Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences
Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

7 Summary

This course presents an understanding of ‘ethics’ as something related with ‘good’ and ‘bad’. There are other derivative words like ‘optimal’ that might also be used, and there are parochial words which are related to particular communities. When we talk about ethical things, we are liable to confront cultural differences that are reflected in differences in vocabulary. But there are other kinds of differences too. Things have different properties; for example, ‘appearance’ and ‘radiation’ might be two different properties of a radio mast, and somehow or other we have to weigh those up one against another. There are also different kinds of things like ‘fears’, ‘means’, ‘ends’, ‘relationships’, ‘virtues’, ‘pleasures’ and ‘pains’. All of this seems quite incommensurate, so one of the difficulties of ethics is how to put those things together to decide on and justify a course of action.

When combining different kinds of ‘goods’ and ‘bads’, we often get contradictions and, sometimes, ambiguities, so we need to be able to cope with those. Socrates’ solution was to ‘measure’ the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ and then perform some calculations, which might be a fine idea if we had a way of measuring things in the first place! This, unfortunately, is something which he did not suggest. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, suggests that the way out is to change the language game that we're playing. In other words, if there is a problem with vocabularies and their use, then we need to negotiate a common vocabulary if we're to avoid some of these difficulties.

The course looks at examples taken from professional codes of practice that illustrate those difficulties, suggesting that, whilst codes of practice may offer a guide to action, we can imagine circumstances where the rules in a code of practice contradict one another. Contradictions thus created provide a source of inspiration for the dramatist, but they create real conundrums for professionals and practitioners.

In Section 3 I examined the play Call Waiting and 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 we're 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 course 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.

Section 4 looks at the play Last Call. The play is very rich in ethical issues, and one of the most interesting points made is that, whilst there are many ‘big’ ethical questions worthy of discussion and investigation, it seems to be in the everyday, routine conversations and dealings of people that ethical questions get asked and answered, even if this is not clearly recognised.

A major ethical issue tackled in the play is loyalty: giving preference in some way to one group, and, by doing so, denying another group something that is being given to the privileged group. There are questions of loyalty to an employer, to work colleagues and to family, and the play presents conflicts of loyalty to these different groups that can occur routinely in anybody's life. The play also raises broader questions regarding the legitimacy of war, torture, surveillance, blackmailing and theft.

Section 5 looks at Joe Penhall's Landscape with Weapon. The play indeed provides a powerful allegory to technology, generally, rather than being relevant only to the weapons industry. The play raises questions concerning ‘rights’ (including intellectual property rights) and various issues involved in ethical reasoning, including the notions of ‘conscience’, ‘promises’, ‘interests’ and ‘identification’. The play illustrates some of the basic aspects of ethical reasoning, including that judgements are personal and bounded by such practical matters as the time available for action and the attention that is likely to be given to the judgement. Also, the play shows that judgements will always be biased but, sometimes, by factors that are avoidable, such as an overbearing pride or ignorance. Section 5 also looks at some of the rhetorical devices employed in the exchanges of ethical positions that take place in the play. Crucially, the section introduces Austin's notion of performatives to explain the ways in which rhetorical strategies are deployed to accomplish specific moves of tentative persuasion. The ability to persuade is presented in the play as core to the practice of developers and technologists.

In short, the course suggests that drama and dialogue have a few lessons of relevance to practitioners in ICS as well as technologists, generally, and these are the three principal notions:

  • expand your vocabulary

  • recognise the limit of your authority

  • recognise that technology is for people and they have preferences and interests.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus