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

5.3 Ethics and ethos: ‘does mum know?’

In Act 1 we are presented with a fairly naïve Ned, who initially believes himself to be in control. We discover he is very proud of his intellectual achievements and less concerned with money. He explains his inventions and, when he does so, he finds analogies that highlight the aesthetics of what he is designing. At a crucial point in the conversation, his brother Dan asks: ‘does mum know?’ This is a really significant point in the play because it draws in another relationship and, as I have discussed in earlier sections, relationships are essential to ethical reasoning. The next activity explores this.

Activity 21

One possible aspect of ‘mum’ is that she is somebody who is non-technical, that is, she may be representing a lay person's view. Can you think of other possible aspects that ‘mum’ might represent? Jot down a few thoughts before moving on to my comments



Watch the group discussion on video. You will find that, although we are dealing only with three words, they are strategically used in the text, and this can suggest very different ideas and feelings to different people. Have you found any similarities between your own thoughts and those expressed by the group?

Please be aware that the quality of the video and audio varies as it was recorded as a Flash Meeting and was therefore dependent on the equipment and connection speeds of the individual participants.

Download this video clip.Video player: Discussion 3
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Transcript: Discussion 3

Sorry John, wasn’t expecting you to let me in so quickly. I wondered whether the reference to ‘mum’ is actually a reference to a different ethical viewpoint, a sort of arbiter, if you like, that’s going to be different from the two brothers.
Yes and I guess we all have ideas about family relationships, brother relationships, parental relationships, so to me ‘mum’ represents something that’s wholesome, and she would want to think you’re doing good son, and hence it’s a standard that you’d want to adhere to. Later on, there’s a reference to father but maybe John’s going to come onto that.
Well the father’s a fairly fleeting reference. I think the thing I would think about ‘mums’ is I expect them to be pretty pragmatic about everything. We’ve got some ‘mums’ here that might be able to tell me whether I’m right or not. But I think you’re right that by saying “Does mum know?”, it does bring in another kind of ethic, a practical ethic that presumably a mum that is perhaps a little proud of her son so she wouldn’t want to criticise her son’s work.
And I think that raises a point here. We’re all going to have different ideas about what ‘mum’ is. Is she pragmatic or is she wholesome, is she just loving, all those things and the same thing about all these family relationships. Individually, we’re going to obviously reference our own experience.
Yes, possibly referencing our own experience but my thought about the ‘mum’ was that she wasn’t going to be swayed by the money, by the jobs. I thought that she would be most concerned about her son’s ethical viewpoint and probably she would be quite negative about this idea of war because, as a mother, she understands the other mothers whose children are going to get killed by this technology.
Yes, I also got the impression that because of the way that Dan asked the question “Does mum know?” that he might have expected her to have perhaps slightly different views, be a little concerned about the ethics.
I would agree with that. I think when Dan asked that question, I think he was hinting to Ned that mum would probably disapprove of this and I think Ned’s response suggests that he actually would agree because I think he said that he didn’t want mum to know.
Well yes, Ned dismisses it. He says, “What’s it got to do with mum?” And he says, “The whole thing’s beyond her comprehension.” And there are other characters, oh sorry.
I was just thinking, as soon as you said that, John, Freud would say well there’s a problem there with the mother/son relationship about dismissing what’s mum got to do with this.
Yes, actually that comment actually gave me the impression that probably mum did know and had already expressed her disapproval.
Yes but it does look as though Ned is trying to suppress all of that so he’s what’s it got to do with mum and perhaps he didn’t like what he heard. It also emerges, of course, that Ned’s estranged wife gets emotional about his work so it sounds as though she might possibly disapprove but he says she gets emotional so he doesn’t talk to her about it. He’s really worried about his sister-in-law who’s got strong views on “war and killing people”. The net result of this is really that Ned has evaded discussion about his project and, as a result, has kind of got a one sided view. He’s ignorant of what might, in the long run, be of concern to him.
Yes, that bit I think had echoes for me with the debate in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s I guess in the scientific community about whether scientists should be concerned about the uses that their inventions would be put to or not and there was a lot of burying the head in the sand I think of saying well we just do the inventing, it’s not our problem what people choose to do with it. That resonated quite strongly with the ‘70s I think for me.
Yes, I mean interesting your comment and all this discussion’s come out of that simple phrase “Does mum know?” I think that’s amazing piece of dialogue, just those few words, raises all sorts of thoughts in people’s minds and all sorts of feelings.
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Discussion 3
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Ned argues that he believes in what he is doing. He suggests that it is the activity that he engaged in that is the prime source of satisfaction, not the pay, although it is not very clear whether it is the activity that he believes in, or it is the outcome that he values. But, of course, he is not very specific about what he believes in. ‘I believe in what I am doing, but what is it about what you are doing?’. I get the impression from that piece of the dialogue that Ned does not have a particularly well worked out view of the ethics of what he is involved in.

On the other hand, Dan justifies things in terms of his children, but I think he does that in a very unconvincing way. He arrives at Ned's flat feeling hot and says, ‘Don't you just love global warming?’ It all seems to be couched in a rather flippant way. Dan seems to have a frivolous attitude towards something that others might consider serious, so I immediately get the feeling that he may not be a particularly deep thinker. As the conversation proceeds I think what he wants becomes clear: the money that will bring him luxuries and will allow him to retire early. He is clearly in his job in order to get money.

It is interesting that Dan paints a picture of an idyllic way of life when he realises Ned may gain the rights to his invention, and he suggests what Ned might do if he had all the money (‘a house in Spain’). So we can begin to see what Dan's ethics are rooted in. He presumes that he is entitled to some rewards because, at some point, he indicates he has put a great deal of effort into learning facial anatomy, which incurred a cost, a personal cost, and he feels that this should be balanced by the rewards he feels he is owed and, so, is going to set out to get. He talks about his jeep and various things, but when pressed about these material goods, his justification is usually, and I've said unconvincingly, couched in terms of benefits to his children. His new car seems to be an extravagance, but Dan believes it will impress his brother. Ned, however, is not impressed, so Dan switches his justification and says he bought this large car, this jeep, in order to keep his family safe. He justifies his swimming pool because he says it will help the kids learn to swim. Crucially, he justifies his extra work by saying that it pays for the school fees. As I say, I don't find those reasons convincing, but he is struggling to produce a justification. When he learns of Ned's project, he seems to show a deep-seated concern for the victims of a warfare that might ensue.

As the conversation gets going, Dan starts by talking about his brother's flat, stressing, as we might expect, the financial returns from property rather than any other interesting things about the flat. This, however, leads to a potential embarrassment when Ned points out that he does not own the flat; he rents it. Dan neatly turns the supposition that his brother owns the flat into a conversation, a conversation about his (Dan's) own speculative position. Dan talks about speculation and suggests it is a game, implying that there might be something seedy about it. Nevertheless, he claims that the game demands speculation, so, even though it may be seedy, this is part of the customary way of life, if you like, and because it's a custom, then it is permissible to do it.

I am reminded of the arguments that people use when talking about bribery. As a matter of course people actually do not agree with bribery; we think it's a ‘bad’ thing. However, some claim that, if you want to do business in a particular place with a particular organisation, in a particular country, then you just have to do it, it is part of the custom. This is an argument that people deploy. Whether it works or not, it is difficult to determine. In the context of the play, however, it tends to reinforce our assumptions about Dan and his way of going about things. This is a mundane opening, just an everyday chat about property which probably most of us engage in from time to time, but, actually, it reveals something about an ethical stance. I think this is a really good example of how everyday conversations bring in ethical arguments and ethical statements. They are part of everyday talk.

Clearly the two brothers have got very different views, and from time to time their arguments come to a grinding halt. They reach an impasse, but the conversation then continues. As in all conversations, when the argument reaches an impasse, people talk about other things. They talk about food and places to eat, for example, or they might talk about the weather. This keeps the conversation going, when one of the brothers finds a topic uncomfortable or does not find a way to proceed. Nevertheless, they do seem to want to resolve things. They keep on going back to things, either about the Botox or about the weapons. One of the reasons the conversations stall is because they both said what they are doing is confidential, and they do not reveal everything about what they are doing. So the conversation stalls because one of the partners hasn't got the information he needs to proceed. In order to keep the conversation going, every so often, a bit of the confidential information is leaked out.

Dan's secrecy is self-imposed, and he eventually ‘spills the beans’ all in one go, but Ned is really constrained by the law. Although he knows he is constrained by the law, breaking the rules appears to be acceptable when the discussions involve members of the family. There is a clear conflict of loyalties going on here, and it is not surprising because members of family often feel they are ‘owed’ explanations and, of course, members of the family are often confidantes to one another. So Ned breaks the law, effectively, but he does it because he wants to keep this conversation going with his brother to try and explain what is going on.

The dialogue, then, keeps on switching when the brothers run out of steam on one track. We get a sense of how the brothers are feeling about one another's projects and that is very strongly reinforced by the emotional reaction. It is strange that what I see on the page are words, I see some words, and often they are fragmented sentences, yet, somehow, I read into those words emotions. When Dan talks of his Botox enterprise, I clearly get the impression that Ned is shocked. Also, Dan seems really startled when he hears that the military drones can be ‘weaponised’. Then Ned gets very enthusiastic and portrays the technology as something that will have the potential to rid the world of particular cunning villains. These displays of emotion contribute significantly to the brothers’ understanding of one another but, in this particular play, they rarely do it in a constructive fashion, the emotions tend to be of shock and startlement. But, as a voyeur, I also felt their emotions in those words, and I was just fascinated that words on a page can do that, particularly in a play that is otherwise quite economical with its use of words.


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