An Expository Narrative on
James Moor’s Seminal Essay,
“What is Computer Ethics?”
Author, philosopher, and Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at Dartmouth College, Dr. James Moor wrote an essay on the relationship between computers and ethics, called “What is Computer Ethics,” in 1985. This essay became the harbinger of the concept of ethics in computing. In this essay Moor states that computer ethics include: "(1) Identification of computer-generated policy vacuums, (2) clarification of conceptual muddles, (3) formulation of policies for the use of computer technology, and (4) ethical justification of such policies." 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, that is, formulate policies to guide our actions …. One 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 that provides a coherent conceptual framework within which to formulate a policy for action. (Moor, 1985, 266) Even though today computer ethics is no longer an idea in its infancy, there are many interpretations of ethics in relation to information technology. Today almost all companies use computer and information technology to serve their clients and because of that they have to have strong ethical standards for the conduct of their business. Microsoft Corporation's “Four Pillars of Trustworthy Computing” (Reynolds, 2010) which combine security, privacy, reliability and integrity in a system focused on the aspect of trustworthiness – something Microsoft and other companies see as important. Moor's 1985 essay and later work helped lay the groundwork for the development of a policy, thus breaking down the vacuum for ethics in the computer age. He added additional ideas in the 1990s, including the important notion of core human values: According to Moor, human values such as life, health, happiness, security, resources, opportunities, and knowledge, are so important for the survival of a community that all communities do hold them near and dear. Certainly if a community did not value the “core values”, it would soon cease to exist. It was these human “core values” that Moor used for examining computer ethics topics like privacy and security (Moor 1997), and to add an account of justice, which he called “just consequentialism” (Moor, 1999), a theory that combines “core values” and consequentialism with Bernard Gert's deontological notion of “moral impartiality” using “the blindfold of justice” (Gert,1998).
In his essay, Moor introduces the “conceptual vacuum,” which he says is the lack of terminology to define elements in a specific system or model. According to Moor, while it is possible for a conceptual vacuum to be discovered only after the policy vacuum is identified, it is the conceptual vacuum that needs to be addressed first. Only then can the relevant actions and policies be implemented to solve a computer ethics problem. At least a basic understanding of terms and their relationship to one another, or “coherent conceptual framework,” (Moor, 1985) is necessary otherwise it would be close to impossible to define a computer ethics problem without understanding what a computer actually is and what it can do, and the specific ethical values, unique to computers systems. Conceptual vacuums may still exist in certain fields in which the conceptual framework remains unclear. As an example, today, in the field of advanced genetic engineering, cloning, and stem cell research conceptual...