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Com2040/6650 Professional Issues in Information Technology. Part VI: Introduction to Ethics Dr. Amanda Sharkey Department of Computer Science University of Sheffield. 1 Introduction 2 Definitions 3 Western Ethical Thought 4 Ethical Problem Solving

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com2040 6650 professional issues in information technology
Com2040/6650Professional Issues in Information Technology
  • Part VI: Introduction to Ethics
  • Dr. Amanda Sharkey
  • Department of Computer Science
  • University of Sheffield

1 Introduction

2 Definitions

3 Western Ethical Thought

4 Ethical Problem Solving

5 Summary and Conclusions

1 introduction

1. Introduction

Ethical dilemmas occur frequently in professional practice; we must be equipped to deal with them.

Important to consider the likely effects of engineering and software


Ethical dilemmas are inherently subjective; there is no \'right\' answer, and no step-by-step algorithm that can be used to solve ethical problems.

In this lecture we consider:

origins of (Western) moral and ethical philosophy;

practical approaches to ethical problem solving.

This is a relatively superficial overview of a very deep subject. Further reading advised


2. Definitions

2.1 What is philosophy?

• The main purpose of philosophy is to critically evaluate assumptions and arguments.

• Philosophy asks us to examine assumptions that people accept without question, e.g. seeing is believing (perception by the senses is reliable evidence).


On consideration, we will either:

Decide that we have good reason to hold the belief, and continue to hold it (but now with rational assurance rather than unthinking acceptance)

Decide that we do not have good reason to hold the belief, and suspend judgement or seek a new framework of belief.


2.2 What is moral philosophy?

Moral philosophy is inquiry about values, ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, what should be done and what should not be done.

Moral philosophy is not practical in any simple sense; it cannot, and does not try to, tell us what to do. However, philosophical debate can conclude that a set of beliefs should definitely be rejected because:

It is internally inconsistent


It rests on a factual assumption that is false.


2.3 Personal and professional ethics

• Ethics concerns the philosophical discussion of assumptions about right and wrong, good and bad, considered as general ideas and applied in the private life of individuals.

• The terms moral philosophy and ethics are often used interchangeably, but moral philosophy has a wider scope; it concerns values in organised social life (politics and law) as well as private relationships.

• By professional ethics , we mean issues of right and wrong and good and bad as applied to the behaviour of individuals within a particular profession (such as computer science, law, medicine etc.).

• What is a profession? See later ...

3 western ethical thought
3. Western Ethical Thought

• Western moral thought is derived from thinking of ancients in Europe and Middle East.

• Jewish moral traditions - Torah and Old Testament of the Bible enumerate moral laws (e.g. Ten commandments).

• Greek ethical thought very influential, e.g. Socrates and Aristotle.

• Aristotle produced a lengthy treatise on ethics, the Nichomachean Ethics. Now available on-line!


John Locke Immanuel Kant John Stuart Mill

  • Subsequently, philosophers such as John Locke (1632-1704), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) have reasoned about moral and ethical issues without a religious underpinning.
  • • They proposed that moral principles are universal, and applicable even in secular contexts.

3.1 Ethical theories

Ethical theories are like scientific theories - they define terms, organize ideas and facilitate problem solving.

There are many ethical theories, reflecting a diversity of approaches to ethical problem solving.

Different theories give us different perspectives on an ethical dilemma.


• We will consider the following:

Utilitarianismwhich seeks to produce the most utility;

Intuitionism which proposes a number of self-evident principles of right action;

Duty ethics which contends that there are duties which should be performed (such as treating people fairly);

Rights ethics which contends that all individuals have moral rights, and that violating these is unacceptable;

Virtue ethics which discriminates between acts of good character (virtues) and acts of bad character (vices).


Two main approaches to ethical issues

  • 1. Consequentialist (teleological)
    • actions evaluated in terms of their consequences
  • 2. Duty/rights (deontological) approaches
  • (from Greekδέον, deon, "obligation, duty"; and -λογία, -logia)
    • Acts are right or wrong regardless of their consequences

3.2 Utilitarianism

Main consequential theory.

Many flavours of utilitarianism. First

proposed by Jeremy Bentham. We focus

on act utilitarianism (Mill), which holds

that an action is right if it is useful for

promoting happiness.

More specifically:

An action is right (it is the action you should do) if it seems likely to you that it will produce more happiness than any alternative action.

- Choose the action that will produce “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (pleasure – pain)

Consider those persons (and other creatures) that will be significantly affected.

Utilitarianism is fundamental to risk-benefit and cost-benefit analysis.


3.3 Utilitarianism and the law

People tend to act in their own self interest (?)

But “greatest happiness of greatest number” implies altruism (concern for others).

If people act in their own self-interest, how can their actions be made to serve the advantage of everyone?

Utilitarianism: developing legislation of the benefit of society.

Laws exist to promote the happiness of the community


Thief: stealing might increase the thief’s happiness

  • But it will be bad for society
  • Laws against theft protect society, and make stealing less attractive to the thief (who risks punishment/imprisonment).
  • Implies that punishment (pain) should be just enough to deter anti-social acts

3.4 Objections to utilitarianism

How does one know what will lead to the greatest good? Often we don\'t know what the consequences of our actions are.

It can ignore the needs of individuals, or of a smaller group relative to a larger group.

Act utilitarianism – working out likely consequences of every action.

Rule utilitarianism – avoids this. Suggests behavioural rules which result in consequences that are more favourable than unfavourable to everyone.

Utilitarianism also ignores the personal character of moral obligation.


3.5 Intuitionism

A stance adopted by rationalist philosophers; we reason about ethics in the same way as we reason about mathematics, e.g. justice is a basic moral truth: 2+2=4 is a basic mathematical truth

There are self-evident principles of right action:

o promoting the happiness of people

o refraining from harm to other people

o treating people justly

o telling the truth

o keeping promises

o showing gratitude

o promoting one\'s own happiness

o maintaining and promoting one\'s own self-respect

Conflicts between these principles must be resolved by rational intuition (like solving mathematical problems).


Intuitionists argue that Utilitarians have concentrated on only a couple of these self-evident principles.

Problems with intuitionism:

- principles are not always self-evident

- How do you resolve conflict between principles?

e.g. You can only keep a promise by sacrificing some happiness (your own, or others)

Utilitarianism provides a way of resolving conflicts.


3.6 Duty ethics and rights ethics

Basically two sides of the same coin; both hold

that good actions respect the rights of individuals.

Rights ethics largely formulated by Locke; his

tenet that individuals have basic rights which others should respect was paraphrased in the US Declaration of Independence.

Main proponent of duty ethics was Kant.


Kant distinguished the Categorical (moral)

imperative from Hypothetical (prudential)


Hypothetical imperatives take the form Do X if Y or You ought to do X if Y. For example: If you want to be healthy, take lots of exercise

The Categorical imperative does not depend on an if; the action is not a means to an end. For example: Be kind to others does not mean "be kind to others if you want to avoid making enemies of them"; kindness is prescribed for its own sake and not because a self-interested end


3.7 Three forms of the Categorical Imperative

Kant gave three formulations of the Categorical imperative:

Act as if you are legislating for everyone

In other words, when you are considering whether an action is morally right or wrong, you should ask yourself whether you would want everyone to behave in that way.

i.e. Treat your decision as if it was a law for everyone.

Good way of seeing if the action is morally right –


2. Act so as to treat human beings always as ends and never merely as means

This suggests the standard of morally right action. By treating people as ends, you recognise that they have purposes just as you have; you respect their desires.

There is nothing wrong with treating a person as a means so long as you do not treat people merely as a means. E.g. I can ask a carpenter to make me a set of shelves – he tells me his price and I pay him.

The work serves his purposes as well as mine.


But if I tell my slave to make me a set of shelves, I am treating him merely as a means

  • Making the shelves does not serve his purposes

Kantian principles is related to the “Golden Rule” of biblical ethics.

  • “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”
  • Golden Rule can be seen as foundation for all ethics
  • Also similar to New Testament:
  • “Act lovingly towards your neighbour, for he is like yourself”

3. Act as if you were a member of a realm of ends

Here, \'realm\' means a State, a politically organised society. The idea is that you should act as a member of a community,

all of whom treat others as ends rather than means

all of whom decide as if they were legislating for all.

Joins 1 and 2 together


3.8 Virtue ethics

Concerned with determining what kind of people we should be.

Actions are considered right if they support good character traits (virtues) such as

o honesty

o loyalty

o responsibility

Actions are considered wrong if they support bad character traits (vices) such as

o dishonesty

o disloyalty

o irresponsibility


Virtue ethics: mostly concerned with personal ethics.

  • Harder to apply in a professional context since it is less concrete and less rigorous than other ethical theories.
  • Also hard to describe nonhuman entities such as government or corporations in terms of virtue.

Summary and further reflections

1 Virtue ethics

Virtue theory: the view that the foundation of morality is the development of good character traits, or virtues

A good person has virtues and lacks vices.

Typical virtues: courage, temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude, liberality, truthfulness.

Emphasis on moral education: adults are responsible for instilling virtues in the young.

Historically oldest normative tradition.

Earliest account: in Aristotle\'s Nichomachean Ethics.

Influential through Middle Ages.

Replaced by "rule" emphasis of moral theories like utilitarianism.

Some recent revival of virtue ethics.


2 Utilitarianism

Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to promote the reverse.

Individual happiness or general happiness?

A prudent man should realise that he needs the help of others to achieve his own happiness, and should induce their help by doing things for him.

- emphasis on law and government: people generally act with a view to their own self-interest or happiness.

Laws - designed to secure the happiness of society.

Utilitarianism: provides a way of linking ethics, law and government.


3 Intuitionism

"Intuition" refers to understanding, as in understanding of self-evident truths of logic and mathematics.

Idea that there are self-evident moral principles.

• promoting the happiness of people

• refraining from harm to other people

• treating people justly

• telling the truth

• keeping promises

• showing gratitude

• promoting one\'s own happiness

• maintaining and promoting one\'s own self-respect


BUT principles not entirely self-evident - different moral principles can be identified.

BUT what happens if principles conflict:

e.g. you can give a truthful answer only at the expense of breaking confidentiality?

If there was a single fundamental principle, it could be used to resolve conflicts. Utilitarianism, and greatest happiness principle could provide such a rule.


4. BUT also some problems with Utilitarianism:

Greatest happiness principle can also be implicated in conflicts: e.g. right action is that which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number - but then would it be better to give 20 pounds to 2 old age pensioners, or 20p to 200 pensioners, enabling them all to buy a cup of tea?

Also: Problems with the idea of justice - e.g. might be convenient to convict an innocent man as an IRA

bomber - will have a deterrent effect on genuine bombers.

But seems wrong to convict an innocent man.


5. Kantian ethics

• 1. Act as if you are legislating for everyone

• 2. Act so as to treat human beings always as ends and never merely as means

• 3. Act as if you were a member of a realm of ends

(Arguably) Provides a better account of personal character of ethics


BUT does not explain why obligations to friends and family are stronger than to others (all people should be treated as ends).

BUT still problems with resolving conflicts.

  • e.g. breaking a promise to meet a friend at the theatre in order to drive to hospital a neighbour who is seriously ill.
  • or, dilemma of young man in occupied France in WW2: should he join the Resistance movement, or stay to look after his widowed mother?
  • - can lead to the idea that we should make up our own minds, and act as moral beings capable of taking decisions on difficult problems.
  • (see Sartre and existentialist ethics).

6 Comparison of ethical theories

Intuitionism is a good model of everyday moral judgement, principles not always self-evident.

Kantian ethics involves a concept of democratic justice; this protects the innocent against arguments of social utility, a flaw of utilitarianism.

Kantian ethics tells us to treat all human beings as ends; so it cannot explain why moral obligations to relations and friends are stronger that to other people.


Duty ethics and rights ethics have general problems; what if the basic rights of one person (or group) conflict with those of another?

Resolution of conflict is a problem for all of the above.

Virtue ethics harder to apply in professional context but still raises relevant questions (e.g., is this action honest? responsible? loyal to my employer?).

In summary, no ethical theory is perfect - but all provide an interesting perspective on ethical dilemmas.


7. Ethical problem solving

No \'algorithm\', but following the steps below may be useful.

1. Identify the major role players and stakeholders.

Individuals, corporations. Stakeholders are those that have something to lose (or win).

2. Identify the factual issues

What was done, and by whom?

3. Identify the conceptual issues

Conceptual issues relate to the application of ideas e.g. what distinguishes a bribe from an acceptable gift?

4. Identify the moral issues

Different moral philosophical theories provide different perspectives on ethical dilemmas.


Example: RWT database

As an industrial engineering consultant hired by a credit bureau (RWT), you have been asked to analyze problems that have occurred with their 20 million record credit file. RWT management became concerned when the following situation came to their attention.

A couple moving to a retirement community has an eye on their \'dream home\'. Because they have a good credit history, they assume that they will have no trouble obtaining a mortgage to purchase this home through a local bank in their new community. A routine credit check through RWT reveals that in fact they are a bad credit risk. When a representative from the local bank pursues the case, she discovers that the couple has been mis-identified in the RWT database, which has confused them with another party having a very bad credit history. In making amends, the local bank approves the loan, but by now the home has already been sold to someone else. The couple is heartbroken and worse yet, they continue to experience credit problems for some time. Management at RWT claims they have only 1 error per 100,000 records in their database. They are reluctant to overhaul the database because of the relatively small number of errors and high cost involved, and because the database would need to be taken off-line for some time.

Slightly adapted from an example available from the on line ethics centre (



Who are the major role players and stakeholders?

What are the factual issues?

What are the conceptual issues?

What are the moral issues?

What do you think RWT should do?


Assignment – (maximum 1000 words)

Hand in due Monday 29th November, week 10, 3pm. One electronic, one hardcopy please.

Read the RWT database scenario. Discuss what the right course of action would be for RWT in response to the reports of errors in their database. Consider the question from the perspective of (a) Utilitarian ethics (b) Rights/duty ethics, and (c) your own opinion.


8 Summary and Conclusions

Moral philosophy is philosophical inquiry about norms or values, ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, what should be done and what should not be done.

Ethics is the philosophical discussion of assumptions about right and wrong, good and bad, considered as general ideas and applied in the life of individuals.

Ethical dilemmas occur when one or more moral principles are in conflict.


We have considered different philosophical theories of moral standards: utilitarianism, intuitionism, duty ethics, rights ethics, virtue ethics.

All imperfect, but give different perspectives of ethical problems.

Moral philosophy will not solve practical problems by telling you \'what to do\'.

But it can show up some confusions, and help you to think more clearly about the issues.