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What is Ethics?

How do we decide what is right and what is wrong? The law tells us what is prohibited by the government, but it does not tell us what is right or even guide us to do what is good. The answer to the question of whether an action is right or wrong is found in ethics.

The notion of ethics has been an important part of human thinking for thousands of years, not least because it guides our every action. Some of the main concepts in ethics are:

Utilitarianism The utilitarian ethical framework was developed by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham at the beginning of the 19th century. An action is good if it results in the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. It is difficult to achieve a utilitarian code of ethics in practice because you have to weigh up all the good effects of an action against all the bad effects and take into account the number of people affected both positively and negatively by the action.

Utilitarianism can be used to deal with issues like mass vaccination where you have to weigh up the cost of the program in terms of the number of lives saved against the number of lives harmed by reactions against the vaccine.

Moral Duty In the 18th century the philosopher Immanuel Kant described a set of ethics based on the notion of moral duty. Kant's moral duty is expressed as the "categorical imperative" which requires that the rules governing all actions should be part of a universal law. Consider "telling the truth" and "lying". Telling the truth is a categorical imperative because if everyone tells the truth, universal trust is possible. If, on the other hand, I lie, then the universal law would be fulfilled only if everyone else lied and that would clearly lead to an impossible situation.

Natural Rights The basis of natural rights is human life. If we say that all humans have a right to life, we imply that people have a right to eat because food is necessary to support life. This argument can be extended to include other factors that are required to allow humans to flourish; for example the right to own property.

Religious Ethics A large fraction of the world's population live in societies and communities where religion is practiced. Some religions provide a set of rules that must be obeyed (e.g., the ten commandments in the Judeo-Christian religion). Ethical behavior is then derived from these religious laws.

Ethics in Computing

What aspects of computing are most closely related to ethical issues?

Who's Who

Plato (429-347 B.C.)

Plato believed that human happiness was the highest aim of moral conduct. Plato regarded all actions as intrinsically right or wrong.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

Aristotle's ethics overlap those of Plato.

Epicurus (341-270 B.C.)

Thomas Aquinas (1225-274)

Spinoza (1632-1677 B.C.)

Spinoza believed that to act with virtue is to act with reason. He believed that when we act according to reason we desire good for both ourselves and for others.

Kant (1724-1804)

Mill (1806-1873)

Mill was an exponent of utilitarianism which was known as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” principle.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”

Categories of Ethics

We can divide systems of ethics into two broad groups: teleological and deontological.

Ethics based on teleological principles are said to be goal-oriented because the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on its effect or outcome (e.g., "the end justifies the means").

Deontological ethics are concerned with the rightness or wrongness of individual actions rather than the final outcome of the actions (e.g., "two wrongs don't make a right").

An Example of Ethics in Practice

Consider the case of the hot coffee, where someone was reported to have sued frivolously because their coffee was too hot. This Is interesting because everyone knows of it but few know the true story.

Corporate Manslaughter

Although this category exists only in England, Wales, and Hong Kong, it is very relevant to all engineers and professionals.

Until this law came in to effect in 2008, corporate actions leading to a person’s death could take place only as part of civil litigation. The existence of this law means that criminal prosecution can now take place against company officials in cases where death has resulted as the consequence of an accident. For example, if the management of a company knew that, say, overclocking, were being used to improve the speed of a product and, eventually. one of the products failed in a safety-critical system, the company’s management could be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter and members of management imprisoned.

Such a law is intended to encourage a safe environment because it breaks the firewall between management and engineers.