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Introduction to Ethical Theories and Computer Ethics

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Added on  2019-09-30

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This module introduces the widely accepted core ethical philosophies, which will serve to provide you with a basic understanding of ethical thought. With this knowledge, you can begin to relate these theoretical frameworks to practical ethical applications in today's IT environment. The module covers teleology, deontology, and computer ethics.
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TopicsIntroduction to Ethical TheoriesTeleology (Consequentialism)Deontology (Rights and Duties)Computer EthicsIntroduction to Ethical TheoriesThe concepts of ethics, character, right and wrong, and good and evil have captivated humankind since we began to live in groups, communicate, and pass judgment on each other. The morality of our actions is based on motivation, group rules and norms, and the end result. The difficult questions of ethics and information technology (IT) may not have been considered by previous generations, but what is good,evil, right, and wrong in human behavior certainly has been. With these historical foundations and systematic analyses of present-day and future IT challenges, we are equipped for both the varied ethical battles we will face and the ethical successes we desire.Although most of you will be called upon to practice applied ethics in typical business situations, you'll find that the foundation for such application is a basic understanding of fundamental ethical theories. These ethical theories include the work of ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. This module introduces the widely accepted core ethical philosophies, which will serve to provide you with a basic understanding of ethical thought. With this knowledge, you can begin to relate these theoretical frameworks to practical ethical applications in today's IT environment.Let's start with a fundamental question: "Why be ethical and moral?" At the most existential level, it may not matter. But we don't live our lives in a vacuum—we live our lives with our friends, relatives, acquaintances, co-workers, strangers, and fellow wanderers. To be ethical and moral allows us to be counted upon by others and to be better than we would otherwise be. This, in turn, engenders trust and allows us to have productive relationships with other people and in society. Our ethical system, supported by critical thinking skills, is what enables us to make distinctions between what is good, bad, right, or wrong.An individual's ethical system is based upon his or her personal values and beliefs as they relate to what is important and is, therefore, highly individualized. Values are things that are important to us. "Values can be categorized into three areas: Moral (fairness, truth, justice, love, happiness), Pragmatic (efficiency, thrift, health, variety, patience) and Aesthetic (attractive, soft, cold, square)" (Navran, n.d.). Moral values influence our ethical system. These values may or may not be supported
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by individual beliefs. For example, a person is faced with a decision—he borrowed a friend's car and accidentally backed into a tree stump, denting the fender—should he confess or make up a story about how it happened when the car was parked? If he had a personal value of honesty, he would decide not to lie to his friend. Or, he could have a strong belief that lying is wrong because it shows disrespect for another person and, therefore, he would tell the truth. In either case, the ethical decision making was influenced by his system of values or beliefs. These may come from family, culture, experience, education, and so on.This discussion brings us to the term ethics. Frank Navran, principal consultant with the Ethics Resource Center (ERC), defines ethics as "the study of what we understand to be good and right behavior and how people make those judgments" (n.d.). Behavior that is consistent with one's moral values would be considered ethical behavior. Actions that are inconsistent with one's view of right, just, and good are considered unethical behavior. However, it is important to note that determining what is ethical is not just an individual decision—it also is determined societally.We will witness this larger social dimension in this course, which is designed to provide you with an understanding of the specific ethical issues that have arisen as information technology has evolved over the last few decades. The very changes that enhanced technology causes in society also create ethical issues and dilemmas not previously encountered. The lack of precedent in many areas, combined with the ease of potentially operating outside of ethical paradigms, pose significant challenges to end users, IT analysts, programmers, technicians, and managers of information systems. We must be prepared logically and scientifically to understand ethics and to practice using ethical guidelines in order to achieve good and right solutions and to plan courses of action in times of change and uncertainty.You can see from the benefits discussed above that knowledge, respect for, and a deeper understanding of norms and laws and their source—ethics and morals—is extremely useful. Ethical thought and theories are tools to facilitate our ethical decision-making process. They can provide the foundation on which to build a great company, or to become a better and more productive employee, a better neighbor, and a better person. Still, some professionals may wonder "Why study ethics?" Robert Hartley, author of Business Ethics: Violations of the Public Trust (Hartley, 1993, pp.322–324) closes his book with four insights, which speak directly to this question for business and IT professionals. They are:The modern era is one of caveat vendidor, "Let the seller beware." For IT managers, this is an important reason to understand and practiceethics.In business (and in life), adversity is not forever. But Hartley points out
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that when business problems are handled unethically, the adversity becomes a permanent flaw and results in company, organization, and individual failure.Trusting relationships (with customers, employees, and suppliers) are critical keys to success. Ethical behavior is part and parcel of building and maintaining the trust relationship, and hence business success.One person can make a difference. This difference may be for good or evil, but one person equipped with the understanding of ethical decision-making, either by acting on it or simply articulating it to others, changes history. This sometimes takes courage or steadfastness—qualities that spring from basic ethical confidence.In the world of information technology today and in the future, the application of these ethical theories to day-to-day and strategic decision making is particularly relevant. The ability to garner personal, corporate, and governmental information and to disseminate this data in thousands of applications with various configurations and components brings significant responsibilities to ensure the privacy, accuracy, and integrity of such information. The drive to collect and distribute data at increasing volume and speed, whether for competitive advantage in the marketplaceor homeland security cannot overshadow the IT manager's responsibility to provide appropriate controls, processes, and procedures to protect individual and organizational rights.Let's begin building our understanding of several predominant ethical theories. Ethical theories typically begin with the premise that what is being evaluated is good or bad, right or wrong. Theorists seek to examineeither the basic nature of the act or the results the act brings about. As Deborah Johnson (2001, p. 29) states in Computer Ethics, philosophical ethics is normative (explaining how things should be, not how they are at any given moment) and ethical theories are prescriptive (prescribing the "desired" behavior). Frameworks for ethical analysis aim to shape or guide the most beneficial outcome or behavior. There are two main categories of normative ethical theories: teleology and deontology. Telosrefers to end and deon refers to that which is obligatory. These theories address the fundamental question of whether the "means justify the end" or the "end justifies the means." Deontological ethical systems focus on the principle of the matter (the means), not the end result. In contrast, teleological ethical systems address the resulting consequences of an action (the ends).Return to top of pageTeleology (Consequentialism)Teleological theories focus on maximizing the goodness of the cumulative
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