Education for Ethics


Andy Bissett (UK)


Teaching ethical issues to technologists and scientists has been hampered by excessive subject specialisation. Science and technology education tends to concentrate on the facts and methods, whilst leaving the ethical aspect of their application mostly untouched. Professor Germaine Greer at a recent lecture on human ageing [2001] bemoaned the onward march of what she labelled ‘nerd science’, which she identified as the product of this emphasis – the focus on facts and technique without the possibility of taking into account the uses to which science and technology may be put. The humanities on the other hand have frequently been concerned with ethical issues, but can lack an understanding of science and technology. Both the arts and the sciences lose out as a result of this cultural gap.

It is now slightly more than forty years since the English physicist-turned-novelist C.P. Snow delivered a famous and controversial lecture at Cambridge University in which he identified this gap in the Western world between humanities and science, and delineated some of its consequences (reprinted in [Snow, 1971]). He called this disjunction between arts and sciences ‘The Two Cultures’. At the time at which this lecture appeared, approximately 3% of the population of the UK received a university education. This proportion of the population has now risen to more than 30%. The UK government has stated its intention that by the year 2005 at least 50% of the population will attend university. The consequent pressures on the education system to deliver science and technology that can compete globally and be relevant to economic activity have, if anything increased this subject specialisation over the last two decades. This is an issue, which seems to afflict most of the Western education systems.

Snow wrote a lengthy series of novels and a number of polemical articles exploring the tensions and problems of this gulf between subject specialisms. In his fictional output, Snow was concerned with the ethical aspects of science, public policy, and government; indeed one novel was devoted to the issue of scientists’ role in the development of nuclear weapons [Snow, 1954]. He evinced a Wellsian belief in the progressive rationality of science, and the liberating possibilities of modern technology. Broadly, his solution for these ethical and social problems involved a re-alignment of the education system to help bridge the gap between subject specialisms, and to meet the needs of the last third of the twentieth century. The present paper examines his work and relates it to the problem of developing education in good ethical practice for IT students in the twenty-first century.

Ironically, whilst Snow the physicist wrote very conventional novels, eschewing literary experimentation or sophistication [Karl, 1963], Western literature and visual arts have subsequently shown a burgeoning and imaginative awareness of the apparent paradoxes and mysteries inherent in modern physics and mathematics (see, for example, [McEwan, 1988], [Stoppard, 1999]). However, education in ethics for scientists and technologists may not simply benefit from a widening or interchange with the humanities. In the theoretical humanities post-modernism has problematised the notion of universally applicable ethics. Post-modernism maintains that absolute values no longer apply (if they ever did), and that any number of competing discourses must be evaluated and considered as a potential guides to moral behaviour. Prima facie, these discourses are of equal weight. This opens up questions for the computer ethicist, such as: what framework (or discourse) is implied by the concept of ‘computer ethics’; do professional codes of conduct imply a particular set of values; how do we evaluate different discourses; can a meta-framework be proposed within the specific field of computer ethics for evaluating different discourses?

These problems are not merely at the theoretical level; earlier empirical work, based on the ideas of the psychologist Carol Gilligan, has shown that different ethical evaluations (discourses) do indeed hold in practice [Bissett & Shipton, 1999].

This paper concludes that one helpful way forward may be a reconsideration of work that was contemporaneous with Snow’s later writings. Thomas Kuhn [1962] opened up the possibility of viewing science as a social process as well as a technical process. Kuhn’s reinstatement to science of its dimension as a social and historical practice can be extended to readily capture the ethical dimension. An especial advantage to be gained here is that scientific education and understanding is itself enriched by restoring the social dimension. The synergy in this more holistic treatment is too good to miss. Both scientific education per se and education as to the ethical dimension of science may benefit.