Some Themes Concerning Professional Ethics and Emotional and Moral Knowing-How in the Field of IT

Mikko T. Siponen and Jorma Kajava


IT professionals, as any other group of professionals, are expected to show correct and loyal conduct. This means that they should learn to balance technical knowledge with ethical and social information. IT professionals project an image of their profession and the company they represent to the general public. Therefore, they should bear in mind what it means to act in a professional or occupational role, and what the responsibilities and obligations are that employees have to their employer and vice versa. In addition, they have to take into account the business culture of their organisation.

The problem is that professional ethics in the field of IT has not yet reached such a sophisticated level. Even though scholars stress the significance of an ethical approach to IT, current discussion on professional ethics has been restricted to such issues as codes of conduct and the exposition of certain empirical or hypothetical cases. This is clearly not enough. What is missing, in our view, is a holistic framework. Unfortunately, until recently, scholars interested in computer ethics have not been able to provide profound arguments and visions upon which to base professional ethical codes. This causes a motivation problem, because IT professionals have no visions and goals of the kind that, for example, doctors, policemen and priests have. People need motivation or incentives, and these can only be based on profound argumentation. Without answers to ‘why questions’ and a thorough discussion, the codes remain in the realm of rhetoric, serving merely to polish the image of the profession. But the truth is that professional ethics must not, and cannot, be based merely on rhetoric. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case according to certain surveys based on questionnaires. Even though rhetoric may help to increase motivation, it cannot provide a solid basis for professional ethics. The basis of morality is that people have a real intuitive concern about right and wrong and a motivation to abide by their convictions.

Professional (normative) ethics should be based on a clear view of society and the relationship between society and a particular profession (IT in this case), and of the social effects and values that the profession wants to serve. Morality, in turn, should be based on how professionals actually act and think. What this professional conduct is and what the principles and premises underpinning it are, should be clarified in no uncertain terms. Professionals should be able to prove that their conduct, values, beliefs and actions stand up to closer inspection and a critical moral analysis. Only having established a secure foundation, we are in a position to engage in ethical rhetoric.

A secure foundation emphasises ethical knowledge, or the prerequisites of computer ethical thinking, as we call it. This term stands for technical knowledge (T), relevant moral philosophical knowledge (MP), and the so-called Environment factor (E), which we will outline below. MP has to separate inadequate, absurd or trivial ethical notions from appropriate ones. Current research in other fields shows that professional skills are combined with significant moral and emotional factors. To bring these factors to bear on the IT context and to outline modern professional ethical skills, we want to suggest some preliminary themes concerning moral know-how in the field of IT: Moreover, we claim that these skills constitute a necessary part of any professional qualification in our line of business.

To put it briefly, we can argue that professional actions are based on moral know-how when professional people consequently apply their moral judgement to all problems, and when they are consciously aware of the moral qualifiers and principles behind their choices in these situations. This presupposes that people feel that the professional norms of their field are intuitively correct and, consequently, have a motivation to follow these principles. This includes taking into account moral dangers, moral motivation and weakness.

In addition to the aforementioned factors, T, MP and E, constituting the prerequisites of ethical thinking, we have to recognise the existence of selfishness and unselfishness, irrelevant issues and different moral goals. In addition, we should explore acting beyond the call of duty and converse double standards of morality.

The application of moral know-how is an on-going process, starting with the recognition of one’s own ethical codes and moral qualifiers and comparing them with those of others in order to progress morally and increase moral know-how. This involves the recognition of professional responsibilities, duties and rights.

Moral know-how also includes honesty and the ability to understand other people and their perspectives. Decision-making ability plays a key role here. We should regard all kinds of conflicts (involving an emotional or a moral dimension) as a possibility to develop our moral behaviour (moral know-how), because it has been shown that conflicts can be a source of progress in a working team if the members have moral know-how and interact with each other. As a consequence, we have to do our best to create such a working environment and such an atmosphere that ethical dilemmas can be discussed openly, objectively and constructively. Moral know-how creates a better working environment and better relationships between professionals, increases trust between professionals and non-professionals and, indeed, increases harmonious human life and well-being in general.