Ethical Decisions: using the back of the envelope

Don Gotterbarn


In making complex ethical judgements or decisions the decided needs to select from a set of abstract concepts and principles which they deem relevant to the situation and then apply these principles to a set of facts. The complexity of the ethical judgment is increased because in addition to the problem of identifying which principles and facts are relevant one must be familiar with and select from the numerous methods used apply these concepts to solve the ethical problem. We bring some presuppositions of the correct approach to ethics and this drives the decision method we apply to the situation. For example in Bynum and Rogerson [Chap 3 in Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility by Bynum and Rogerson 2004 pages 60-85 copyright Blackwell Publishing] “ Ethical Decision Making “ starts from a presupposition of a set of core values and takes an approach modeled on virtue ethics. While the Collins and Miller “Paramedic Method” [“Paramedic Ethics for Computer Professionals,” by W. Robert Collins and Keith W. Miller Journal of Systems and Software, Volume 17, Issue 1 (January 1992) ] is an algorithmic approach which is keyed to a rights-obligations view of ethics. Both of these methods help to identify and integrate several elements but they optimistically presume a basic understanding and consensus about the nature of the ethical elements of the situation.

There are two primary problems with these types of approach. First, many of the ethical questions that arise in computer ethics vary in significant ways from more traditional ethical concerns and correct results from applying these methods depends on a common interpretation of the nature of the problem. Second, following on the first, a limited or narrow understanding of the nature of the problem contributes to a blurring of the potential ethical tradeoffs associated with a particular decision. Many of the tradeoffs are not clear when applying these methods to a complex decision-

In teaching ways to make ethical decisions it is useful to precede these formal approaches with a back of the envelope analysis technique to clarify concepts and isolate relevant issues and tradeoffs. The back of the envelope technique I have used is a version of, Line drawing, a method developed by Harris [Harris, Jr., C.E., Pritchard, M.S., and Rabins, M.J. Engineering ethics: concepts and cases. 2nd ed. Wadsworth 2000.]

The problem to be addressed:

Many ethical decision guidelines focus on the situation as a whole and ask about ways to respond to the situation without identifying the elements that make of the situation and which of those elements contribute negatively and positively to the situation. The failure to identify how discrete parts contribute to the situation leads to the danger that any decision may remove positive elements and increase the impact of negative elements.

For example, both the Bynum and Collins methods ask the analyst to consider alternative actions and the consequences of those actions, but they do not provide a means to identify the significant elements in these alternative actions, and identification which is needed to reasonable predict the consequences of the alternative actions. In complex situations there are no simple solutions but each varied element in the alternative can have multiple values; each one of which makes a significantly different solution