The Useful Relationship between Ethics and Systems Quality

Craig McDonald


This paper examines the relationship between the concepts of ethics and of quality in the context of computer-based information systems. It argues that the relationship between the concepts is useful in that quality provides a concrete, accepted means for embedding ethics in professional practice and ethics provides a theoretical underpinning for quality and a means for its critique. The paper proceeds by briefly reviewing the concept of ethics and more extensively examines quality. It then teases out the relationship between the concepts and gives examples of the utility of that relationship in professional practice.

QUALITY: The term quality is used to express an assessment of the overall value of an object or activity. One account of quality considers the subjective experience people have of an object or activity. This experience might be might be described in answers to questions like “how do you rate the quality of this wine?”. Answers to such questions are, however, more descriptive of the state of the answerer than of the wine. An alternate account of quality is said to be objective. An expert, for example, might justify their assessment of a wine by referring to its particular properties – its colour, acid and balance – describing them as only wine experts can. But a description of properties is not a quality assessment. Quality is not a measure of some property of an object in the sense that 14% is a measure of alcohol content or slightly cloudy is a measure of wine clarity. Quality cannot be found by inspection. Quality, as an objective matter, is a construct which has an agreed meaning for a community and which allows the values of natural properties to be combined to yield an assessment of quality. The community decides what properties will be considered, what types of measurement will be made, what values will be placed on them and how they will be combined to produce an objective evaluation.

The above two accounts of quality distinguish between an objective, technical, community sense of the word and its subjective, experiential, individual sense. Quality is a strong, value-laden word; it is not always easy to separate the accounts in practice. Debate about the quality of a particular wine for example can easily shift back and forward between the two senses, confounding both.

Quality Criteria: If we accept that quality is not inherent in an activity or artefact but is a concept to be derived from attributes that are inherent, then we need to consider and specify what it is that will count as quality in any particular artefact or activity. Rather than considering each individual situation from scratch there are some general, overlapping quality ideas that can be brought to bear including context awareness, evidence-based action, fitness for use, stakeholder impacts and traceability (for accountability). Notice that many criteria relate to the impact of an artefact or activity of those it affects.

ETHICS: There seems to be three main kinds of discussion about ethics and ICT. The first tackles particular issues, like workplace surveillance or copying software, and examines the ethical principles that might apply to them. Laws are framed from this kind of discussion so it is critically important. The second looks at specific events that reveal unusual ethical aspects and dilemmas. The final kind of ethics and ICT discussion starts from first principles and sees issues and events as applications of ethical principle. This approach has given us a valuable practical tool for ethical evaluation – stakeholder analysis (Pouloudi 2000, Bowern 2004)

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN QUALITY AND ETHICS: So, it seems that the affects of our systems on our stakeholders is a core idea behind both Ethics and Quality. Systems developers are at the sharp end of these issues because their work has significant and wide-spread impacts on others. In quality assuring systems are we not applying ethics?

Professional Ethics: Bittner & Hornecker (2002) argue that to have responsibility for an action (or not taking an action) in some situation, a person needs to have an element of voluntariness, autonomy, foresight and there needs to be a causal influence between the action and the effect. But complex organisations & large systems diffuse and disguise responsibility. Perhaps quality assurance is a means to address the complexity issue.

A USEFUL RELATIONSHIP: The reason the relationship between ethics and quality is described as useful is twofold. Firstly it has been found that ethics, as a way of thinking, is poorly embedded in professional computing practice and in education for professional practice (Lucas & Mason, 2008). So quality provides a means for the practical expression of ethics in systems development and its embedding in systems artifacts in a way that is meaningful to practitioners, measurable in practice and tangible in discussion.

The second useful aspect of the relationship is that ethics provides a rationale and a justification for quality, its specification and its assurance.

EXAMPLES OF THE RELATIONSHIP: The interaction of quality and ethics will be elaborated in an example from Software Engineering and another from Higher Education.