Who says Greyball or Palantir software is unethical?
Is there really an ethics test for us to use to make better decisions about our work?
Mike Monteiro wrote a thought provoking story urging technology professionals, such as designers and developers, to bring ethics to their day jobs before setting out to find a non-profit side gig to earn “ethics offsets”. “Ethics can’t be a side hustle” he argues. Sounds great doesn’t it? Is it as easy as it sounds?
Unfortunately the emotional plea by Monteiro is going to be inadequate in generating a lasting change with readers. When I came across this post through a tweet by DHH something bothered me about the story and here we are with me writing my first story on Medium. DHH relies on a key argument from Monteiro, being that Greyball (Uber) and Palantir software are unethical, or more precisely the employees who allowed it to be built.
I still am unclear after reading the story why working on Greyball or at Palantir would be unethical, this point seems to be previously accepted elsewhere but I am not sure that is actually the case. Others find Greyball to be a cause for freedom. Monteiro tell us all employees involved in these projects failed an ethics test. What is this ethics test and where do we get a copy? And who agreed on this test to be used?
What is this ethics test and where do we get a copy?
Ethics as I have been taught is about the things you ought to do. Morality is more about the things you actually do. I find it hard to keep that straight in everyday use but a very important distinction, as we often end up talking about morality and socially accepted practices when we make arguments. Basically everyone else is doing it, it must be the right thing to do. Is that how we should be making our arguments?
So back to this ethics test mentioned. Is it possible to have a real sense of right and wrong in today’s world, to be truly on the right side of the ethical dilemma? What would that test look like? Who determines what is right and wrong? Why is Monteiro’s idea of ethics right over those who choose to write software at Uber or Palantir? Is the idea of public good agreed upon and what does that even mean? Is there really an absolute right and wrong for us to agree upon?
I work on sales tax related software on a daily basis. If I apply the same test as used by Monteiro against Palantir would I be found to be unethical for taking part in my day job? An honest question I have actually considered before.
As a friend says, “Don’t hear what I’m not saying”. I am not standing up for the questionable news out of Uber or other companies. I am more interested in how we determine who or what makes the determination on our ethics when it comes to cases like Greyball and Palentir. Emotional pleas without concrete tools or guidance to make proper decisions will not sustain lasting change.
How do you determine what is right or wrong when involved in a technology project?
Just this weekend Jeff Jones, the President of Uber, resigned over a difference of management styles, beliefs and approaches as reported by several online news outlets. Perhaps he found out that Uber failed the ethics test.
Matt Anderson had never posted on Medium before now, is married, has a pack of kids and works in technology from a remote location in a small town.