Content Of a Computer Ethics Course

NOTE: In a recent email exchange, I offered some ideas about the content of an introductory Computer Ethics course in a college or a university setting. The colleagues to whom the email was sent found the suggestions useful, so I thought it might be helpful to others if I posted copies here.

Dear Colleagues,

I am happy to offer you my suggestions on what a broad computer ethics course ought to contain. Let me start by saying that I believe there are many different – and appropriate – ways to put together such a course, and so what I offer here is merely one person’s description of one kind of course. I assume that most of the students will be computer science students (majors or minors), rather than liberal arts students in fields like English, Art, Philosophy, and so on.
Please forgive me if I refer to my own book (edited with Simon Rogerson), web site and articles. They are the resources I know best. There are, of course, a number of other good textbooks available, as well as a wealth of terrific on-line materials besides my own.
These are the components that I believe should be included in a broad, introductory computer ethics course for aspiring computer professionals:

Material on the history of computer ethics, as well as the basic concepts and ideas. My piece in the Stanford on-line Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a representative example:

as well as the Editors Introduction of the new textbook by me and Simon Rogerson:

Terrell Ward Bynum and Simon Rogerson, Eds., Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility, Blackwell, 2004.
ISBN: 1-85554-845-3

and also introductory materials on my Research Center’s web site:

Material on ethical decision making and case analysis. I think many computer ethics courses and textbooks tend to over do this part, offering far too many ethical theories and concepts that go way beyond what the students will ever need or use. I believe that Chapter 3 of the Bynum/Rogerson textbook gets it right (but, of course, I would say this, since I wrote Chapter 3!)
Material on the concepts of professionalism and professional ethics. Don Gotterbarn’s writings are terrific, including some that he has on-line on his SEERI web site:

as well as his chapters (5 and 8) in the Bynum/Rogerson textbook.
Materials on the concept of a professional code of ethics, as well as sample codes of ethics from professional organizations like ACM, BCS, ACS, IMIS, etc. See Part III of the Bynum/Rogerson textbook.
Materials covering a representative sampling of “traditional” and “new” computer ethics topics like computer security (viruses, hacking, terrorism, etc.); ownership of intellectual property (e.g. software and open source, music and video files on the Internet, etc.); privacy (e.g., computerized profiles, data mining, matching, etc.); globalization (e.g. cultural conflicts, jurisdiction of laws across borders, international computing agreements, etc.), and so on. See Part IV of the Bynum/Rogerson textbook, as well as the textbook-related web site:

I am a strong believer in case analysis as a teaching method, and so I believe that students should have a number of case-analysis assignments as part of their class experiences.

I hope that you find these ideas useful.

With best wishes,
Terry Bynum

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Dear Colleagues,

Given that all your students are from the College of Arts and Letters, I offer these adjustments to my original comments:

I would put a bit less emphasis on codes of ethics of computer professional organizations, though I still would include the topic in the course.
I would adjust the cases to be analyzed to include more examples closely related to the arts and social ethics.
For example, the class might tackle a problem that the US courts dealt with while considering the (now rejected) “Communications Decency Act”: Why should a child-abuse scene in a Dickens novel be legally permitted in the form of text, while that same (or a similar) scene, which consists of realistic computer graphics – not created from live humans – be outlawed? Since both depict child abuse, and neither involves real children, why should one be okay and one be outlawed?

Other examples could include cases involving artists’ ownership rights to their artistic creations vs free down-loading on the Internet; or web sites that are ethically accepted in one culture and ethically offensive to other cultures (Whose values should be upheld on the Internet?); or the question of whether there exists a set of “core values” shared by all societies – values that could become the foundation for a “global ethics” that could or should reign supreme on the Internet.

Again, I hope you find these ideas useful.

Best wishes,
Terry Bynum