Ethical Lemmas


Warning: this blog includes actual codes of ethics.  Reading codes of ethics may result in drowsiness.  Do not read this blog while driving or operating heavy machinery.

Last week’s psygrammer post, Sharing Benefits Increases Cheating, was a glimpse on how people make (un-)ethical judgements and creating a working environment that fosters ethical behavior.  As I reflected on that post I realized that ethics was rarely an explicit part of my working environment: no employer had a code of ethics (that I knew about) and it was rarely a direct topic of conversation in the workplace.  Sure, I faced many ethical dilemmas and I feel that I have sought to act ethically throughout my career.  But what are the ethical principles that I am supposed to uphold?  Will it make it easier to recognize ethical dilemmas and make ethical choices if I know the individual “ethical lemmas“?

Company Values are not really Ethics

Many organizations have statements of “Company Values”.  Are they about ethics?  My conclusions is that largely they are more about performance than ethics.  At best company values might include a few ethics-lite items.

For example, the values state that “We encourage open and honest communication” or put without the corporateese, “We don’t bullshit”.  While encouraging, it’s hardly a constraint on a wide range of unethical behaviors: respecting confidentiality, declaring conflicts of interest, considering consequences of your decisions and so on.

More though, I find company values are about performance; e.g. “We deliver value for our customers”, “We grow our business profitably”, “We strive continually to improve”.  Here are some samples: IBMMacDonaldsAtlassian.

While I personally think that statements of company values can play a positive role in aligning the diverse staff of a business, they can hardly be called codes of ethics.

So, if I exclude company value statements, then I cannot recall a time in my 25+ year career when I have been asked by my employer to abide by a code of ethics or even read a code of ethics.

Professional Ethics

Are the codes of ethics of professional associations better?  My conclusion is that they are better, though variable in quality.  However, my experience in the technology sector is that the codes are disassociated from our professional lives and I wonder how much impact they are having.

I am a member of the IEEE , the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and each year as I renew membership  I click on an “I agree to the IEEE code of ethics” … but that’s about it.  (The IEEE code is included at the end of this post.)  However, as I read it today with a critical mindset it seems to me quite a narrow view on ethics given the breadth of ethical considerations we face professionally.  For example, the IEEE code is not explicit about honesty in communication or the self-interested behaviors that were at the core of last week’s experiments on cheating.  (Point 3 in the code seems closest but to me it reads only as an injunction for scientific/engineering integrity.)

So I visited the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) which is another major professional organization in the computing field.  It expects all members to commit to ethical behavior as defined in its code of ethics (summarized below, follow the link for the full text which has good detail).

The ACM code requires members to be “honest and trustworthy” as one of its 8 general moral imperatives.  This imperative identifies last week’s study behaviors as unethical.

Overall, my impression is that the ACM code is a more powerful code for two reasons: it is more encompassing and more thoroughly explained.  (However, it does seem that a list of 24 items might – incorrectly  - be perceived as too long for modern times.  I hear demands such as “Can’t you reduce it to 6 core bullets of 5 words or less that will fit on a powerpoint slide?”  Am I too cynical?)

A bit of googling shows that doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants and many other professions each have their codes of ethics.  I don’t have the experience to say whether they are more integrated into daily life than in the technology sector – I simply hope they are.

Why Ethics?

So, is there a problem?  In conversations I’ve had about ethics in preparing this article I’ve found that ethics are largely perceived to be “somebody else’s problem” with references to Enron and other spectacular failures attributed to ethics.  Yet, when asked most people easily recall significant unethical behavior in their work, often with direct negative impact on them or those close to them.  In the technology sector, the news is rife with stories of unethical behavior: privacy invasions, black hacking, software development without proper consideration of negative impacts on users and more.

Despite the negative stories I’m an optimist: I believe that most people try to act ethically.  The challenges are that unethical actions of a minority can have disproportionate impact and even well-intentioned actions have unintended consequences, particular, as new technologies are introduced.

In the short term behaving ethically might slow down some companies (or even undermine the business models of the less scrupulous). But at a broader level and in the longer term I think there’s a case that encouraging ethical behavior fosters trust, fosters collaboration and brings greater rewards to society.

The Ethics Resource Center describes empathy, in the context of ethics, as caring about the consequences of one’s choices as they affect others; being concerned with the effect one’s decisions have on those who have no say in the decision itself.  In a world that at times seems increasingly focussed on the self, ethics is about considering the impact of our choices and actions on others.

The Center encourages ethical decision making: considering the impact that an action or decision will have on others or my relationship with them.  It cautions patience in decision making: taking time to deliberate the long term consequences of a choice before making that choice and acting upon it.  It recognizes that ethical dilemmas arise that require considered judgement calls trading off competing consequences.

A glossary is not usually good reading but I actually found both the Center’s Ethics Glossary and Definitions of Values enlightening and worth a visit.  They also have a good guide on Why Have a Code of Conduct that could be useful if you want to advocate for ethics.

An Unease

As I finish drafting this article I feel an unease that it’s best to declare.  I have a sense that the emphasis on ethical behavior may have diminished in my lifetime and that the software and technology communities could benefit from a more prominent place for ethics.  However, I don’t feel I can yet put a compelling case for these ideas or can offer a way to make ethics more relevant.

Rather than defer or delete the post I’m putting it out in rough form with the hope that I can clarify my thinking and visit the topic when ready.

So I finish by including the Codes of Ethics of the IEEE and ACM (in summary) that I discussed above.  Each point may seem obvious but abiding by them demands consideration and may even be aspirational.

Cheers,
Andrew Hunt – Psygrammer


IEEE Code of Ethics

The IEEE describes itself as the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. It is a requirement that members abide by the following code of ethics reprinted from the IEEE Governing Documents. [Declaration: I am a member]

We, the members of the IEEE, in recognition of the importance of our technologies in affecting the quality of life throughout the world, and in accepting a personal obligation to our profession, its members and the communities we serve, do hereby commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct and agree:

  1.  to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment;
  2. to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible, and to disclose them to affected parties when they do exist;
  3. to be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data;
  4. to reject bribery in all its forms;
  5. to improve the understanding of technology; its appropriate application, and potential consequences;
  6. to maintain and improve our technical competence and to undertake technological tasks for others only if qualified by training or experience, or after full disclosure of pertinent limitations;
  7. to seek, accept, and offer honest criticism of technical work, to acknowledge and correct errors, and to credit properly the contributions of others;
  8. to treat fairly all persons regardless of such factors as race, religion, gender, disability, age, or national origin;
  9. to avoid injuring others, their property, reputation, or employment by false or malicious action;
  10. to assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics.

ACM Code of Ethics

The ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) describes itself the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, delivers resources that advance computing as a science and a profession.  It expects all members to commit to ethical behavior.

The ACM Code of Ethics contains 24 imperatives. The code is extensive and the following is an extract of only the title of each imperative.  The code itself explains each point effectively.

Section 1: General Moral Imperatives

  • Contribute to society and human well-being.
  • Avoid harm to others.
  • Be honest and trustworthy.
  • Be fair and take action not to discriminate.
  • Honor property rights including copyrights and patents.
  • Give proper credit for intellectual property.
  • Respect the privacy of others.
  • Honor confidentiality.

Section 2: More Specific Professional Responsibilities

  • Strive to achieve the highest quality, effectiveness and dignity in both the process and products of professional work.
  • Acquire and maintain professional competence.
  • Know and respect existing laws pertaining to professional work.
  • Accept and provide appropriate professional review.
  • Give comprehensive and thorough evaluations of computer systems and their impacts, including analysis of possible risks.
  • Honor contracts, agreements, and assigned responsibilities.
  • Improve public understanding of computing and its consequences.
  • Access computing and communication resources only when authorized to do so.

Section 3: Organizational Leadership Imperatives.

  • Articulate social responsibilities of members of an organizational unit and encourage full acceptance of those responsibilities.
  • Manage personnel and resources to design and build information systems that enhance the quality of working life.
  • Acknowledge and support proper and authorized uses of an organization’s computing and communication resources.
  • Ensure that users and those who will be affected by a system have their needs clearly articulated during the assessment and design of requirements; later the system must be validated to meet requirements.
  • Articulate and support policies that protect the dignity of users and others affected by a computing system.
  • Create opportunities for members of the organization to learn the principles and limitations of computer systems.

Section 4: Compliance with the Code.

  • Uphold and promote the principles of this Code.
  • Treat violations of this code as inconsistent with membership in the ACM.
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