Moral Responsibilities for Systems Development

Jeroen van den Hoven


Information systems enable human beings to do things they could not have done without them. Many work-environments are therefore gradually, or overnight, as the case may be, transformed into highly computerized work-environments. I shall refer to the idea of enhancing human intellectual functioning by means of computers as the idea of ‘epistemic empowerment’, that is the upgrading by means of digital computational devices of human reasoning and decision making. The limits of epistemic empowerment converge with the limits of our scientific imagination in cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, mathematics, software engineering and micro-electronics.

However, computer support for human ratiocination and decision making may have down-sides to it as well. As the personal authorities associated with traditional organizations are replaced by artificial authorities, epistemic empowerment may lead to a relativization of our ideal of intellectual autonomy and individual responsibility.

Two hundred years ago Immanuel Kant still firmly believed that each and every human being ought to ‘think for himself’. But what does ‘thinking for yourself’ mean in highly computerized work-environments? To what extent can it still be required, as John Stuart Mill put it hundred years ago, that ‘our understan-ding should be our own’?

In the following I will argue that where human beings are artificially geared to higher levels of intellectual accomplishment by ICT applications there may be a moral backlash. Computer users may be led to stretch to a point where their cognitive reach exceeds their moral grasp. They may become dependent on their computer tools in a way which pre-vents them from doing what is traditionally required of them as moral persons, namely to think for themselves about what is the right thing to do and account to others for what they have done on the basis of their thinking.

I shall first attempt to charac-terize the situ-ations of users, in which the threat of compromizing one’s status as autonomous moral person looms large. Then I shall discuss the limitations users are subject to in those situ-ations, both in terms of the acqui-si-tion of their beliefs and in terms of the resources for rational justification of their beliefs once acquired. This general account of the moral dimension of the human-computer relationship is then used to articulate the drawbacks of epistemic empowerment for users as far as their capability to take moral responsibility is concerned. On the basis of a taxonomy of different types of responsibilities I shall articulate the notion of “meta-task responsibility” for users and IT professionals, which corresponds with a higher order responsibility to see to it that one’s lower order responsibilities can be adequately fulfilled. Implications for systems development methodologies and quality models spelled out on the basis of this analysis.