Ethics in the XXI Century Fields of Computer Science and Technology

The study of philosophy dates back to the days of the classical Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, among others. Philosophy has evolved to the point of where it is not the study of any particular subject, but instead is the search for answers and a solution to a problem.

If philosophy were the tree of inquiry, ethics is one particular branch of the tree. While all of philosophy is about finding a solution to a particular problem, ethics is more specifically about finding a solution to a moral problem or issue.

Once we accept that ethics is the process of asking questions in the search for an answer to a moral problem, we must then ask “What is a moral problem?”

Stopping something that wants to occur or happen, is a problem. Being stuck in traffic or disagreeing over how much money someone owes you are both examples of a problem. In each case you want something to occur, but something or someone is blocking that from happening. A moral problem therefore is a problem that revolves around a moral issue or situation, one which has a conflict of interest or values.

Morality is a set of behaviors, a social idea that dictates how society acts and behaves. Morality is created by people as a way for society to avoid problems or resolve issues.

This brings us back full circle, therefore, to state that ethics is the inquiry into the branch of philosophy that looks at moral issues to find a solution to moral problems.

Now that we know ethics is the inquiry into moral issues, we can look at what and how this inquiry takes place. Rational inquiry is that which begins by asking a question, and not having a predefined answer. The search for the answer to the question is the philosophical process in action.

When one starts with a question and does not assume to know the answer, they are engaging in rational inquiry. A hypothesis is proposed and then the available evidence is tested to see if the hypothesis can be disproven. Asking questions and searching for an answer is more important than the answer. In fact, the answer can and will change based on the evidence available and it is the willingness to go wherever the inquiry dictates that defines rationality.

On the opposite side of the spectrum of rational inquiry is rationalization, which starts with the answer first, and the evidence to support the answer second. Rationalization is when you make the evidence fit a predefined conclusion. Evidence that does not support your answer is ignored and evidence which appears to provide support, no matter how weak it may be, is embraced.

Rationality begins with a question and is open to whatever answer best fits the question. Rationalization may begin with a question, but the answer is also known as well and only that which supports the answer is embraced, while all other information is ignored.

When two people are in disagreement, rationality involves starting with agreed upon information and then looking at what is in disagreement. By staying focused on common ground and areas of agreement, two people can move toward resolution.

Initially, morals were not part of society and had to come into being through agreement (example: society decides that murder is wrong), and it is through ethics, or the process of moral reasoning, that morals are created to deal with issues. When a societal problem arises for which their are no answers because the rules have not progressed to deal with the issue, or the existing rules are in conflict, the process of moral reasoning will help find a solution.

While searching for a solution to a societal moral problem it is important to remember that moral and legal are two separate concepts. Something can be morally wrong yet legally allowed, which at one time was the case with slavery.

Morality can be enforced in multiple ways. Laws can be enacted to force behavior, yet even without laws there can be societal influence and pressure to help regulate behavior. Peer pressure and social influence can be used to generate compliance, and people’s own individual beliefs and internal feelings also play a role in regulating behavior.

When we as individuals and as a society come across issues that need to be addressed and solutions found, having a framework to deal with these problems will help ensure a successful and peaceful resolution. Solving a problem through rational discourse allows everyone to have input to the solution and to buy-in to the eventual decision.

When dealing with people in a business setting, there will be disagreements and differing points of view. Ethics is the pursuit of an answer to a moral problem. A disagreement in business is because people do not agree on a solution to a problem, or sometimes they do not even agree on the problem itself. Following an ethical framework will mean having a rational dialogue with someone. The first step will be to determine what the problem is and where there is agreement. From there, questions can be asked to start finding answers and common agreement while working together to find resolution. One of the ways this can help is by starting the conversation without a pre-determined right answer. Being open to whatever is the best answer will allow for more productive dialogue instead of getting stuck on trying to be right and force an opinion on others. Conflicts will arise, and when this happens it is important to remember the ethical process, which is the pursuit of an answer to a moral issue. Ask yourself “What is the problem I am trying to solve?” and then look for common ground as you work toward resolution.

To help provide the framework with which to deal with ethics in the software engineering field, the ACM/IEEE-CS joint task force has compiled the Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. Together, these eight principles provide a set of rules to follow when engaging in any business relationships. The computer science and technology field is still relatively new compared to other industries. As issues arise, those responsible for making policy (such as judges, politicians and regulatory agencies) do not always have the knowledge and understanding necessary to make moral and ethical decisions and there is not always a clear cut answer on what is good and what is bad. These principles help to address every aspect of business, from the public to the client and employer, to the product itself. Beyond that, it also deals with issues of judgment, management, the software profession, colleagues and the self. No one item is more important than any other, in fact they are all equally important when running an ethical business. Treating your clients, co-workers, colleagues, and the public at large with respect and integrity are all vital to a successful business.

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