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

5.12 Interests

There is quite a lot to be said about the play, but in this course I need to be selective. In the conversations that take place, one of the things that happens is that all sorts of interests unfold. There is a catalogue of benefits that could each potentially accrue to a long list of individuals and groups. We have the government that could gain benefits through ownership which would allow it to develop the device, understand threats, prevent development, protect the indigenous industry and retain a credible capability for creating deterrents. Ned can benefit from ownership by controlling the use of the technology, making money, and getting something made that is his. The Americans can satisfy their aversion to certain prejudices and their aversion to art. Colleagues could improve their CVs and win some royalties. The company could make a profit. The community could gain a source of employment. Potential enemies could grab attention through the use of the technology. Families could be fed and schooled. The public could come to feel more secure.

Regardless of whether or not these benefits are achievable, it is obvious that they might motivate the various parties to squabble over the technology without anyone being in a position to judge what the best course of action might be. Everyone has an interest and a long list of ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ associated with those interests, so each of those different parties are likely to come to different conclusions about what is the right course of action. There is no one who is in a position to decide on the best course of action. This means that the business of discussing ethics simply goes on and on. However, of course, there is pragmatism because, usually, a decision has to be made, some action has to be taken, and time is limited. Time, of course, is a very important ingredient that we have not included in all of this, but everybody is short of time, as they are short of information and authority. It is this sort of limitations that are going to close the debate. It is likely that closure will satisfy nobody, and nobody will be able to say whether this was the best course of action. So the business of ethics is something where debate just goes on and on.

As an example of where things are time limited, consider national disasters we've seen like the earthquakes in China, or the floods in the United States. In events such as these, people run out of time, somebody has to decide and action has to be taken. It may not be the optimum but it is the best that can be done at the time.

In the play, Ned is not presented explicitly as a martyr, but Brooks does talk about martyrdom, which may suggest the notion that Ned is somehow a martyr. The trouble is that martyrs do not always die for causes that people necessarily respect. Ned is a martyr to a cause in that he has actually given up his life to work on his ideas. You can see that he's a workaholic: he has sacrificed his time as well as his relationship with Jamie, his estranged wife. At the beginning of the play, if Dan had not turned up, if that conversation had not taken place, Ned was on the verge of wrecking his relationship with his brother and the rest of his family. Ned was on his way to totally wrecking his life to work on his ideas as his cause. The conversations that take place throughout the play suggest, however, that he later on changed his cause into a political mission to influence who got access to his technology.

Martyrdom is ultimately about drawing attention to one's convictions in the hope that others will come to recognise that those convictions are of value. Of course, it does presume the convictions are, upon examination, worthy. Martyrdom presumes that to dispose of a life is honourable if it is attached to honourable ends. Ned saw his ideas as something honourable and has come to see his stand against handing over control of his idea as honorific. However, Ros punctures Ned's pride by explaining his ideas are worthless without a supportive enterprise provided for by governments. She even goes on to say that the government may take up the rights and not proceed with manufacture.

When you start a job and think about the products that you may be engineering, you have to think about the ethical benefits and the ethical stance you are going to take on it during the product lifecycle, or else you are just jumping with both feet into a situation where you may not understand where you are going to go. This is a lesson, I think, Ned ought to have heard, actually a lesson for young graduates going into their first job. This is one of the things that, perhaps, professionals sometimes do not take sufficiently seriously when they are pleased to get a job. But if they are not careful, they might get into Ned's position.

Ned carries on arguing, and he says that weapons give strength to negotiators, this is what they are all about. But Brooks, obviously, has been involved in plenty of arguments like this and takes the logic one step further, saying that, actually, we need some device to act when the people we are attempting to negotiate with do not have a willingness to negotiate. It is in those circumstances that, according to Brooks, warfare has a role. According to Brooks, having weapons can give people hope. In other words, weaponry becomes a technology of hope, and, if you look at it in that way, as Brooks does, then it comes in on that ‘good’ side of the scales.

At this point, Ned really gives up. But he gives up actually because Brooks gives these lengthy speeches about warfare and asks Ned if he ‘gets’ what is being said. Eventually there is a long silence and Ned says ‘I'm just an engineer’. Ned cannot match the fluency and sophistication of Brooks’ arguments, and although Ned, at one time, would have been very much on Brooks’ side, he would have used arguments couched in quite different terms to those of Brooks. By saying he's ‘just an engineer’, he is admitting that his vocabulary and fluency do not extend into the realm that Brooks has entered. Ned is saying that his final vocabulary, which is relevant to engineering practice, is not a useful tool in the domain of the arguments now being presented, and he simply has to give up frustrated.

We do get Ned sabotaging the prototype. So, although he's signed, he has one more go at scuppering things since, of course, his arguments have failed. He does not have Brooks’ vocabulary and persuasive skills, but he does have technical skills, which give him authority in that area. In performing the sabotage, he is exploiting the effective skill that he does have. Unfortunately, he is rather a broken man at this stage, so he sabotages the prototype and disappears. Brooks is trying to track Ned down, so he interviews Dan, who is an easier nut to crack because Brooks starts musing over modes of torture, and Dan's imagination takes him away. Dan misunderstands but also capitulates, eventually revealing where Ned is.

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