What is Computer Ethics?

How can we work to make computing technology advance human values? One way is to teach “computer ethics” to the public at large and to our students enrolled in courses in computing and information sciences. But what is computer ethics?

The term “computer ethics” was coined in the mid 1970s by Walter Maner to refer to that field of applied professional ethics dealing with ethical problems aggravated, transformed or created by computer technology. By analogy with the more developed field of medical ethics, Maner focussed attention upon applications of ethical theories and decision procedures used by philosophers doing applied ethics. He distinguished “computer ethics” from sociology of computing and from technology assessment.

For nearly two decades, the term “computer ethics” kept this focussed meaning. Recently, however, the term “computer ethics” has acquired a broader sense that includes applied ethics, sociology of computing, technology assessment, computer law, and related fields. This broader kind of computer ethics examines the impact of computing and information technology upon human values, using concepts, theories and procedures from philosophy, sociology, law, psychology, and so on. Practitioners of the broader computer ethics – whether they are philosophers, computer scientists, social scientists, public policy makers, or whatever – all have the same goal:

  • To integrate computing technology and human values in such a way that the technology advances and protects human values, rather than doing damage to them.

Donn Parker pursues this goal by gathering example cases and presenting scenarios for discussion. Judith Perrolle does it by applying sociological theories and tools to data about computing; Sherry Turkle does it by applying psychological theories and tools; James Moor, Deborah Johnson and others do it by applying philosophical theories and tools; and so on. All of these thinkers and many others address problems about computing technology and human values, seeking to

  1. Understand the impact of computing technology upon human values
  2. Minimize the damage that such technology can do to human values, and
  3. Identify ways to use computer technology to advance human values.