UNIQUE ETHICAL PROBLEMS IN INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY By Walter Maner Department of Computer Science Bowling Green State University Bowling Green, OH 43403 USA email@example.com http://web.cs.bgsu.edu/maner © 1995 Walter Maner © 1996 Opragen Publications This paper appeared in Science and Engineering Ethics, volume 2, number 2 (April, 1996), pages 137-154. ABSTRACT
A distinction is made between moral indoctrination and instruction in ethics. It is argued that the legitimate and important field of computer ethics should not be permitted to become mere moral indoctirnation. Computer ethics is an academic field in its own right with unique ethical issues that would not have existed if computer technology had not been invented. Several example issues are presented to illustrate this point. The failure to find satisfactory non-computer analogies testifies to the uniqueness of computer ethics. Lack of an effective analogy forces us to discover new moral values, formulate new moral principles, develop new policies, and find new ways to think about the issues presented to us. For all of these reasons, the kind of issues presented deserves to be addressed separately from others that might at first appear similar. At the very least, they have been so transformed by computing technology that their altered form demands special attention. INTRODUCTION
One factor behind the rise of computer ethics is the lingering suspicion that computer professionals may be unprepared to deal effectively with the ethical issues that arise in their workplace. Over the years, this suspicion has been
Walter Maner, Unique Ethical Problems in Information Technology
reinforced by mostly anecdotal research that seems to show that computer professionals simply do not recognize when ethical issues are present. Perhaps the earliest work of this kind was done by Donn Parker in the late 1970s at SRI International.1 In 1977, Parker invited highly trained professionals from various fields to evaluate the ethical content of 47 simple hypothetical cases that he had created based in part on his expert knowledge of computer abuse. Workshop participants focused on each action or non-action of each person who played a role in these one-page scenarios. For each act that was performed or not performed, their set task was to determine whether the behavior was unethical or not, or simply raised no ethics issue at all. Parker found a surprising amount of residual disagreement among these professionals even after an exhaustive analysis and discussion of all the issues each case presented. More surprisingly, a significant minority of professionals held to their belief that no ethics issue was present even in cases of apparent computer abuse. For example, in Scenario 3.1, a company representative routinely receives copies of the computerized arrest records for new company employees. These records are provided as a favor by a police file clerk who happens to have access to various local and federal databases containing criminal justice information. Nine of the 33 individuals who analyzed this case thought disclosure of arrest histories raised no ethics issues at all. Parker’s research does not identify the professions represented by those who failed to detect ethics issues, but most of the participants in this early study2 were computer professionals. This left casual readers of Parker’s Ethical Conflicts in Computer Science and Technology free to identify computer professionals as the ones who lacked ethical sensitivity. If some of them could not even recognize when ethical issues were present, it is hard to imagine how they could ever hope to deal responsibly with them. According to Parker, the problem may have been fostered by computer education and training programs that encouraged, or at least failed to criminalize, certain types of unethical professional conduct.3 This perception of professional inadequacy is part of a largely hidden political agenda that has...
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