The Role of Imagination in a Course on Ethical Issues in Computer Science


William M. Fleischman
Department of Computing Sciences
Villanova University


This paper is a series of reflections on three years experience teaching a course on ethical issues in computer science to an audience primarily composed of third- and fourth-year computing sciences majors. The major themes explored in the course include privacy, encryption, and individual rights; computer abuse, hacking and cracking; intellectual property issues; risks and liabilities associated with engineering and certifying safety-critical systems; the Internet; and issues of equity, on both local and global scale, associated with inequalities in access to computer technology and education in its use. In our computing science department, we consider it a healthy feature of the curriculum that this course is taught by a professor from the discipline. Most of our students are currently oriented toward careers in either software engineering or network technology. Since my interests and teaching responsibilities are centered in the more theoretical aspects of the discipline, the seriousness and intensity with which I conduct the course on ethical issues comes as somewhat of a surprise to the students. Such surprises are almost always fruitful.

In the past several years, the real world has taken to providing, almost on a daily basis, fresh and compelling material for a course on computer related ethical issues. Questions concerning privacy raised by the business policies of Internet companies including and, the controversy over downloading of recorded music through sites like Napster and Gnutella, anonymizers, discussions between Internet service providers and quasi-governmental agencies in the United Kingdom designed to facilitate police access to private communications of Internet users, the commercial project to produce a comprehensive map of the genome of the entire population of Iceland all have served as the basis for case histories researched and developed by the class.

Teaching this course has been, at once, a wonderful and frustrating experience. The students typically progress from an initial state of extreme resistance to the level of reading and writing required, through a wary acknowledgment that the issues discussed are serious and relevant to their future lives, to the first stages of mature engagement with these themes that appears to carry over into their subsequent course work and early professional experiences. This state of engagement is characterized by sensitivity and attention to news stories and professional circumstances that resonate with the major themes of the course. In several cases, recent graduates have communicated material drawn from their professional situations and suggested that, with suitable care to protect the identity of individuals and organizations, they might be useful as subjects for discussion in the course.

The frustrations are associated largely with the process of challenging students to transcend the prevailing insularity in perspective that arises from their relatively homogeneous economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. This is a serious problem because, in classroom discussion, it is not routinely possible to depend on a lively diversity of viewpoints when engaging a particular text, case study, or issue. These frustrations are exacerbated by the circumstance that, at our university, students have a common year of core humanities (largely devoted to important texts of Western civilization) and are further required to take at least one lower level and one advanced course in each of history, philosophy, literature, religious studies, and the social sciences. Notwithstanding this comprehensive curriculum, the courses in history appear to provide scant residue of awareness of historical precedents that motivate concerns about issues of privacy in relation to governmental and commercial collection and mining of information. The required exposure to the perspectives and methods of the social sciences does not seem to sensitize students to the effects of cultural and social values inherent in the information revolution in which they are participating. The courses in literature and philosophy appear to provide little sophistication in analyzing argument, register, symbol, and intent in written material. More seriously, this curriculum seems somehow to have hobbled or inhibited students’ powers of imagination, the exercise of which are absolutely essential, in my view, to achieving an understanding of the complex balance of vulnerabilities, rights, and duties inherent in an ethical problem in a manner that does not simplify the problem to stark and one-dimensional self-other oppositions.

In an effort to counteract this reduction or atrophy of an essential process, I have introduced into the course a variety of projects designed to exercise their powers of imagination and empathic response. These include a creative writing exercise in which students construct an utopian or, alternatively, dystopian vision of the world fifty years in the future based on extrapolation of current technologies and their potential to alter relationships among individuals and communities; a project to construct a story board for a film exploring similar themes in their own world of the present; a project in which student groups play the roles of Congressional aides charged with formulating and providing the background and rationale for new legislation on privacy rights; and, in the same vein, a project in which students assume the roles of White House science advisors with the responsibility for preparing ^Ñposition papers’, for presentation at an international conference, on ethical and legal questions arising in the emerging field of bioinformatics (screening and eradication vs. therapy and amelioration of quality of life). I discuss some of the examples and results achieved through these projects.