The Development of Computer Ethics: Contributions from Business Ethics and Medical Ethics

Kenman Wong and Gerhard Steinke


Computer / Information Technology (IT) ethics is generally considered to be a branch of applied ethics. Although there is an impressive body of literature containing moral reflection on new forms of technology (broadly defined) and their potential impact on society, the more specific area of IT ethics is a relatively new field of inquiry. It is therefore not surprising that, to date, little effort has been made to examine the connections between this area and older, more developed fields of applied moral reflection such as medical ethics and business ethics.

There are several important reasons why this task should be undertaken. Practitioners operating in the field of information technology are faced with challenges which are qualitatively similar to those raised in these other fields. For example, like many dilemmas in medical ethics, the field of IT ethics must also respond to the question: “just because we can, should we?” with respect to new advances in technology. Moreover, since many of the gains in computing have been and are being utilized by corporations to enhance the bottom line, information technology professionals are also faced with business ethics dilemmas which pit the consideration of profit versus other social goods, such as privacy and human well-being. An example of the intersection of these fields is the issue of privacy in genetic testing and medical records management.

Although medical ethics has enjoyed much more success at this endeavor, both it and business ethics have made significant inroads in becoming a part of “the dialog” among professionals in their respective fields. Some professions have a recognized and widely accepted set of prescribed ethical statements. In addition, the educational process in the medical and business fields include a strong component of ethics. IT curricula has yet to develop this common emphasis and content of ethical education.

We highlight specific developments in the fields of medical ethics and business ethics which we believe can make significant contributions to the development of IT ethics. We have issues such as the following in common:

  • Concern with the development of normative stances on professional dilemmas.
  • Concern with developing proper meta-ethical theories and decision making models.
  • Shared goal of becoming a part of the dialog among professionals in their respective fields.
  • Concern with influencing public policy and developing professionally enforced standards of conduct.
  • Shared challenges in speaking to academicians, professionals and the broader public.

We also address possible objections, e.g., medicine is concerned with healing patients, business ethics with profit maximization, and IT ethics with neither. Thus, they are not very useful for one another.

Thus, the field of information technology ethics potentially stands to gain tremendously in understanding how these fields have come to make such strides in development and general acceptance, and in comprehending their respective shortcomings. In this paper, we examine the potential for constructive interaction between these three fields of reflection. We argue that the areas of overlap among the fields have been underestimated, and, as a result, extremely useful resources have been largely ignored in the development of IT ethics.