Ethical Considerations on Information System Development: Perspectives on a Practical Moral Framework

Xiaojian Wu, Simon Rogerson and N. Ben Fairweather


For more than a decade, the necessity and imperatives of addressing ethical issues relating to Information Technology (IT) and Information System (IS) development have been articulated and seriously debated by both philosophers and many alerted IT professionals (for example; Moor:1985 ,Johnson:1994; Langford:1995; Maner:1996). Much of this work has been devoted to the conceptualisation of computer ethics, emphasising the identification and clarification of the problem domain and the status of this suggested new discipline, if anything, in the philosophical circle. Very limited contributions could be singled out in terms of the practical implications on the ethical application of IT and development of computer-based information system. It is just not enough to treat the issues at a superficial level. Ethical issues must be considered and addressed against real life scenarios when it comes to addressing computer technology. The ethical development of information systems is but one of those sensitive scenarios associated with computer technology that has a tremendous impact on individuals and social life. The importance of such issues cannot be overstated. Nonetheless, since computer ethics is meant to be everybody’s business, this can often result in it being interpreted as nobody’s business. Therefore, an effective while still practical moral framework needs to be established in order to put computer ethics on a sound base for further exploration.

When ethical problems or issues related with IT/IS have been put forward and recognised, the most needed work is to find an effective way out of such dilemmas. Currently, among popular solutions are those that introduce codes of conduct and ethics, those that calling for the relevant parties to give IS development procedures and products a secondary review, and those that focus on the importance of ethical training for practising or potential IT professionals. While such actions and measures will contribute ultimately to the abatement of the problems, the immediate or direct impacts are however less effective or attractive. Based on Rogerson’s (1995) arguments concerning information ethics, we further the work in this regard through formulating a working definition for addressing IT/IS related ethical issues at a practical level. In the paper, we will make some speculations and suggestions by focusing on the features of applied ethics, i.e. value-driven, action/agent-oriented and situation-determined, to construct a Practical Moral Framework (PMF), for information system development. The proposed PMF aims to define the scope and means of consideration for ethical IS development rather than proposing any universal moral constraints. On the one hand it inherits the strength of the code of ethics/conduct while effectively avoid critics on the ambivalence of moralism; one the other hand it is flexible enough to accommodate different even contrasting moral viewpoints towards IS development process and outcomes. Just like setting rules for playing a game, it defines scope of rules while leaving the choice of particular rules or restraints to the engaged parties. The PMF thus deliberately leaves the concrete contents open to the option and consent of various parties to IS development by simply highlighting the scope and means of ethical considerations.

Within the PMF, it is necessary to firstly ascertain principal values which underpin the IS development profession and the associated professional practices. For this end, efforts need to be made in specifying relevant value characteristics, particularly those thorny issues commonly confronted in any areas of applied ethics such as: moral absolutism vs. relativism, universalism vs. reflectivism and monism vs. pluralism. Then we will identify crucial IS development base and actions. It is here that we pay attention to debates on action-oriented ethics or agent-centred ethics in terms of IS development process and outcomes. We will justify the favour to the behaviour school and proceed on to start explorations over three action-centred features, namely, process vs. product, personal vs. professional and essential vs. accidental, of IS development. Specific development steps or phases also need to be analysed and checked for moral charges as against the identified value list, thereby highlight ethical hotspots of the development. Finally, we need to consider those ethical values and actions against specific contexts in view of the character of situation-determined. Basically, the issues are comprised of dilemma on private engagement against public working environment, or localised vs. nationalised or globalised considerations. For computer technology and information ethics, the trend and impending impact of globalisation must be explicitly acknowledged and accommodated at this stage, even though the IS development usually tends to focus too heavily on a restricted sphere out of immediate effects, effectiveness and so on. With the help of PMF, the intended new horizon (Rogerson:1996) of consideration for ethically enhanced IS development will become less ambiguous and so should provide valuable practical guidance.


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