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Computing (FOLDOC) dictionary
computer ethics
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philosophy Ethics is the field of study that is concerned
with questions of value, that is, judgments about what human
behaviour is "good" or "bad". Ethical judgments are no
different in the area of computing from those in any other
area. Computers raise problems of privacy, ownership, theft,
and power, to name but a few.
Computer ethics can be grounded in one of four basic
world-views: Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, or Existentialism.
Idealists believe that reality is basically ideas and that
ethics therefore involves conforming to ideals. Realists
believe that reality is basically nature and that ethics
therefore involves acting according to what is natural.
Pragmatists believe that reality is not fixed but is in
process and that ethics therefore is practical (that is,
concerned with what will produce socially-desired results).
Existentialists believe reality is self-defined and that
ethics therefore is individual (that is, concerned only with
one's own conscience). Idealism and Realism can be considered
ABSOLUTIST worldviews because they are based on something
fixed (that is, ideas or nature, respectively). Pragmatism
and Existentialism can be considered RELATIVIST worldviews
because they are based or something relational (that is,
society or the individual, respectively).
Thus ethical judgments will vary, depending on the judge's
world-view. Some examples:
First consider theft. Suppose a university's computer is used
for sending an e-mail message to a friend or for conducting a
full-blown private business (billing, payroll, inventory,
etc.). The absolutist would say that both activities are
unethical (while recognising a difference in the amount of
wrong being done). A relativist might say that the latter
activities were wrong because they tied up too much memory and
slowed down the machine, but the e-mail message wasn't wrong
because it had no significant effect on operations.
Next consider privacy. An instructor uses her account to
acquire the cumulative grade point average of a student who is
in a class which she instructs. She obtained the password for
this restricted information from someone in the Records Office
who erroneously thought that she was the student's advisor.
The absolutist would probably say that the instructor acted
wrongly, since the only person who is entitled to this
information is the student and his or her advisor. The
relativist would probably ask why the instructor wanted the
information. If she replied that she wanted it to be sure
that her grading of the student was consistent with the
student's overall academic performance record, the relativist
might agree that such use was acceptable.
Finally, consider power. At a particular university, if a
professor wants a computer account, all she or he need do is
request one but a student must obtain faculty sponsorship in
order to receive an account. An absolutist (because of a
proclivity for hierarchical thinking) might not have a problem
with this divergence in procedure. A relativist, on the other
hand, might question what makes the two situations essentially
different (e.g. are faculty assumed to have more need for
computers than students? Are students more likely to cause
problems than faculty? Is this a hold-over from the days of
"in loco parentis"?).