Ethics and society
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Ethics and Society. CS-1094 Freshman Seminar: Computers and Society Instructor: Jim Allert. Introduction. Technology impacts society for good and for ill. Examples?. Problem. The real issue is in how we manage technology.

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Ethics and Society

CS-1094 Freshman Seminar: Computers and Society

Instructor: Jim Allert


  • Technology impacts society for good and for ill.

  • Examples?


  • The real issue is in how we manage technology.

  • Given an example of poor management of technology using old fashioned rules?

  • Why didn’t it work?

Social movements

  • Give and example of technologic innovations that changed entire social systems.

  • Were there opponents at the time?

  • What were their arguments against it?

The Luddites

  • Luddite

  • From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

  • The Luddites were a group of English workers in the early 1800s who protested the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution that they felt threatened their jobs, often by destroying machines.

  • The original Luddites claimed to be led by one Ned Ludd, also known as "King Ludd", who is believed to have destroyed two large stocking-frames that produced inexpensive stockings undercutting those produced by skilled knitters, and whose signature appears on a "workers manifesto" of the time. Whether or not Ludd actually existed is historically unclear.

  • The movement spread rapidly throughout England in 1811, with many wool and cotton mills being destroyed, until the British government suppressed them harshly (including making "machine breaking" (industrial sabotage) a capital crime, and executing 17 men in 1813).

  • The terms Luddism, Luddite, (Also Neo-Luddism, Neo-Luddite) in recent years have become synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of industrial technology.



New Moral Dilemmas

Dr. Pierre Leveque, a French computer scientist visiting an American

computer science department for one year, discovered a bug in the

mainframe computer operating system which allowed him to borrow

the identity of other users, by-passing their passwords. If a user who

was logged on left her terminal unattended briefly while Dr. Laveque

was in the room, he could enter a few keystrokes and forever gain access

to her files or have her billed for the time he used th computer. Having

discovered this bug, Dr. Leveque proceeded to collect as many identities

as he could. He never abused the power he had; he neither read others’ files

nor billed his computing time to them.

When Dr. Leveque’s colleagues discovered what he had been doing and

discussed the case among themselves they disagreed about how to

characterize his behavior. Some believed it was morally wrong; others,

although they felt uneasy about the behavior, could not justify condemning

Dr. Leveque when it seemed he had not hurt anyone. All agreed however

that he should be forced to destroy his access to those identities.

Approaching Moral Problems

  • Take the example of the computer science teacher who was caught accessing student accounts.

  • Was he wrong to do this?

  • Does he deserve to be punished?

  • What guidelines can we use for making our decisions here?

  • Conventional approaches

    • Utilitarianism

    • Kant’s moral imperative


  • Utilitarian guidelines

    • You judge an act by its consequences

    • Right or wrong depends on the balance of harm versus benefit.

  • Examples

    • How does this apply to the computer scientist problem?

      • Short-term utilitarian analysis

      • Long term utilitarian analysis

      • From the standpoint of the perpetrator

John Stewart Mill


Kant’s moral imperative

  • Kant’s guidelines

    • You should always treat others as ends in themselves, never as means to your own ends.

    • The fundamental principle is to respect the rights of other human beings, no matter what.

    • Examples

Immanuel Kant


Modern Codified Rules

  • ACM guidelines for computing professionals

  • The role of legends and cautionary tales in stimulating the development of new rules.

The moral connotations of technology

  • Aristotle

    • Believed that reason was the most important part of life (above virtue, fame, wealth, enjoyment)

    • Work was ignoble. To be carried out by slaves.

    • The role of technology is to free us from ignoble tasks so that we may concentrate on higher aspirations.


384-322 BC

The potential impact of computers

  • Work

  • Economic justice

  • Power

  • Privacy

  • Our sense of self

The impact of computers on work

  • Up side

    • Makes work processes faster

    • Allows for improvements in efficiency at all levels

    • Maintains massive amounts of data

    • Reduces workforce costs through telecommuting

    • Increases productivity through flexible scheduling

    • Computers create new jobs

Work (continued)

  • The down side

    • Automation replaces or deskills workers

    • Constant and intrusive employee monitoring

    • Personnel data used for purposes other than intended

    • Work at home often lowers salaries and benefits

    • Computers replace more jobs than they create

Impact on economic justice

  • Up side

    • Information now flows freely over country borders

    • Computers make world commerce possible

      • Open up global markets

    • Acceleration of progress in technology

Economic Justice (continued)

  • Down side

    • Dominant classes use technology to become stronger

    • Increasing gap between the rich and poor

    • With only labor to sell the underprivileged have less and less to sell

The impact of computers on power

  • Up side

    • Bureaucracies can gather and handle more data

    • Existing power structures are strengthened

    • Local offices have more power and flexibility

Power (continued)

  • Down side

    • Political power can become centralized in one organization or individual

    • More potential for information abuse

Impact on privacy

  • Up side

    • Easier to verify credentials and backgrounds

      • Example: bad checks

    • Useful in war or for national security

Privacy (continued)

  • Down side

    • May squash creativity, personal growth and progress if people are concerned about the implications of failure

    • A person’s record may follow them forever

    • Human dignity

    • Misinterpretation of an individual’s record

Impact of computers on our sense of self

  • Who are we?

  • Copernicus: We are not the center of the universe.

Impact of computers on our sense of self

  • Who are we?

    • Darwin: We are not the center of the natural world.

Impact of computers on our sense of self

  • Who are we

    • Marx and Freud: We do not even control of our own thoughts and actions.

      • Social structures and the unconscious

Impact of computers on our sense of self

  • Who are we

    • Information revolution

      • Human thought is nothing special

The moral connotations of technology

  • Aristotle

    • Believed that reason was the most important part of life (above virtue, fame, wealth, enjoyment)

    • Work was ignoble. To be carried out by slaves

  • Issue: What if technology allows machines to do all work for us?

    • Have we arrived at the good life?

  • Issue: What if we invent machines who reason better than us?

    • All that is left for us then is to be workers.


384-322 BC

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