The Good Computer Professional Does Not Cheat at Cards

Volkman Richard


In the course of discussion at the last Ethicomp, Don Gotterbarn suggested that it was possible for a good computer professional to cheat at cards. His point was that the scope of computer ethics is narrower than the entirety of ethics, and this shows why virtue ethics is not sufficiently focused on the specific problems of computer ethics to be an appropriate approach to a high-level, applied, and practical professional ethics. If our main goal in computer ethics is to offer guidance to future professionals, then virtue ethics distracts by involving us in issues that are tangential to computing—e.g., the ethics of cheating at cards.

Whatever the merits of his main point, Gotterbarn’s case illustrates vividly how and why a virtue ethics approach to professional ethics differs from deontological or utilitarian approaches. Specifically, the virtue ethicist does not regard delivering pat answers to questions of ethical significance as the consequence of proper ethical instruction. While it is possible for virtue ethics to deliver such “guidance,” this is only the smallest part of what proper ethical instruction needs to accomplish. In short, being a good computer professional involves a great deal more than mere obedience to any set of rules or policies. Virtue discourse captures what’s missing from policy discourse; therefore, a virtue ethics approach to computer ethics is far more likely to deliver on the real goal of computer ethics: creating good computer professionals.

In light of this, while it is surely a logical possibility that a good computer professional will cheat at cards, this bare possibility does not reveal anything about proper ethical instruction for computer professionals. It is highly unlikely that the good professional will cheat, and if she does, then, by hypothesis, her action must be out of character. According to the virtue ethicist, more important and interesting than what she does is why she does it and who that makes her. The good computer professional qua good computer professional does not cheat at cards. The case in which she cheats is not interesting precisely because it has nothing to do with who she is, which is the full extent of our proper concern. In part, this is because good character can be the very best predictor of right conduct without being a guarantee. This is the case, for example, if other means of guiding conduct are hopelessly flawed in the face of the constantly changing social and technological environment of computing.

This is especially apparent in light of Moor’s account of computer ethics as addressing the philosophical puzzles that arise when institutions are transformed by the use of new technologies. Since the character and quality of certain actions is different from or entirely without precedent, Moor suggests that the Computer Revolution issues in conceptual vacuums that in turn generate policy vacuums. To solve these policy riddles, we need to do some philosophy.

However, this focus on policy questions is in tension with the claim that our very concepts and institutions are transformed. As Gotterbarn has emphasized, if we regard problems in computer ethics as utterly unique and new, then we invite a skeptical attitude towards such problems. How could we hope to answer new ethical problems if our old ethical concepts no longer apply? Indeed, how could we even recognize them as ethical problems in the first place?

While not his intention, Gotterbarn’s critique of the “uniqueness” thesis itself reveals the limits of policy discourse. Since we cannot hope to resolve these policy matters by appealing to antecedent concepts or rules, and since the problem is the result of deep changes in the ethical environment and consequent changes to the meanings of human action, any solution needs to be equally dynamic and well-suited to the articulation and evaluation of new meanings. Moor has recognized the dynamic nature of computer ethics, but—like Gotterbarn—focuses on a legalistic discourse that by its nature requires some philosophical stasis to operate. To escape this dilemma, we need to learn how to see and judge well, how to become able ethical improvisers, rather than merely learning to apply antecedent rules.

Fortunately, virtue ethics is a rich, elaborate, and powerful account that does not focus on rules and policies. Virtue ethics is all about learning to see and judge well, and focuses on becoming the right sort of person. Any rules we teach today are liable to be transcended tomorrow. This means that computer professionals cannot simply abide by the rules and do their jobs well. Computing shares this feature with a wide range of other traditions. In general, one is not playing well or advancing the field or worshipping in faith if one is just following a formula. To really contribute something and actually be a good computer professional, one needs the “right seeing” of virtue ethics, not rational obedience to rules.

It should be emphasized that this dynamism is not to be lamented or escaped. To the contrary, it is a central point of the whole computing tradition. If the main point of computing is the discovery and application of new solutions to various problems, then one cannot reduce the field to something that obeys established rules. Gotterbarn himself has noted and criticized the “puzzle-solving” nature of the culture of computing, but it is not clear why this identifying commitment should be extirpated rather than sublimated to ethical projects. As with other dynamic traditions, merely following the rules is a recipe for unimaginative mediocrity at best, and perhaps even a more serious sort of bureaucratic wrongdoing. Far from distracting future computer professionals with matters at the periphery, the virtue ethics approach is the only solution to the problem of right action in the context of a dynamic tradition. Thus, educators best serve the students and the tradition of computing by nurturing and extolling good character.