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Applying Ethics to Information Technology Issues.

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Abstract

The articles in this special section express a common theme; the use of information technology in society is creating a rather unique set of ethical issues that requires the making of new moral choices on the part of society and has spawned special implications for its members. Technology itself is not the only, nor necessarily the most responsible, cause of these issues. All ethical questions arise initially out of human agency. Technology, due to its capability to augment mental and physical powers of human beings, does stand in the role of a coconspirator. The hire of power-enhancing capabilities makes technology an inducer of sorts, a necessary but not sufficient underpinning to many of the ethical issues we face today.
Applying
The articles in this special section express a com-
mon theme: the use of information technology in
society is creating a rather unique set of ethical
issues that requires the making of new moral choic-
es on the part of society and has spawned special
implications for its members. Technology itself is
not the only, nor necessarily the most responsible,
cause of these issues. All ethical questions arise ini-
tially out of human agency. Technology, due to its
capability to augment mental and physical powers of
human beings, does stand in the role of a coconspir-
ator. The lure of power-enhancing capabilities
makes technology an inducer of sorts, a necessary
but not sufficient underpinning to many of the ethi-
cal issues we face today.
An ethical issue is said to arise whenever one
party in pursuit of its goals engages in behavior that
materially affects the ability of another party to pur-
sue its goals. When the effect is helpful—good,
right, just—we say the behavior is praiseworthy or
exemplary. When, however, the effect is harmful—
bad, wrong, unjust—the behavior is unethical. This
purposeful theory of ethics is reflected in the issues
discussed in these articles. For example, email and
being online are applications of information tech-
nology, the lure of which is based on their ability to
expand the scope, range, speed, and ease of inter-
personal and corporate communications.
Useful as they are, the schemes and the manifold
of issues addressed leave one question unanswered:
What moral guidance can be provided to the agents
whose behavior create these issues? And, this ques-
tion leads to others: How should the many knowl-
edge workers, systems analysts, programmers,
hardware designers, authors, executives, and so
forth, who set in motion the actions which bring
these issues to the fore, guide their own behavior?
Knowing their technology-based actions will inter-
cede in the course of human affairs, how should they
direct them? The crucial point occurs when a moral
agent—one that by definition has choices—decides
to change the state of information or information
technology in a human system. Changes in hardware,
software, information content, information flow,
knowledge-based jobs, and the rules and regulations
affecting information are among the many things
agents do that affect others. I call these crucial junc-
ture points moments-of-truth. If those of us who make
decisions in any of these areas are to behave ethically,
we must be able to identify the significant moments-
of-truth in which we participate and be able to reflect
on the effects of our actions. We must use our moral
imagination to guide our choices so that we can con-
tribute positively toward making the kind of ethical
world in which we want to live and want to bequeath
to our future generations.
How can we do this? The ACM Code of Ethics [1],
as well as the schemes and other articles in this spe-
cial section provide initial grist for the mill. More fun-
damental, however, is our conscience, aided by our
understanding and expertise in information technol-
ogy. If we have an inkling our behavior as informa-
tion professionals might in some way harm others, we
probably should examine our decisions a little more
carefully and from an ethical point-of-view.
Getting the Morally Relevant Facts
The facts of an ethical situation can be summarized
by four factors. The first factor is to clearly identify
the moral agent. Whose actions will bring about the
technology-induced change? The frameworks and
discussions presented here will be helpful because
they point to a variety of possible forms of agency.
The next factor is the set of alternative courses-of-
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM December 1995/Vol. 38, No. 12 55
Ethics to Information Technology Issues
Richard O. Mason
action available to the agent. These are the real-
world acts that will have an effect on the human sys-
tem under consideration. Acts have consequences,
hence the third factor: a delineation of the results
that are expected to occur if each act is taken. Finally,
it is essential to identify the stakeholders who will be
affected by the consequences of the acts. A stake-
holder is any individual, group, organization, or
institution that can affect as well as be affected by an
agent’s actions. In a word, stakeholders have an
interest in what an agent does [3]. These four fac-
tors—agent, acts, results and stakeholders—are the
basic facts from which an ethical analysis proceeds.
Applying Ethical Theories
Renowned medical ethicist William F. May refers to
the method of ethical reflection as corrective vision.
“Ethics supplies a type of corrective lens,” he
observes, “and relies heavily on the distinction
between what is and what ought to be” [4]. These
four crucial factors serve to establish what is. For
what ought to be we must turn to ethical theories.
These theories are the prisms—the optometrist's col-
lection of lenses—through which we can observe
reality and see the choices to make as we attempt to
direct reality towards our ethical ideals.
There are many, perhaps an infinity, of theories we
might apply. The optics of ethics is very large indeed.
We can be comforted in this effort, however, by the
realization that the evolution of ethical thinking has
resulted in four major themes. These are meta-lenses
through which to look at an ethical situation.
One theory emphasizes an agent’s duty. This theory
seeks to create a good society by having people do
the right things. As Immanuel Kant emphasized,
there are prohibitions against taking some acts and
obligations to take others. We have a prima facie or a
priori duty, for example, to respect the autonomy of
others according to one principle evolving out of this
theory; any acts an agent might take that would
invade a stakeholder’s privacy or right to choose for
themselves should be avoided. More specifically, it is
reasonable to assume members have a prima facie
duty to adhere to the provisions of the ACM Code of
Ethics. But, and this is a significant point, we may not
always be obliged to do so. Subsequent theorists in
this deontological vain, W. D. Ross in particular [5],
have held that while these duties are compelling they
are not definitive. When two or more duties come
into conflict the agent must make a reasoned choice.
For example, the advantages obtained from using
email may be deemed to be more important than
the exposure to loss of privacy it brings about. These
moral losses, however, should be made explicit in
making a moral choice. The same principle applies,
as we will see, among theories themselves.
The second great tradition is the pursuit of hap-
piness. Applying this theory requires that we assess
the consequences of the agent’s actions and deter-
mine how much pleasure or pain, good or bad, hap-
piness or unhappiness, benefits or costs they inflict
on stakeholders. The guiding principle, which origi-
nates with Bentham and Mill, is that an agent
should choose an act resulting in the greatest good
for the greatest number. The good society is
reached according to this theory by doing good for
others. However, since what is good for the collec-
tive-at-large may not be good for a given individual
(or may violate a basic duty or right), advice emanat-
ing from this consequentialist tradition may conflict
with advice deriving from other theories.
A third great tradition is the pursuit of virtue. This
theory focuses on improving the character or traits of
the agent. The ancient Greeks averred that a moral
person should take acts that enable and enhance the
agent’s courage, prudence, temperance and justice.
Their predecessors focused on accumulating individ-
ual power. “Might is right” formed the basis of their
concept of virtue. One of their successors, St. Thomas
Acquinas, drew on the Pauline tradition to add the
more spiritual virtues of faith, hope and charity to the
list. And, in the industrial age, industry, honesty, and
trustworthiness were added because they were neces-
sary for commercial relationships. All of these virtue-
oriented guides have the effect of creating a good
society by having each agent be a good person.
Finally, there is the tradition of the pursuit of jus-
tice. Justice requires that every stakeholder in the sys-
tem should enjoy, so far as possible, an equal
opportunity to develop his or her knowledge, skills
and talents, and to reach his or her potentialities. This
comes from fair dealing and right action and is usually
based on rules that society has made, rules that should
be the same for all and applied equally. The rules are
based on criteria such as merit, need, work or other
agreed-upon standards. The social contract theories to
which several of the authors refer have emerged as a
part of this tradition. The good society according to
theories of justice is achieved by doing fairly, both in
the fair allocation of privileges, duties, and goods, and
in the meting out of punishments.
When facing a moment-of-truth, one is well advised
to view the situation through each of these ethical
lenses. Each provides insight into the moral complexity
of the issue being examined. Frequently, however, the
guidance deriving from one of these theories will con-
flict with that of one or more of the others. This
requires a moral judgment, one that shows how one
theory or principle trumps another. The reasons
behind the choice made should be grounded in at
least one moral theory and justified accordingly.
The pitting of facts against theories is a necessary
—and the most important—aspect of deciding on
an ethical issue. There are also four additional con-
siderations to take into account: Who should
decide? Who should benefit? How should the deci-
sion be made? And, how can the issue be prevented
from arising in the future?
56 December 1995/Vol. 38, No. 12 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
Who Should Decide?
Presumably if you are facing a moment-of-truth you
are also engaged in a decision process. Should you
go it alone? Often, not. Before an agent acts he or
she should take into account the answers to two
questions: 1) Which other stakeholders ought to par-
ticipate in the making of this decision because of
their knowledge, their values, or their interests? The
voices of future generations should always be consid-
ered in this determination as well as the voices of
contemporaries. 2) Which other stakeholders must
take part in the decision and its implementation
because of their institutional jobs, responsibilities or
the resources they control? As debates on the basis of
a “just war” have concluded, a decision that does not
carry legitimacy or a reasonable probability of success
is unlikely to lead to a satisfactorily moral outcome.
Who Should Benefit from the Decision?
Many stakeholders may be affected by a decision.
Some of these outcomes should have been consid-
ered during the application of ethical theories to
the situation at hand. Nevertheless, before enacting
a choice one should assure himself or herself the
benefits of the decision flow to morally justifiable
parties and that no undue harm is done.
How Should the Decision be Made and
Carried Out?
From a stakeholder’s point-of-view a decision cannot
be separated from the way it is made and delivered.
Whenever possible, important moral decisions
should be made as the result of due process. Beyond
any legal requirements, the processes by which deci-
sions are made should be fair and they should follow
established procedures when applicable. It is essen-
tial the parties who are potentially harmed by deci-
sions, as well as those who are benefited, recognize
the legitimacy of the decision-making process. This,
however, is not enough. Decisions should be carried
out in a humane, moral way. During the trumping
process just described, some ethical principles or dic-
tates are relegated to a secondary position. But they
do not go away. A decision should be framed and ful-
filled in a manner which maximizes the accomplish-
ment of all of the ethical principles identified. All
decisions should be carried out with due respect, in
the sense that they should preserve the dignity of all
stakeholders involved to the extent possible.
How Can the Issue be Prevented from Arising in
the Future?
Every decision becomes a precedent in the future. A
decision that resolves an acute and pressing moral
issue today may not look so good in light of the pas-
sage of time. It may create worse problems than the
ones it solves. Or, our moral reflection may reveal
flaws in our institutions that can be—perhaps,
should be—changed so the ethical issue at hand
does not emerge again, at least in the same degree
of intensity or severity. Thus, procedures and
processes should be put in place, eliminating the
root causes of this issue or handling it more effec-
tively in the future. The essential question: In mak-
ing this ethical decision, what sort of social
transcript do we want to write?
The last four considerations have a common
thread: To be ethical, a decision-maker must think
beyond just the facts and theories pertinent to the
current issue.One must reach beyond the present
and be sure to bring in additional voices, insure that
ethical procedures are employed, adopt a humane
style of conduct, and look to the future.
Moving Ahead
The articles in this issue form a rather gritty as well as
a cerebral basis for getting on with the task of creating
a good society in our information age. The ethics of
being online, using tools such as email, and infusing
of information technology into our lives in areas rang-
ing from business process reengineering to installing
large-scale systems are, arguably, among the most
important ethical issues of our time. As good citizens
in this information age we must be able to identify the
crucial moments-of-truth in which our behavior as
information professionals shapes the direction our
society will take. By understanding the facts of each
case, drawing on ethical traditions for guidance, and
doing this with a concern for the broader implications
of our actions, we can create the kind of ethical society
we want. This is the challenge of our times [2].
References
1. Anderson, R.E., Johnson, D. G., Gotterbarn, D. and Perrolle,
J. Using the new ACM code of ethics in decision-making. Com-
mun. ACM 36, 2 (Feb. 1993), pp 98–107
2. Mason, R.O., Mason, F.M., and Culnan, M. J. Ethics of Informa-
tion Management. Sage, Thousand Oaks, Calif., 1995.
3. Mason, R.O. and Mitroff, I. Challenging Strategic Planning
Assumptions. Wiley, New York, 1981.
4. May, W.F. The Physician’s Covenant. Westminster Press,
Philadelphia, 1983.
5. Ross, W.D. Moral Duties. Macmillan, London, 1969.
Richard O. Mason is Carr P. Collins Professor of Management Informa-
tion Sciences at the Edwin L. Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist
University, Dallas, Tex.
Parts of this article are based on material originally developed for Mason,
R., Mason, F., and Culnan, M. Ethics of Information Management. Sage, Thou-
sand Oaks, Calif., 1995.
Permission to make digital/hard copy of part or all of this work for person-
al or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not
made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage, the copyright
notice, the title of the publication and its date appear, and notice is given
that copying is by permission of ACM, Inc. To copy otherwise, to republish,
to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists requires prior specific permis-
sion and/or a fee.
© ACM 0002-0782/95/1200 $3.50
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COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM December 1995/Vol. 38, No. 12 57
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Book
In a world that is awash in ubiquitous technology, even the least tech-savvy know that we must take care how that technology affects individuals and society. That governments and organizations around the world now focus on these issues, that universities and research institutes in many different languages dedicate significant resources to study the issues, and that international professional organizations have adopted standards and directed resources toward ethical issues in technology is in no small part the result of the work of Simon Rogerson. – Chuck Huff, Professor of Social Psychology at Saint Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota In 1995, Apple launched its first WWW server, Quick Time On-line. It was the year Microsoft released Internet Explorer and sold 7 million copies of Windows 95 in just 2 months. In March 1995, the author Simon Rogerson opened the first ETHICOMP conference with these words: We live in a turbulent society where there is social, political, economic and technological turbulence … it is causing a vast amount of restructuring within all these organisations which impacts on individuals, which impacts on the way departments are set up, organisational hierarchies, job content, span of control, social interaction and so on and so forth. … Information is very much the fuel of modern technological change. Almost anything now can be represented by the technology and transported to somewhere else. It's a situation where the more information a computer can process, the more of the world it can actually turn into information. That may well be very exciting, but it is also very concerning. That could be describing today. More than 25 years later, these issues are still at the forefront of how ethical digital technology can be developed and utilised. This book is an anthology of the author’s work over the past of 25 years of pioneering research in digital ethics. It is structured into five themes: Journey, Process, Product, Future and Education. Each theme commences with an introductory explanation of the papers, their relevance and their interrelationship. The anthology finishes with a concluding chapter which summarises the key messages and suggests what might happen in the future. Included in this chapter are insights from some younger leading academics who are part of the community charged with ensuring that ethical digital technology is realised. [see https://www.routledge.com/The-Evolving-Landscape-of-Ethical-Digital-Technology/Rogerson/p/book/9781032017211]
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