Notes on ethics by Prof. M. van Swaay
Ethics in computing is not about computers, it is about people, even though many may point an accusing finger at computers for such things as threats to privacy. Every new technology has introduced not only new opportunity but also new risk. The human challenge has always been to learn to choose well between the indiscriminate use - and abuse - of technological advances as toys or worse, and the deliberate application toward the betterment of mankind. Fire can be used to cook food, or to burn villages. Wheels can be used to transport goods and people, and to build war chariots. Chemistry enables us to produce sulfa drugs and sarin. Physics gave us electricity and the atom bomb. Even the written word, which we tend to see as an unquestioned blessing, can be subverted into a tool to mislead and insult people. In the progression of technological advances, information technology takes a special place. Until its advent in the form of the telegraph and telephone, technology served to replace and support physical labor. The telegraph and telephone vastly enhanced our capability to transport information. Computers have not only delivered an explosive further improvement in information transport and exchange, they can also manipulate symbols, an activity that previously was strictly reserved to the human mind. Computers may be spectacularly adept at manipulating symbols, but it is inconceivable that machines 'understand' what those symbols mean. Without such understanding, machines can never develop the 'character' and 'sense of decency' that is at the core of being human. Because the capabilities of computers offer such strong temptations we must be especially careful to use them wisely. It is not the computers we should be concerned about, but rather the people whose lives we can affect by our actions.
|Because ethical behavior implies free choice, it cannot be captured in rule. The standard of reference for what is ethical has to exist 'outside human definition', and therefore cannot be open to human negotiation.||Ethics, which addresses precisely such concerns, is not about rules or about 'codes of conduct'. Both can help us, but ethics is about making free choices. Ethics is about behavior and about ways of thinking, especially in situations where our choice can affect the dignity and well-being of others. Because ethical behavior implies free choice, it cannot be captured in rule. The standard of reference for what is ethical has to exist 'outside human definition', and therefore cannot be open to human negotiation. Some may know that standard as Human Rights, some may know it as the Seven Virtues, some may know it as the Ten Commandments, and some may know it by yet another name. It is impossible to force adherence to that standard: the notion of coercion itself is foreign to it. But individually we can make a promise to abide by it. This view is clearly reflected in the canons of conduct developed by the ACM, the First Society in Computing: all its canons take the form of 'As an ACM Member I will ....'. Not only must we strive to live up to the ethical standard of reference, we also have an obligation to help those around us live up to it. Again, those obligations cannot be captured in rule: they are reflected in behavior, they are illustrated by the Parables, by the 'cautionary tales' of today and by the fairy tales of our youth, and we can demonstrate them by example.|
The members of the Department of Computing and Information Sciences are committed to strive toward behavior that respects the dignity of all others, and to set an example that may serve to help and encourage others to pursue the same ideal. As tangible support to this commitment, the Department offers a course 'Computers and Society' in cooperation with the Department of Philosophy. The Department also provides funding for visiting speakers and for travel to conferences for faculty and exceptional students. This funding is made possible by an endowment established to support the study of ethics issues in computing.