Method in Computer Ethics: Towards a Multi-level Interdisciplinary Approach

Philip Brey


In this essay, I will consider the question of method in computer ethics by reviewing the literature of the past decade and a half, and by analyzing the methodological approaches used in this literature. I will then propose a set of methodological guidelines that have consistently shown themselves in the past to be a prerequisite to good computer ethics research. In doing this, I will not only be looking at method in individual research, but also about the role of multidisciplinary collaboration and the structure of the field as a whole.

After an initial brief discussion of the aim of computer ethics research, I will follow Moor in claiming that the central aim of computer ethics is to formulate policy guidelines to guide individual and collective action in the development, management and use of computer technology. I will then consider the scope of computer ethics, i.e., its objects of analyis, which I define as individual and collective practices that somehow essentially involve computers, including the use, development, regulation, management, advocacy and advertisement of computer technology. Also included should be the products of such actions, e.g., computer systems and software, manuals, advertisements, and laws and policies regulating the use of computers.

I will then turn to questions of method. I will begin by analyzing various core research activities in past computer ethics research. I will distinguish three activities as central: developing moral theory, applying moral theory, and descriptive analysis. Within these categories, I will then go on to distinguish more specific component activities. The application of existing moral theory to particular practices is certainly one of the central activities in computer ethics. I will begin by analyzing ways in which ethical theory is applied in computer ethics research, and by analyzing some of the difficulties that are involved. Applying moral theory is only part of what computer ethicists do, however. As Jim Moor has pointed out, the changing settings and practices that emerge with new computer technology may yield new values, as well al require the reconsideration of old values. There may also be new moral dilemma’s because of conflicting values that suddenly clash when brought together in new settings and practices. It may then be found that existing moral theory has not adequately theorized these values and value conflicts. It is therefore part of the task of computer ethics to further develop and modify existing moral theory when existing theory is insufficient or inadequate in light of new demands generated by new practices involving computer technology.

So part of the work done in computer ethics is the development of ethical theory and its application to practices involving computer technology. Both these activities are normative, in that they are concerned with proposing, defending, analyzing or applying normative concepts and principles. I want to claim, however, that a large part of the research in computer ethics is not normative in this sense, but descriptive: it is concerned with describing aspects of reality and with proposing, defending, analyzing or applying descriptive concepts and principles. The importance of descriptive research has been noted to some extent by Jim Moor, who has claimed that “much of the important work in computer ethics is devoted to proposing conceptual frameworks for understanding ethical problems involving computer technology,” and who is aware that many of the concepts involved are descriptive. Moor still seems to presume, however, that computer ethics is in large part about solving preexisting moral problems. However, I want to claim that a large part of descriptive work in computer ethics is not about the clarification of practices that have already generated moral controversy, but rather about revealing the moral import of practices that appear to be morally neutral. Many designs and uses of computer systems, I will argue, have important moral aspects, that remain hidden because the technology and its relation to the context of use are too complex or are insufficiently well-known. It is part of the job of computer ethics to make computer technology and its uses transparent, in a way that reveals its morally relevant features. Indeed, I will show that much recent work in computer ethics is centrally concerned with this moral deciphering of computer technology. I will argue that although some conception of morality is presupposed in these studies, this conception normally does not draw explicitly from moral theory, which is often only applied after descriptive analysis.

Finally, I will use my analysis of core research activities in computer ethics to draw out implications for the structure of computer ethics as a multidisciplinary field. I will argue that computer ethics is a multi-layer interdisciplinary venture, in which computer scientists, social scientists and philosophers do research at various levels of analysis and often need to combine their expertise in doing descriptive analysis or applying moral theory.