Monday, April 11, 2011

Computers and Ethics

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Ethics are the rules and standards that govern the conduct of a person or the members of a profession. The importance of ethics stretches far beyond everyday life issues and into the world of business and the field of computers. Because computers can change the relationships among people, there is a need to incorporate ethics into the profession of computers. Computer technology has the ability to affect the privacy of an individual, effect jobs and the marketplace, and to infringe on an individual’s personal freedoms, therefore should include ethics in all aspects.

There are many different ethical principles brought forth by many different authors in all of history. The following are the five ethical principles that are the most relevant to the field of computers. Ethical egoism is the view that one should attempt to maximize one’s own happiness. Underneath ethical egoism are two sub types universal ethical egoism and individual ethical egoism. Universal ethical egoism is the ethical position that humans ought to act in their own best interest. Similarly, the individual ethical egoism states that the individual ought to act always to promote her best interest. Both of these two types of egoism are to be carried out regardless of other considerations. This is the founding idea of the egoism. Another ethical principle is the pleasure and pain-based theory. This states that a person’s life goal should be to maximize their long-term pleasures and to minimize their long-term pains. The author of this ethical principle is Epicurus. Epicurus thought that the best way to accomplish this was to live a low-key, thoughtful, prudent life. Classical Utilitarianism is the modern version of the pleasure and pain principle. Jeremy Bentham’s theory states that it is best to try to resolve ethical problems by doing what brought the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people. This theory involves quantitatively calculating the pleasures and pains and the amount of people that would affected in each way. Then one must add together mathematically all of the negatives and positives to find out what is the best course of action for the situation. When doing such calculations, you must take into account the intensity, how likely the pleasures and pains are to happen, the duration of the pleasure or pain, the “purity”, how likely it is that the action will lead to future pleasure and how fast the action will bring the pleasure or pain to people. From the classical utilitarianism came an updated approach called act utilitarianism. The key different between the classical and the act view is that if one chooses an act that will bring the greatest amount of pleasure to the greatest amount of people, they are an act utilitarian. Classical utilitarianism is the theory behind utilitarianism. The cost-benefit analysis principle is another approach that has been formed out of the theory of classical utilitarianism. “The cost-benefit analyst regards as true the judgment that we should maximize efficiency or wealth”. The idea of this principle is that the person who puts worth the most pain or money will in return gain the most. People’s emotions and thoughts should not be the deciding factor in ethical issues but the economics of the issue should be. The last principle is one of the many of Immanuel Kant. He states that ethical/moral issues should be decided by the good will because the will is not good by what accompanies it but by its intrinsic worth. Moral issues and actions cannot be good unless the intention of it is completely good without any qualifications. One cannot tell if an action of another is good because although it may look to be a moral action on the surface, there may be an underlying reason for the action that is not good and therefore would result in the action itself not being good or ethical.

When approaching any ethical problem or situation, a four step model should be employed. This model does not have to be the same for all people as people have different thoughts and ideas and will approach different problems from different angles but the basic outline of this four step ethical analysis model should be used. The first step of the model is to make sure you know all of the relevant facts that pertain to the problem at hand. All of the facts must be understood in great detail in order for the ethical analysis to continue in the right direction. If one does not have all of the facts, the ultimate goal of the problem or situation may end up to be something different than its original intention. This is the most important step and requires the most investigation. It is virtually impossible to get from point A to point B if you are unsure of where exactly point B is the second step is to make sure that you keep the fundamental ethical principles you have discovered clearly in your mind. Before you try to analyze an ethical problem or situation, you must first examine many ethical principles in order that you hold some of the thoughts and ideas as your own. Once this has taken place, you are ready to analyze the problem or situation. You must, while analyzing ethical issues remain with your thoughts and ideas of what is ethically right. Allowing other people’s opinions or your personal feelings on the issue to corrupt your thoughts and ideas of what is ethically right can be disastrous. These thoughts and ideas that you hold to be ethically right and good were acquired under no pressure of a situation and the pressure of an ethical situation can not be allowed to change your thoughts. The next step in the four step model is to identify which disputes in the case are concerned with means and which are over basic goods. You want to decide which of the disputes in the case want to do something to merely “get the job done” and which disputes want to do something to “get the job done ethically right and good”. This terminology is not specific to all case but will serve as a good guide when dealing with ethical issues. Disputes that want to do good are ethical actions while the disputes that want to do something because it has to get done are unethical. The latter should be avoided. The last step of the four step model is to discover or estimate the impact of certain actions or proposals on the maximization of good and the minimization of evil. This process is merely an educated guess or estimation but should be done with careful analysis. Although some situation may be nearly impossible to do this with, this step must not be excluded for it may catch some aspects of the actions or proposal that will turn out not to be as good or unethical as originally thought. This model should also include a fifth step, the evaluation step. In this new fifth and final step, one should evaluate the actions or proposals after they have been implemented and document the actual results. Documenting the results is an important learning tool and can be used as future reference when a similar situations arises. Not only can it be used as a guide in the future, it can be used to save time when a similar situation does arise. The following is a hypothetical situation that will be discussed in order to explain how to use the five step ethical analysis model in a real-life computer situation. Company A is in the business of upgrading old computers for people. A customer comes into the shop and asks for 10 GB hard drive to be installed into her computer and asks for it to be done by the following morning at am. Although company A usually does not agree to have the upgrade done the following day, this is a simple job so the salesman agrees he can do it. As the day wears on the salespeople are busy and don’t end up getting to the ladies computer that night. The following day the salesman that talked to lady about her computer realizes that it was not completed the day before and now only has 20 minutes to do it. He decides to take a short cut and use a used a hard drive from the shop and not erase the programs that are already on the hard drive. Because of licensing laws, is it ethical to not erase the old programs for the used hard drive? The first step is to get a list of all of the programs on the hard drive and their licensing agreements. Next, you must evaluate the agreements and if this is ethical according to the fundamental ethical principles that you hold. Thirdly, you must identify which dispute in the case is concerned with means (erasing the hard drive) and which dispute is concerned over the basic goods (just getting the job done by am). When you have distinguished between the two, you must estimate the impact of either leaving the programs on the hard drive illegally or working past am to erase the programs. Long term, it would ethically right to erase the programs even though you will go past the am deadline. After the installation of the computer is complete, you must evaluate your actions to see if you did the ethical thing. The result of this evaluation must be documented in order to use it for future reference. This simple situation shows how the now five steps of the model should be implemented into ethical decision in life and specifically in the field of computers.

One can use any approach to ethical issues they may encounter but it important to have an approach that you have studied and looked at carefully before trying to apply it to ethical situations and problems. When a comfortable approach has been reached, it should be used to analyze all ethical problems that one encounters. Throughout the use of the approach, one must continually examine it in order that it reflects the thoughts, feelings and knowledge that one has.

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Morality and Machines, Stacey L. Edgar


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