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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Computers are special technology and they raise some special ethical issues. In this essay I will discuss what makes computers different from other technology and how this difference makes a difference in ethical considerations. In particular, I want to characterize computer ethics and show why this emerging field is both intellectually interesting and enormously important.

On my view, computer ethics is the analysis of the nature and social impact of computer technology and the corresponding formulation and justification of policies for the ethical use of such technology. I use the phrase “computer technology” because I take the subject matter of the field broadly to include computers and associated technology. For instance, I include concerns about software as well as hardware and concerns about networks connecting computers as well as computers themselves.

A typical problem in computer ethics arises because there is a policy vacuum about how computer technology should be used. Computers provide us with new capabilities and these in turn give us new choices for action. Often, either no policies for conduct in these situations exist or existing policies seem inadequate. A central task of computer ethics is to determine what we should do in such cases, i.e., to formulate policies to guide our actions. Of course, some ethical situations confront us as individuals and some as a society. Computer ethics includes consideration of both personal and social policies for the ethical use of computer technology.

Now it may seem that all that needs to be done is the mechanical application of an ethical theory to generate the appropriate policy. But this is usually not possible. A difficulty is that along with a policy vacuum there is often a conceptual vacuum. Although a problem in computer ethics may seem clear initially, a little reflection reveals a conceptual muddle. What is needed in such cases is an analysis which provides a coherent conceptual framework within which to formulate a policy for action. Indeed, much of the important work in computer ethics is devoted to proposing conceptual frameworks for understanding ethical problems involving computer technology.

An example may help to clarify the kind of conceptual work that is required. Let’s suppose we are trying to formulate a policy for protecting computer programs. Initially, the idea may seem clear enough. We are looking for a policy for protecting a kind of intellectual property. But then a number of questions which do not have obvious answers emerge. What is a computer program? Is it really intellectual property which can be owned or is it more like an idea, an algorithm, which is not owned by anybody? If a computer program is intellectual property, is it an expression of an idea that is owned (traditionally protectable by copyright) or is it a process that is owned (traditionally protectable by patent)? Is a machine-readable program a copy of a human-readable program? Clearly, we need a conceptualization of the nature of a computer program in order to answer these kinds of questions. Moreover, these questions must be answered in order to formulate a useful policy for protecting computer programs. Notice that the conceptualization we pick will not only affect how a policy will be applied but to a certain extent what the facts are. For instance, in this case the conceptualization will determine when programs count as instances of the same program.

Even within a coherent conceptual framework, the formulation of a policy for using computer technology can be difficult. As we consider different policies we discover something about what we value and what we don’t. Because computer technology provides us with new possibilities for acting, new values emerge. For example, creating software has value in our culture which it didn’t have a few decades ago. And old values have to be reconsidered. For instance, assuming software is intellectual property, why should intellectual property be protected? In general, the consideration of alternative policies forces us to discover and make explicit what our value preferences are.

The mark of a basic problem in computer ethics is one in which computer technology is essentially involved and there is an uncertainty about what to do and even about how to understand the situation. Hence, not all ethical situations involving computers are central to computer ethics. If a burglar steals available office equipment including computers, then the burglar has done something legally and ethically wrong. But this is really an issue for general law and ethics. Computers are only accidentally involved in this situation, and there is no policy or conceptual vacuum to fill. The situation and the applicable policy are clear.

In one sense I am arguing for the special status of computer ethics as a field of study. Applied ethics is not simply ethics applied. But, I also wish to stress the underlying importance of general ethics and science to compuater ethics. Ethical theory provides categories and procedures for determining what is ethically relevant. For example, what kinds of things are good? What are our basic rights? What is an impartial point of view? These considerations are essential in comparing and justifying policies for ethicl conduct. Similarly, scientific information is crucial in ethical evaluations. It is amazing how many times ethical disputes turn not on disagreements about values but on disagreements about facts.

On my view, computer ethics is a dynamic and complex field of study which considers the relationships among facts, conceptualizations, policies and values with regard to constantly changing computer technology. Computer ethics is not a fixed set of rules which one shellacs and hangs on the wall. Nor is computer ethics the rote application of ethical principles to a value-free technology. Computer ethics requires us to think anew about the nature of computer technology and our values. Although computer ethics is a field between science and ethics and depends on them, it is also a discipline in its own right which provides both conceptualizations for understanding and policies for using computer technology.

Though I have indicated some of the intellectually interesting features of computer ethics, I have not said much about the problems of the field or about its practical importance. The only example I have used so far is the issue of protecting computer programs which may seem to be a very narrow concern. In fact, I believe the domain of computer ethics is quite large and extends to issues which affect all of us. Now I want to turn to a consideration of these issues and argue for the practical importance of computer ethics. I will proceed not by giving a list of problems but rather by analyzing the conditions and forces which generate ethical issues about computer technology. In particular, I want to analyze what is special about computers, what social impact computers will have, and what is operationally suspect about computing technology. I hope to show something of the nature of computer ethics by doing some computer ethics.


aswad December 23, 2008 at 3:53 AM  

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