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Computing and Ethics


Some of these s are derived from Sherry Clark, A Gift of Fire; Prof. John Nestor, Lafayette College; Russell Gayle, UNC; H. Scott Matthews, Carnegie Mellon ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Computing and Ethics

Computing and Ethics
Some of these slides are derived from Sherry
Clark, A Gift of Fire Prof. John Nestor,
Lafayette College Russell Gayle, UNC H. Scott
Matthews, Carnegie Mellon University, Michael J.
Quinn, Ethics for the Information Age
What is Ethics?
  • Ethics philosophical study of morality
  • Philosophy -- Investigation of the nature,
    causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or
    values, based on logical reasoning rather than
    empirical methods.

What is Ethics?
  • Ethics philosophical study of morality
  • Morality rules of conduct describing what
    people in a society should and should not do

Association of people organized under a system of
rules designed to advance the good of its members
over time Rawls, A Theory of Justice
Ethical Dilemmas
  • Apparent conflict between moral imperatives
  • New technologies can open up new social problems
    and new ethical dilemmas
  • Examples?
  • Can new technologies change morality?
  • Ozs cycle of change
  • Technological change gt Ethical pronouncements gt
    Discussion gt Laws gt (back to Tech. Change)

Studying Ethics
  • Two Different Approaches
  • Descriptive ethics what people believe to be
    right and wrong
  • Normative ethics what people should believe is
    right and wrong
  • Relationship between normative and philosophical
  • Examples where descriptive and normative ethics

Scenario 1
  • You are the senior software engineer at start-up
    developing software for handheld computers to
    help nurses keep track of patients
  • Sales force has promised product by next week
  • Product still contains many minor bugs
  • No major bugs have been found, but QA recommends
    another month of testing
  • A competitor plans to release a similar product
    in a few weeks
  • If your product is not first to market your
    start-up will probably go out of business

Scenario 1
  • Should you recommend release of the product next
  • Who will benefit if the company follows your
  • Who will be harmed if the company follows your
  • Do you have an obligation to any group of people
    that may be affected by your decision?

Subjective Relativism
  • Relativism in General
  • No universal norms of right and wrong
  • One person can say X is right, another can say
    X is wrong, and both can be right
  • Subjective relativism
  • Each person decides right and wrong for himself
    or herself
  • Whats right for you may not be right for me

Subjective relativism evaluation of spam
  • Spammers say spam is good
  • Spam brings advertisements to the attention of
    some people who want to buy their products
  • Spammers make money
  • Purchasers are happy to buy their products
  • Most spam recipients and ISPs say spam is bad
  • Spam wastes time and computer resources,
    congests networks, slows processing of non-spam

Subjective Relativism
  • Pros
  • Well-meaning and intelligent people disagree on
    moral issues
  • Ethical debates are disagreeable and pointless
  • Cons
  • Blurs distinction between doing what you think is
    right and doing what you want to do
  • Makes no moral distinction between the actions of
    different people
  • SR and tolerance are two different things
  • Decisions may not be based on reason
  • Not a workable ethical theory

Cultural Relativism
  • What is right and wrong depends upon a
    societys actual moral guidelines
  • These guidelines vary from place to place and
    from time to time
  • A particular action may be right in one society
    at one time and wrong in other society or at
    another time

Case for Cultural Relativism
  • Different social contexts demand different moral
  • It is arrogant for one society to judge another
  • Morality is reflected in actual behavior

Case Against Cultural Relativism
  • Because two societies do have different moral
    views doesnt mean they ought to have different
  • Doesnt explain how moral guidelines are
  • Doesnt explain how guidelines evolve
  • Provides no way out for cultures in conflict
  • Societies do, in fact, share certain core values
  • Only indirectly based on reason
  • Not a workable ethical theory

  • Good will the desire to do the right thing
  • Immanuel Kant Only thing in the world good
    without qualification is good will.
  • Reason should cultivate desire to do right thing.

Categorical Imperative (1st Formulation)
Act only from moral rules that you can at
the same time will to be universal moral laws.
Illustration of 1st Formulation
  • Question Can a person in dire straits make a
    promise with the intention of breaking it later?
  • Proposed rule I may make promises with the
    intention of later breaking them.
  • The person in trouble wants his promise to be
    believed so he can get what he needs.
  • Universalize rule Everyone may make break
  • Everyone breaking promises would make promises
    unbelievable, contradicting desire to have
    promise believed
  • The rule is flawed. The answer is No.

Categorical Imperative (2nd Formulation)
Act so that you treat both yourself and other
people as ends in themselves and never only as a
means to an end.
This is usually an easier formulation to
work with than the first formulation of
the Categorical Imperative.
Kantian evaluation of spam (1st formulation)
  • Proposed rule
  • I can send advertisements to as many email
    addresses as I want
  • Spammers want people to read their email and buy
    their products
  • Universalize rule
  • Everyone can send advertisements to as many email
    addresses as they want
  • Consequence
  • If everyone sent advertisements to as many email
    addresses as they wanted to, email would be so
    clogged with spam that it would no longer be
    useful and people would stop using it
  • The rule is flawed -gt spamming is not ethical

Kantian evaluation of spam (2nd formulation)
  • Spammers send ads for a product to many people,
    knowing only small number will be interested
  • Most message recipients will waste time and money
  • Spammers do not respect recipients time or
    money, and are only interested in using spam
    recipients to make a profit
  • Thus spammers treat recipients as means to an end
  • Conclusion Spamming is wrong

Case for Kantianism
  • Rational
  • Produces universal moral guidelines
  • Treats all persons as moral equals
  • Workable ethical theory

Case Against Kantianism
  • Sometimes no rule adequately characterizes an
  • There is no way to resolve a conflict between
  • Kantianism allows no exceptions to moral laws.

  • Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill
  • An action is good if it benefits someone
  • An action is bad if it harms someone
  • Utility tendency of an object to produce
    happiness or prevent unhappiness for an
    individual or a community

Principle of Utility
An action is right (or wrong) to the extent that
it increases (or decreases) the total happiness
of the affected parties.
Greatest Happiness Principle
Act Utilitarianism
  • Utilitarianism in General
  • Morality of an action has nothing to do with
  • Focuses on the consequences
  • A consequentialist theory
  • Act utilitarianism
  • Add up change in happiness of all affected beings
  • Sum gt 0, action is good
  • Sum lt 0, action is bad

Act utilitarian evaluation of spam
  • Spam sent to 100 million people
  • 1 in 10,000 buy product
  • 90 of people who buy product are happy with it,
    other 10 feel ripped off
  • People who dont buy product waste time and
    money, get annoyed, etc. - unhappy
  • Spammer makes lots of money and is VERY happy
  • 9001 happy people, 99,990,000 unhappy people
  • Conclusion 99.991 of people are unhappy, so
    spam is wrong

Case for Act Utilitarianism
  • Focuses on happiness
  • Down-to-earth (practical)
  • Comprehensive
  • Workable ethical theory

Case Against Act Utilitarianism
  • Unclear whom to include in calculations
  • Too much work
  • Ignores our innate sense of duty
  • Susceptible to the problem of moral luck

Sometimes actions have unintended consequences
Moral worth of action is dependent on
consequences that may not be under control of
moral agent
Rule Utilitarianism
  • We ought to adopt moral rules which, if followed
    by everyone, will lead to the greatest increase
    in total happiness
  • Act utilitarianism applies Principle of Utility
    to individual actions
  • Rule utilitarianism applies Principle of Utility
    to moral rules

Anti-Worm Scenario
  • August 2003 Blaster worm infected thousands of
    Windows computers
  • Soon after, Nachi worm appeared
  • Took control of vulnerable computer
  • Located and destroyed copies of Blaster
  • Downloaded software patch to fix security problem
  • Used computer as launching pad to try to infect
    other vulnerable PCs

Evaluation using Rule Utilitarianism
  • Proposed rule If I can write a helpful worm that
    removes a harmful worm from infected computers
    and shields them from future attacks, I should do
  • Who would benefit
  • People who do not keep their systems updated
  • Who would be harmed
  • People who use networks
  • People whos computers are invaded by buggy
  • System administrators
  • Conclusion Harm outweighs benefits. Releasing
    anti-worm is wrong.

Case for Rule Utilitarianism
  • Compared to act utilitarianism, it is easier to
    perform the utilitarian calculus.
  • Moral rules survive exceptional situations
  • Avoids the problem of moral luck
  • Workable ethical theory

Case Against Utilitarianism in General
  • All consequences must be measured on a single
  • Utilitarianism ignores the problem of an unjust
    distribution of good consequences.

Mail Abuse Prevention System
  • MAPS is a not-for-profit organization
  • Contacts marketers who violate MAPS standards for
    bulk email
  • Puts marketers who violate standards on a
    Realtime Blackhole List (RBL)
  • Some mail relays refer to RBL list
  • Looks up email host name on RBL list
  • If name on list, the email gets bounced back
  • All email from blacklisted hosts gets bounced,
    even email from non-spammers

Was the creation of the RBL ethical?
  • Utilitarian evaluation
  • ISP using RBL benefits by getting better network
    performance, fewer angry users
  • But their users are unable to receive email from
    innocent users of blacklisted ISPs, reducing
    their utility
  • Innocent users of blacklisted ISPs unable to
    communicate with ISPs that user RBL
  • Conclusion depends on magnitude of benefit and
    ratio of blacklisted innocent users to total
    email users
  • Kantian evaluation
  • MAPS puts ISPs on RBL with goal of getting
    innocent users to complain and pressure ISP to
    drop spammers
  • Innocent users are treated as means to an end
  • This violates Categorical imperative -gt RBL is

Problem Therac-25
  • The Therac-25 was a software-controlled
    radiation-therapy machine used to treat people
    with cancer.
  • Overdoses of radiation
  • Normal dosage is 100200 rads.
  • It is estimated that 13,000 and 25,000 rads were
    given to six people.
  • Three of the six people died.

Problem Therac-25
Problem Therac-25
Problem Therac-25
Problem Therac-25
  • Therac-25 Radiation Overdose
  • Multiple Causes
  • Poor safety design.
  • Insufficient testing and debugging.
  • Software errors.
  • Lack of safety interlocks.
  • Overconfidence.
  • Inadequate reporting and investigation of

Q What can be learned from this case?
Problem Ariane 5
  • In 1996 Ariane 5 Flight 501 exploded after
  • Estimated cost of accident 500 million

Problem Ariane 5
  • The cause was traced to the Inertial reference
    system (SRI).
  • Both the main and backup SRI failed.
  • Both units failed due to an out-of-range
  • Input double precision floating point
  • Output 16-bit integer for horizontal bias (BH)
  • Careful analysis during software design had
    indicated that BH would fit in 16 bits
  • So, why didnt it fit?

Problem Ariane 5
  • Careful analysis during software design had
    indicated that BH would fit in 16 bits
  • BUT, all analysis had been done for the Ariane 4,
    the predecessor of Ariane 5 - software was reused
  • Since Ariane 5 was a larger rocket, the values
    for BH were higher than anticipated
  • AND, there was no handler to deal with the
  • http//

Q What can be learned from this case?
Software Engineering Code of Ethics
  • http//
  • See short version at top of page for general
  • See long version below for more detail