There is actually a downright lie when Herrenvolk says he is from the HR department and we discover he is not, and there are all sorts of anxieties. Sara says, when they talk about the burning man at the beginning of the play, that it is all about images, things that grab us, just images. She then moves on to talk about the project in Mozambique, partly because it is not the company's man. In a way she is deceiving herself in that particular instance.

Another interesting aspect of the play is that there are a number of situations where emotions are actually rather poorly read, so there is a clear lack of empathy. A particularly poignant example is when Sara goes to visit Carol. Sara says she understands what Carol is going through, but, of course, there is no way that Sara can understand or can fully emphasise with what Carol is going through. Carol gets pretty cross about that, and explodes into a kind of mixture of emotions. This mixture of emotions from Carol actually informs Sara about the frustration and anger that Carol feels. After the outburst, you feel that Sara does actually begin to understand rather better something about the tragedy, and she withdraws from the whole thing with some sympathy. Once Sara recognises the seriousness of the situation, she uses all sorts of devices to find out more and to use her knowledge to shake the company up. But, of course, when she does find out about everything, she gives up.

One final issue I would like to highlight is the ‘big’ question I noted earlier concerning the project that collects data and exports it to another jurisdiction where it can be sorted and filtered without the intervention of the law, to be returned to help a repressive regime. Whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in a way hardly seems to matter because it all seems to be outside the control of the company, which is fettered by contracts and the need for revenue. The issues confronting the individuals seem to be much more parochial and they are very entangled. So, even if you wanted to do anything, is there the time? Can you gain the authority to do it? Certainly not within the company. If you're to do anything about this big issue of surveillance in the play, then it needs to be handled politically outside of what is going on.

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