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Title: Professional Ethics

Professional Ethics
  • In Chapter 1 we described "professional ethics"
    as one of the three main perspectives through
    which computer ethics issues can be identified
    and analyzed.
  • When applied to computing, professional ethics is
    a field of applied ethics concerned with moral
    issues that impact computer professionals.

Why a Separate Category of Professional Ethics?
  • The same ethical rules involving honesty,
    fairness, and so forth should apply to
    professionals as well as to ordinary individuals.
  • So, if it is wrong for ordinary people to steal,
    cheat, lie, and so forth, then it is wrong for
    professionals to do so as well.
  • Thus, one might conclude that a separate field of
    study called "professional ethics" is not really

Separate Category of Professional Ethics
  • Ethicists argue that some moral issues affect-
    ing professionals are sufficiently distinct and
    specialized to warrant a separate field of study.
  • Some also argue that professionals can have
    special moral obligations that exceed those of
    ordinary individuals.
  • To grasp the arguments for this view, it is
    useful first to understand what is meant by the
    terms profession and professional.

What Exactly is a Profession?
  • A profession can be understood in terms of the
    attributes and requirements of a professional
    practice, such as "calling in which special
    knowledge and skill are used in...the service of
    mankind." (Firmage, 1991)
  • Greenwood (1991) believes that professions are
    occupational fields distinguishable in terms of
    five characteristics (i) systematic theory,
    (ii) authority, (iii) community sanction, (iv)
    ethical codes, and (v) a culture.

Who is a Professional?
  • Professionals who comprise a given profession
    also tend to have certain defining attributes and
  • Medical doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. find
    themselves in situations in which their decisions
    and actions can have significant social effects,
    and have roles and responsibili- ties that exceed
    those of ordinary individuals.
  • Sometimes these roles and responsibilities
    differentiate professionals from others.

Who is a Computer Professional?
  • A computer professional might be interpreted to
    mean anyone who is employed in the computer,
    information-technology, or information/communicati
    ons fields.
  • Or a computer professional might be thought of in
    more narrow terms, in which case only software
    engineers would be included.
  • There are various gradients in between the two
    ends of this spectrum.

Definition of a Computer Professional (Continued)
  • A computer professional could be defined in such
    a way that, in addition to software engineers,
    software quality analysts, software technical
    writers, and software managers and supervisors.
  • A software engineering team includes those who
    contribute by direct participation to the
    analysis, specification, design, development,
    certification, maintenance, and testing of
    software systems.

Do Computer Professionals Have Special
  • Gotterbarn (1999) believes that because software
    engineers and their teams are have significant
    opportunities to
  • (i) do good or cause harm
  • (ii) enable others to do good or cause harm
  • (iii) influence others to do good or cause harm.

Critical-Safety Software
  • Gotterbarn suggests that the roles and
    responsibilities involved in the development of
    safety-critical systems is a differentiating
  • A "safety-critical system" is often used to refer
    to computer systems that can have a direct
    life-threatening impact.

Safety-Critical Software (Continued)
  • Examples of safety-critical software systems and
    applications typically include
  •  aircraft and air traffic control systems
  • mass transportation systems
  • nuclear reactors missile systems
  • medical treatment systems.

Additional Safety-Critical Systems
  • Bowyer (2002) extends the range of
    safety-critical applications to include software
    used in the
  • design of bridges and buildings
  • election of water disposal sites
  • development of analytical models for medical

Professional Codes of Ethics
  • Many professions have established professional
    societies, which in turn have adopted codes of
  • The medical profession established the AMA
    (American Medical Association),
  • The legal profession established the ABA
    (American Bar Association).
  • Both associations have formal codes of
    ethics/conduct for their members.

Professional Codes for Computer Societies
  • The computing profession has also has
    professional societies.
  • The two largest are
  • The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  • The Institute for Electrical and Electronics
    Engineers Computer Society (IEEE-CS).
  • Both organizations have adopted professional
    codes of ethics.

Purpose of Professional Codes
  • Professional codes of ethics are often designed
    to motivate members of an association to behave
    in certain ways.
  • Four primary functions of codes are to
  • inspire
  • guide
  • educate
  • discipline the members.

Criticisms of Ethical Codes
  • Ladd (1995) argues that ethical codes rest on a
    series of confusions that are both "intellectual
    and moral."
  • His argument has three main points.
  • First, ethics is basically an "open-ended,
    reflective, and critical intellectual activity."
  • Second, codes introduce confusions with respect
    to micro-ethics vs. macro-ethics.
  • Third, giving codes a disciplinary function makes
    them more like legal than ethical rules.

In Defense of Professional Codes
  • Gotterbarn argues that we need to distinguish
  • codes of ethics
  • codes of conduct
  • codes of practice.

In Defense of Professional Codes (Continued)
  • Codes of ethics as "aspirational," because they
    often serve as mission statements for the
    profession and thus can provide vision and
  • Codes of conduct are oriented more toward the
    professional and the professional's attitude and
  • Codes of practice relate to operational
    activities within a profession.

Table 4-1 Some Strengths and Weaknesses of
Professional Codes
Codes inspire the members of a profession to behave ethically. Directives included in many codes tend to be too general and too vague.
Codes guide the members of a profession in ethical choices. Codes are not always helpful when two or more directives conflict.
Codes educate the members of a profession about their professional obligations. A professional codes directives are never complete or exhaustive.
Codes discipline members when they violate one or more of the codes directives. Codes are ineffective (have no teeth) in disciplinary matters.
Codes sensitize members of a profession to ethical issues and alert them to ethical aspects they otherwise might overlook. Codes do not help us distinguish between micro-ethics issues and macro-ethics issues.
Codes inform the public about the nature and roles of the profession. Directives in codes are sometimes inconsistent with one another.
Codes enhance the profession in the eyes of the public. Codes can be self-serving for the profession.
Conflicts of Professional Responsibility
Employee Loyalty and Whistle-blowing
  • What exactly is employee loyalty?
  • Do employees and employers have a special
    obligation of loyalty to each other?
  • Should loyalty to ones employer ever preclude an
    employees "blowing the whistle" in critical
  • In which cases can whistle-blowing be justified?

Do Employees Have a Special Obligation to
  • Some believe we have a prima facie obligation of
    loyalty in employment contexts.
  • In other words, all things being equal, an
    employee should be loyal to his or her employer
    and visa versa.

Does employee loyalty still make sense in the
context of a large computer corporation?
  • Duska (1991) argues that in employment contexts,
    loyalty only arises in special relationships
    based on a notion that he calls "mutual
  • So in relationships in which parties are pursuing
    their self-interests, the notion of loyalty would
    not be applicable.

Duskas Argument (continued)
  • Duska believes that employer-employee
    relationships at least where corporations are
    concerned are based on self-interest and not on
    mutual enrichment.
  • He concludes that employees should not
    necessarily feel any sense of obligation of
    loyalty to corporate employers.
  • Corporations like employees to believe that they
    have an obligation of loyalty to their employers
    because believing that serves the corporations

Ladds Criticism of Employee Loyalty
  • Ladd also believes that in the context of corp-
    orations, loyalty can only be in one direction.
  • He argues that a corporation cannot be loyal to
    an employee in the same sense that employees are
    supposed to be loyal to it.
  • A corporation's goals are competitively linked to
    the benefits employees bring to the corp.
  • A corporation can be good to employees only
    because it is good for business, i.e., it is in
    the company's own self interest.

Ladds and Duskas Criticisms (Continued)
  • Both Duska and Ladd cite corporate self-interest
    as an obstacle for a balanced employer-employee
    relationship that is required for mutual loyalty.
  • Consider that corporations often go through
    downsizing phases in which loyal employees who
    have served a company faithfully for several
    years are dismissed as part of restructuring

Sometimes Employers Have Been Loyal
  • Consider a case in which an employer continues to
    keep an employee on the payroll even though that
    employee has a chronic illness, which causes her
    to miss several months of work.
  • Also consider a case in which several employees
    are kept on by a company despite the fact that
    their medical conditions have caused the
    corporation's health insurance costs to increase
    significantly, thereby reducing the company's
    overall earnings.

Employer Loyalty (continued)
  • Consider a recent case involving the owner of
    Malden Mills, whose physical plant in
    Massachusetts was destroyed by fire.
  • The mill's proprietor, Aaron Feurestein, could
    have chosen to rebuild his facility in a
    different state or country where employees would
    work for lower wages.
  • Instead, Feurestein continued to pay and provide
    benefits for his employees while a new facility
    was being built in Mass.

Do Computer Professionals Have Special
obligations of Loyalty to Their Employers?
  • They have to balance their obligation of loyalty
    owed to an employer against other obligations of
    loyalty they also may have?
  • Loyalty is not something that an employee must
    give exclusively or blindly to ones employer.
  • Loyalty should also be seen as an obligation that
    individuals have to society as a whole,
    especially where safety and health issues are at

Divided Loyalties
  • Divided loyalties can result in serious conflicts
    for employees.
  • In certain cases, the moral dilemmas they
    generate are so profound that an employee must
    determine whether to "blow the whistle."

  • Bowie (1982) defines whistle-blowing as "the act
    of an employee informing the public on the
    immoral or illegal behavior of an employee or
  • Bok (1997) defines whistle blowing as an act in
    which one "makes revelations meant to call
    attention to negligence, abuses, or dangers that
    threaten the public interest."

Whistle-blowing (continued)
  • Whistle-blowing situations can arise in cases of
    overt wrongdoing (i.e., involving specific acts
    that are either illegal or immoral).
  • They can also arise in instances of negligence
    where one or more individuals have failed to act.

When Should an Employee Blow the Whistle?
  • Colleen Rowley, an FBI employee, came forth to
    describe the way in which critical messages had
    failed to be sent up the Federal Bureau's chain
    of command in the days immediately preceding the
    tragic events of September 11, 2001.
  • Was it appropriate for this individual to blow
    the whistle on her supervisor?
  • Was she also possibly being disloyal to her
    supervisor and fellow employees in doing so?

When Should an Employee Blow the Whistle
  • Should individuals in positions of authority in
    corporations such as Enron and WorldCom have
    blown the corporate whistle about the illegal
    accounting practices in those firms?
  • One could argue that failing to blow the whistle
    in the Enron case resulted in thousands of
    individuals losing their retirement savings, and
    in some cases their entire life savings.

Cases Where Whistle-blowing Could Have Saved Lives
  • Three cases
  • Challenger Space Shuttle (O-rings)
  • Ford Pinto (faulty gas tank)
  • BART case (controversial).

Controversial Political Issues in Whistle-blowing
  • SDI (Star Wars) Case
  • Parnas blew the whistle on Star Wars because of
    three factors
  • 1. The specifications for the software could not
    be known with any confidence.
  • 2. The software could not undergo realistic
  • 3. There would not be sufficient time during an
    attack to repair and reinstall failing software
    (no "real-time" debugging).

Criteria for Blowing the Whis- tle in an
Engineering Context
  • De George (1981) offers some specific conditions
    for when an engineer is
  • (a) permitted to blow the whistle
  • (b) obligated to do so.

When an Engineer is Permitted to Blow the Whistle
  • 1) The harm that will be done by the product to
    the public is serious and considerable.
  • 2) The engineers (or employees) have made their
    concerns known to their superiors.
  • 3) The engineers (or employees) have received no
    satisfaction from their immediate supervisors and
    they have exhausted the channels available within
    the corporation, including going to the board of

When an Engineer is Required to Blow the Whistle
  • De George claims that two additional criteria are
    needed for requiring an engineer to blow the
  • 4) The engineer has documented evidence that
    would convince a reasonable, impartial observer
    that his/her view of the situation is correct and
    the company policy wrong.
  • 5) There is strong evidence that making the
    information public will in fact prevent the
    threatened serious harm.

Evaluating De Georges Criteria
  • James (1991) believes that De George's conditions
    are too lenient.
  • An individual has a moral obligation to blow the
    whistle when the first three conditions are met,
    as well.
  • We have a prima facie obligation to "disclose
    organizational wrongdoing" that we are unable to
    prevent, which could also occur when De George's
    first three conditions are satisfied.

James Critique of De Georges Criteria
  • For James, the degree of the obligation depends
    on the extent to which we are capable of
    foreseeing the severity and the consequences of
    the wrongdoing.
  • He worries that De George's model leaves us with
    no guidance when we are confronted with cases
    involving sexual harassment, violations of
    privacy, industrial espionage, and so forth.
  • Also there is a problem with the word harm.

Alperns Criticism of De Georges Criteria
  • Alpern (1991) argues that De George's model lets
    engineers off too easily from their
    whistle-blowing responsibilities.
  • Alpern believes that engineers must be willing to
    make greater sacrifices than others because they
    are in a greater position to do certain kinds of
    social harm.
  • He believes that these obligations come from a
    fundamental principle of "ordinary morality"
    viz., we must do no harm.

Ladds Defense of De Georges Criteria
  • Ladd (1991) believes that requiring engineers to
    blow the whistle in non-extraordinary cases (such
    as in De George's conditions 1-3) can be
    undesirable from an ethical point of view because
    it demands that these individuals be "moral
  • Engineers should not have to be heroes or

An Alternative Strategy
  • De George and Ladd seem correct in claiming that
    engineers should not be required to be moral
    heroes or saints.
  • James and Alpern also seem to be correct in
    noting that engineers, because of the positions
    of responsibility they hold, should be expected
    to make greater sacrifices.

A Compromise View
  • McFarland (1991) argues that, collectively,
    engineers might be held to a higher standard of
    social responsibility than ordinary individuals.
  • However, the onus of responsibility should not
    fall directly on engineers as individual
  • Rather, it should be shouldered by engineers as
    members of the engineering profession.

McFarlands View (Continued)
  • McFarland's model is based on the assumption
    that, as moral agents, we have a prima facie
    obligation to come to the aid of others.
  • In describing the nature of this obligation, he
    uses a non-engineering analogy involving the
    infamous Kitty Genovese case.

McFarlands Argument (continued)
  • The analogy for engineers, McFarland draws from
    the Genovese case is that when no other sources
    of help are available, engineers should take
    responsibility by banning together.
  • If engineers act as individuals, they might not
    always have the ability to help.
  • If they act collectively, however, they might be
    able to accomplish goals that would otherwise not
    be possible.

McFarlands Argument (continued)
  • McFarland believes that an engineer's work must
    be seen in a wider social context, i.e., in its
    relation to society.
  • Without that context, an adequate account of
    moral responsibility for engineers cant be
  • Unless engineers work collaboratively on ethical
    matters, they will not be able to meet all of
    their responsibilities.

McFarlands Argument (continued)
  • McFarland's model encourages engineers to shift
    their thinking about responsibility issues from
  • the level of individual responsibility (at the
    micro-ethical level), to responsibility at the
    broader level of the profession itself (i.e., the
    macro-ethical level).

Responsibility, Liability, and Accountability
  • Responsibility requires that two conditions must
    be satisfied
  • causality
  • intent.
  • Some agent, X, is held morally responsible for an
    act, Y, if X caused Y.

Responsibility (Continued)
  • A person could be held responsible even if he or
    she did not intend the outcome.
  • Robert Morris, who launched the "Internet worm"
    in 1988, claimed that he did not intend for the
    Internet to be brought to a standstill.
  • Morris was held responsible for the outcome
    caused by his act of unleashing the computer

Responsibility (continued)
  • Agents can also be held responsible when they
    intend for something to happen, even if they
    ultimately fail to cause (or bring about) the
    intended outcome.
  • Suppose a disgruntled student intends to blow up
    a computer lab, but is discovered at the last
    minute and prevented from doing so.
  • Even though the student failed to carry out his
    objective, we hold the student morally culpable
    because of his intentions.

Liability vs. Responsibility
  • Liability is a legal concept.
  • It is sometimes used in the narrow sense of
    "strict liability."
  • To be strictly liable for harm is to be liable to
    compensate for it even though one did not
    necessarily bring it about through faulty action
    (e.g., when a someone is injured on a persons
  • The moral notion of "blame" may be left out.

Accountability (vs. Liability and Responsibility)
  • Responsibility is only part of what is covered by
    the notion of accountability. (Nissenbaum)
  • Accountability means that someone, or some group
    of individuals, or perhaps even an entire
    organization is answerable.  
  • ...there will be someone, or several people to
    answer not only for malfunctions in life-critical
    systems that cause or risk grave injuries and
    cause infrastructure and large monetary losses,
    but even for the malfunctions that cause
    individual losses of time, convenience, and

Table 4-2 Responsibility, Liability, and
Moral Responsibility Legal Liability Accountability
Attributes of blame (or praise) to individuals. ________________________Usually attributed to individuals rather than "collectivities" or groups. ___________________ Notions of guilt and shame apply, but no legal punishment or compensation need result. Does not attribute blame or fault to those held liable. ___________________ Typically applies in the case of corporations and property owners. ___________________ Compensation can be required even when responsibility in a formal sense is not admitted. Does not necessarily attribute blame (in a moral sense). ___________________ Can apply to individuals, groups of individuals, and corporations. _____________________________ Someone or some group is answerable (I.e., it goes beyond mere liability).
The Problem of Many Hands in a computing Context
  • Computer systems are the products of engineering
    teams or of corporations, as opposed to the
    products of a single programmer working in
  • So "many hands" are involved in their
  • It is difficult to determine who exactly is
    accountable whenever one of these safety-critical
    systems results in personal injury or harm to

The Problem of Many Hands (continued)
  • Two problems for assigning accountability (e.g.,
    Therac 25 Case)
  • (a) we tend to think of responsibility as
    something that applies to individuals but not to
    groups (or collectivities)
  • (b) we tend to think of responsibility in
    exclusionary terms If X is responsible, then Y
    is not, and vice versa.

Assessing Risk
  • Gotterbarn (2001) argues that "ethical risks"
    associated with the entire "software development
    life cycle" must also be taken into
  • The life cycle of software includes the
    maintenance phase, as well as the design and
    development stages.

Risk Assessment (continued)
  • Gotterbarn worries that the concept of risk has
    typically been understood in terms of three
    conditions, where software is either
  • (i) behind schedule
  • (ii) over budget
  • (iii) fails to meet a system's specified
  • Software can satisfy all three conditions and
    still fail to meet an acceptable standard of risk
    assessment (e.g. Aegis Radar System).

Risk Assessment (continued)
  • Gotterbarn believes that failures like the Aegis
    System are due to
  • (1) an overly narrow conception of risk
  • (2) a limited notion of "system stakeholders."

Risk Assessment (continued)
  • Gotterbarn argues that a model of risk assessment
    based solely on cost effectiveness, i.e., in
    terms of criteria such as budget and schedule, is
    not adequate.
  • Instead, the notion of risk analysis must be
    enlarged to include social, political, and
    ethical issues.

Risk Assessment (continued)
  • Gotterbarn also notes that the stakeholders who
    are typically given consideration in risk
    assessment models for software development are
    limited to (a) the software developers and (b)
    the customers.
  • This limited notion of "system stakeholders"
    leads to developing systems that have
    unanticipated negative effects (Aegis case).
  • We need a more robust model of risk assessment
    for software development.