Could Computer Ethics Spark a New Moral Generation? – An Australian Perspective

Chris R. Simpson


This paper asserts that current Higher Education students in Australia, reaching the third year of their course, have generally thought little about ethical issues, especially ethics relating to the Computing and Communications discipline. It presents initial responses made by a group of students entering a Computer Ethics subject in the third and final year of their Computer Science course. It explores why their initial outlook may be so. It goes on to compare and contrast various individual, initial views with those declared at the end of the one semester subject.

Student responses indicate frequent significant, personal changes in:

  • ethical awareness, depth of perception and ability to argue,
  • perceived relevance of the subject to one’s prospective career,
  • enthusiasm and willingness to question community values.

An appreciation is developed that eagerness, sensitivity, vision and courage are all needed to face opposition and to propose changes to entrenched outlooks in industry.

Although it has been convincingly argued [Gotterbarn, 1995; Martin, 1997; and Grodzinsky, 1998] that practical ethics can be successfully integrated into ordinary subjects of a degree course, this study suggests that there is still value in a sole, capstone subject. The value goes beyond that reported earlier [Simpson, 1996] and stems largely from the concentration of effort and depth of involvement required of students by the strategies used in this subject. Admittedly, it depends heavily upon teaching staff attitude. The nuances are developing with every semester.

Pursuing the indicated value to students of an in depth, concentrated experience obtained in this single non-technical subject in an otherwise purely technical degree course, the paper proposes that the symptoms of students entering computer technology courses are shared by those entering any other purely technological courses such as applied science and engineering, as well as those not usually thought of in this light, for example accounting, economics, business and management. All of these appear to have developed the same dearth of non-technical subjects, leaving social and ethical skills to be obtained in the workplace. Yet such skills are needed as frequently as technical skills in one’s career, from the outset [Simpson & Burmeister,1998].

Computer Ethics appears to be a pilot arena for many disciplines, by virtue of computer technology and communications applications that touch and therefore become relevant to each of these disciplines, their practice and their educational curricula. This subject could be adapted quite easily to suit almost every course in the university.

This one-subject, last ditch approach to humanising courses is only relevant whilst the current global morality persists. In this climate, economic tyranny dominates, human and environmental values count for little and a “moral cringe” has developed that dissuades moral training in schools, such that a useful and continuing ethics component in secondary and tertiary training is not forthcoming. That is the situation in Australia at present. On the other hand, there are symptoms of an awakening occurring. Perhaps we are part of that.

There has been a succession of three generations in Australia described as the Lucky Generation, the Baby Boomers and currently, the Options Generation (sometimes called the Baby Busters) [Hugh Mackay, 1997]. The last of these have been set adrift in an ever-changing world, a culture centred about the individual and limited values. These are today’s students. Yet, with a little prompting, they are quite ready to question the validity of a system that pays little heed to human and environmental sustainability and seems to be on a collision course with crisis. It is my fond hope that these are the future stimulators of a new generation, that will achieve a broadened value system, demerit greed, reintroduce human dignity and might be called the Renaissance Generation.


Gotterbarn D. [1995] A Tool Kit of Computer Ethics Activities for computer science classes, Proceedings of National Educational Computing Conference, Baltimore, MD.

Grodzinsky F. and Grodzinsky S [1998] Integrating Ethics into the Computer Science and Engineering Curriculum. AICE October Seminars, Swinburne University of Technology, Australia, October.

Martin C.D. [1997] The case for integrating ethical and social impact into the computer science curriculum, ITiCSE ’97 Working Group Reports and Supplemental Proceedings, ACM, Jun.

Mackay, Hugh [1997] Generations: Baby Boomers, their Parents and their Children. Pan Macmillan, Sydney.

Simpson C.R. [1996] University Courses and Ethics – Using Collaborative On-the-job Education, Proceedings, ETHICOMP96, Madrid, Nov, 427-442.

Simpson C. and Burmeister O. [1998] New Professionals, New Measures of Worth, New Ethic of Collaboration. Proceedings of ETHICOMP98, Erasmus University, The Netherlands, March, 650-661.