Computers for Ethical Competence

Iordanis Kavathatzopoulos


Information technology has certain advantages that can contribute positively in moral problem solving and decision making. It is necessary, however, to adjust those computer tools to the psychological process of handling moral problems. Previous efforts to construct ethical support systems have focused on moral philosophy, certain principles, or normative values, leading to the presentation of solutions or to the identification of moral risks of different solutions. Such programs are not directly concerned with humans’ ethical decision processes and, therefore, run the risk of not giving optimal support to moral problem solving and decision making hindering the usability of the ethical program. In the present paper some ideas are presented and discussed on how computer systems can be constructed such as to adapt to the psychological factors which are critical for the emergence of ethical competence. This is an area of current interest and increasing importance. It is an interdisciplinary effort to combine the advantages of computer machines and the psychological processes of handling moral problems. It opens up for useful computer applications.

Information technology saves time and space, it has an enormous memory storage capacity, it can process and reorganize information fast and reliably, etc. Recent technical developments in particular, which give us the possibility to construct advanced games and simulate the complexity of reality in micro-worlds, may further broaden the spectrum of opportunities and possibilities for support in moral problem solving and decision making. It would be wonderful if we could use all these advantages. For that purpose we have to construct concrete and adapted information technology tools and use them in order to support and promote ethical competence. However, the confounding of moral values with psychological processes can create many problems and sometimes makes it impossible (Blasi, 1980; Haidt, 2001; Jackson, 1994; Jaffee & Hyde, 2000). The main hypothesis of this paper is that successful information technology tools are those that are adapted exclusively on psychological problem-solving and decision-making processes. When we are planning to use information technology tools to support ethical decision making we usually run the risk of disregarding the psychological skill aspects of ethical competence. The classical approach focuses normally on informing about moral philosophy, presenting lists of principles and stakeholder interests, or simply producing moral solutions based on predefined normative values (Collins & Miller, 1992; Gotterbarn & Rogerson, 2002; Pfeiffer, 1999). Creating and using information technology tools based primarily on this classical approach certainly has its strengths, but it also has many weaknesses (Winograd, 1995; see also Friedman, 2005).Ethical competence can be defined as based on the psychological ability described as autonomy. However, this skill is not so easy to use in real situations. Psychological research has shown that plenty of time and certain conditions are demanded before people can acquire and use the ethical ability of autonomy (Piaget, 1932; Kohlberg, 1985; see also Schwartz, 2000). When people face a moral problem they have great difficulties not confusing moral goals, values, feelings and emotions with the decision-making and problem-solving processes and the methods adopted for the solution of the problem. Usually, they do not clearly see the context of the problem nor do they analyze it in the same way they often do with problems of nature. In psychological theory this is described as the moral phase of heteronomy, which in contrast to autonomy, means that the individual does not use functional problem-solving strategies, that is, critical thinking. Autonomous and critical moral thinking is difficult, more difficult than autonomous technical thinking. In the searching to promote ethical competence we need to be assured that the autonomous ethical thinking is indeed stimulated by the support tools we use. Using information technology to support the acquisition and use of ethical autonomy is due to the special qualities and possibilities of this technology:

  1. The use of real life simulations by decision makers may help them to learn easier how to handle morally complex and controversial situations satisfactorily. One way to do this is by connecting the progress of the simulation to the concrete way users treat moral problems rather than to general normative aspects of given solutions. For example, this can be done by incorporating in the simulation the interests, values, feelings, etc, of stakeholders whose reaction may influence the development of the simulation process.
  2. Information technology tools have great advantages according to the hypothesis of autonomy. Their memory storage capacity is enormous. Just by using them as a data base or an expert system in the effort to solve a concrete moral problem, the user can get information about certain values and interests, as well as about alternative ways of action, that otherwise might be overlooked. Reminiscence of the diversity, variety and complexity of the actual moral problem could effectively block decision makers’ natural tendency toward heteronomy, and stimulate autonomy.
  3. Information technology is excellent in doing systematic work, much better than humans. Autonomy implies an effort to cover systematically all relevant values and alternative actions. This work could be further facilitated by the use of the capacity of information technology. A user can more easily be made aware of missing aspects or realize the need for combinations or separations of certain values and actions, if the existing information is combined quickly and systematically.
  4. All information gathered during this process has also to be analyzed. The impact of every alternative action on all values and interests has to be described and placed on the matrix of all these relationships. This constitutes the base for rational and independent decision making. It is obvious that information technology has qualities that can facilitate and secure this process.
  5. Information technology tools can also be used in real life for the solution of professional ethics problems. The memory capacity of information technology can be used to store information that can be retrieved and used in new and similar situations for the purpose of covering all aspects and for making a systematic analysis according to the hypothesis of autonomy.


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