Being a good computer professional: the advantages of virtue ethics in computing

Richard Volkman


As illustrated by analogy to the recent scandals in the telecom industry, deontological and utilitarian approaches to computer ethics are unable to serve as good guides to action under circumstances of economic change or uncertainty about values. These circumstances practically define the cultural environment of computing. Indeed, it is a truism in computing that change is the only constant, and this truism challenges the ability of traditional “ethical controls” to regulate behavior in any meaningful way. Principles of good character, on the other hand, do not derive from statements of eternal, universal values; a virtue is a trait of character that is good for the person who has it, where the value of good character derives from the agent’s own commitments. It follows that virtue ethics is not susceptible to rationalizations based on extrinsic rewards made uncertain by a prevailing relativism about values or by a volatile economic environment.

The recent “meltdown” in the telecommunications industry reveals a problem in utilitarian and deontological ethics that finds expression in computing as well as business. While recent business scandals certainly involved a large measure of fraud and other immoral conduct, there is a growing consensus that this will not account for the full scope of the problem. Despite the obvious fact that something went terribly wrong, debate continues among scholars regarding the morality and legality of many of the practices that led to the problems at Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, and others.

That such debate continues is unsurprising, given the way utilitarian and deontological approaches to ethics both depend on evaluating outcomes to assess ethical conduct. (This is obvious for utilitarianism but requires some unpacking for deontology.) When the value or likelihood of a given outcome is uncertain (as in the case of a perceived “new economy”), these accounts cannot guide action. In contrast, evaluations of character do not depend on outcomes, and descriptions of character in terms of virtue have an intelligible meaning that does not depend on the categorical goodness of any particular end. This helps virtue ethics to avoid many of the difficulties associated with applying utilitarian and deontological ethics.

Instead of evaluating outcomes, virtue ethics focuses on character. Character refers to an agent’s overall being, including especially those values, beliefs, projects, commitments, and ways of reacting to the world that explain and justify the agent’s behavior. One’s character stands behind one’s actions, as the core of identity and self; character defines who one is. We rely on traits of character to predict behavior and to thereby justify reliance. Because one’s character forms this relatively stable base for one’s projects and pursuits, any agent will have to take seriously the evaluation of her own character, whatever her particular projects and pursuits might be. The reasons to have a good character are already built-in to those projects and pursuits.

Evaluations of character typically involve claims about the virtues. Virtue terms involve both a descriptive and a normative aspect, such that one cannot understand what the term describes without also understanding its normative implications. Virtue terms need not get their ethical force by asserting that any particular state of affairs is “really” good. Instead, virtues relate to things that are more or less obviously good-for-me (and good-for-you), and they specify a reliable means of achieving these ends. If it is granted that one pursues the end in question, this gives one a reason to manifest the virtue in question. So, the virtues will have a reason-giving force as long as one can confirm that the associated value is of personal value, and there is no reason that relativism or uncertainty about evaluating outcomes should undermine ethical reasoning about character. Utilitarianism and deontology both require that one’s actions be justified in terms of realizing some categorical good. However, to confirm that a given virtue term applies to one, it is enough to acknowledge it as a means to some end that one is actually committed to. What follows are the Socratic dictum, “Know Thyself!” and the Nietzschean imperative, “Become Who You Are!”

Applying this to computing requires a preliminary discussion of the nature of computing. What ends define the commitments of the computer professional? In light of this discussion, we will be in a position to say what a computer professional is, and we can confirm that the traditional virtues of courage, integrity, honesty, and good judgment all apply to the good computer professional. While a complete analysis of the notion of “being a good computer professional” is well beyond the scope of a single paper, even a preliminary sketch is sufficient to show that the practice of computing differs from the practices of the cracker or the info-terrorist or the con-artist, each of whom represent a different sort of failure in being a good computer professional. Having described what it means to be a good computer professional, discovering reasons for ethical (i.e., virtuous) behavior is a simple matter of determining whether one aims to be a good computer professional or a good con-artist, cracker, or info-terrorist. If the answer is not already obvious enough, it turns out that the life of a “good” con-artist, cracker, or info-terrorist is very unlikely to issue in the good life for a human being.

If the actors in the telecom scandals regard themselves as businesspersons and not con-artists, then virtues give them good reason to have behaved differently. If they regard themselves as con-artists, then virtues give reasons to become businesspersons instead. Similarly, those who aspire to be computer professionals have good reason to behave ethically, even in circumstances of radical uncertainty about categorical values and outcomes. Ethical conduct is not an added responsibility of the computer professional that is merely tacked on to what her job is “really” about. Rather, ethics defines the very fabric of the job description and, therefore, what it means to be a good computer professional.