Moor: What is Computer Ethics (2022)



Computers are special technology and they raise some special ethicalissues. In this essay I will discuss what makes computers different fromother technology and how this difference makes a difference in ethicalconsiderations. In particular, I want to characterize computer ethics andshow why this emerging field is both intellectually interesting and enormouslyimportant.

On my view, computer ethics is the analysis of the nature and social impactof computer technology and the corresponding formulation and justification ofpolicies for the ethical use of such technology. I use the phrase "computertechnology" because I take the subject matter of the field broadly to includecomputers and associated technology. For instance, I include concerns aboutsoftware as well as hardware and concerns about networks connecting computersas well as computers themselves.

A typical problem in computer ethics arises because there is a policyvacuum about how computer technology should be used. Computers provideus with new capabilities and these in turn give us new choices for action.Often, either no policies for conduct in these situations exist or existingpolicies seem inadequate. A central task of computer ethics is to determinewhat we should do in such cases, i.e., to formulate policies to guide ouractions. Of course, some ethical situations confront us as individualsand some as a society. Computer ethics includes consideration of both personaland social policies for the ethical use of computer technology.

Now it may seem that all that needs to be done is the mechanical applicationof an ethical theory to generate the appropriate policy. But this is usuallynot possible. A difficulty is that along with a policy vacuum there is often aconceptual vacuum. Although a problem in computer ethics may seem clearinitially, a little reflection reveals a conceptual muddle. What is needed insuch cases is an analysis which provides a coherent conceptual framework withinwhich to formulate a policy for action. Indeed, much of the important work incomputer ethics is devoted to proposing conceptual frameworks for understandingethical problems involving computer technology.

An example may help to clarify the kind of conceptual work that is required.Let's suppose we are trying to formulate a policy for protecting computerprograms. Initially, the idea may seem clear enough. We are looking for apolicy for protecting a kind of intellectual property. But then a number ofquestions which do not have obvious answers emerge. What is a computer program?Is it really intellectual property which can be owned or is it more like anidea, an algorithm, which is not owned by anybody? If a computer program isintellectual property, is it an expression of an idea that is owned(traditionally protectable by copyright) or is it a process that is owned(traditionally protectable by patent)? Is a machine-readable program a copy ofa human-readable program? Clearly, we need a conceptualization of the nature ofa computer program in order to answer these kinds of questions. Moreover,these questions must be answered in order to formulate a useful policy forprotecting computer programs. Notice that the conceptualization we pick willnot only affect how a policy will be applied but to a certain extent what thefacts are. For instance, in this case the conceptualization will determine whenprograms count as instances of the same program.

Even within a coherent conceptual framework, the formulation of a policy forusing computer technology can be difficult. As we consider different policieswe discover something about what we value and what we don't. Because computertechnology provides us with new possibilities for acting, new values emerge.For example, creating software has value in our culture which it didn't have afew decades ago. And old values have to be reconsidered. For instance,assuming software is intellectual property, why should intellectual property beprotected? In general, the consideration of alternative policies forces us todiscover and make explicit what our value preferences are.

The mark of a basic problem in computer ethics is one in which computertechnology is essentially involved and there is an uncertainty about whatto do and even about how to understand the situation. Hence, not all ethicalsituations involving computers are central to computer ethics. If a burglarsteals available office equipment including computers, then the burglarhas done something legally and ethically wrong. But this is really an issuefor general law and ethics. Computers are only accidently involved in thissituation, and there is no policy or conceptual vacuum to fill. The situationand the applicable policy are clear.

In one sense I am arguing for the special status of computer ethicsas a field of study. Applied ethics is not simply ethics applied. But,I also wish to stress the underlying importance of general ethics and scienceto computer ethics. Ethical theory provides categories and procedures fordetermining what is ethically relevant. For example, what kinds of thingsare good? What are our basic rights? What is an impartial point of view?These considerations are essential in comparing and justifying policiesfor ethical conduct. Similarly, scientific information is crucial in ethicalevaluations. It is amazing how many times ethical disputes turn not ondisagreements about values but on disagreements about facts.

On my view, computer ethics is a dynamic and complex field of studywhich considers the relationships among facts, conceptualizations, policiesand values with regard to constantly changing computer technology. Computerethics is not a fixed set of rules which one shellacs and hangs on thewall. Nor is computer ethics the rote application of ethical principlesto a value-free technology. Computer ethics requires us to think anew aboutthe nature of computer technology and our values. Although computer ethicsis a field between science and ethics and depends on them, it is also adiscipline in its own right which provides both conceptualizations forunderstanding and policies for using computer technology.

Though I have indicated some of the intellectually interesting featuresof computer ethics, I have not said much about the problems of the fieldor about its practical importance. The only example I have used so faris the issue of protecting computer programs which may seem to be a verynarrow concern. In fact, I believe the domain of computer ethics is quitelarge and extends to issues which affect all of us. Now I want to turnto a consideration of these issues and argue for the practical importanceof computer ethics. I will proceed not by giving a list of problems butrather by analyzing the conditions and forces which generate ethical issuesabout computer technology. In particular, I want to analyze what is specialabout computers, what social impact computers will have, and what is operationallysuspect about computing technology. I hope to show something of the natureof computer ethics by doing some computer ethics.


What is special about computers? It is often said that a Computer Revolutionis taking place, but what is it about computers that makes them revolutionary?One difficulty in assessing the revolutionary nature of computers is that theword "revolutionary" has been devalued. Even minor technological improvementsare heralded as revolutionary. A manufacturer of a new dripless pouring spoutmay well promote it as revolutionary. If minor technological improvements arerevolutionary, then undoubtedly everchanging computer technology isrevolutionary. The interesting issue, of course, is whether there is somenontrivial sense in which computers are revolutionary. What makes computertechnology importantly different from other technology? Is there any real basisfor comparing the Computer Revolution with the Industrial Revolution?

If we look around for features that make computers revolutionary, severalfeatures suggest themselves. For example, in our society computers areaffordable and abundant. It is not much of an exaggeration to say thatcurrently in our society every major business, factory, school, bank, andhospital is rushing to utilize computer technology. Millions of personalcomputers are being sold for home use. Moreover, computers are integralparts of products which don't look much like computers such as watchesand automobiles. Computers are abundant and inexpensive, but so are pencils.Mere abundance and affordability don't seem sufficient to justify any claimto technological revolution.

One might claim the newness of computers makes them revolutionary. Such athesis requires qualification. Electronic digital computers have been aroundfor forty years. In fact, if the abacus counts as a computer, then computertechnology is among the oldest technologies. A better way to state this claimis that recent engineering advances in computers make them revolutionary.Obviously, computers have been immensely improved over the last forty years.Along with dramatic increases in computer speed and memory there have beendramatic decreases in computer size. Computer manufacturers are quick to pointout that desk top computers today exceed the engineering specifications ofcomputers which filled rooms only a few decades ago. There has been also adetermined effort by companies to make computer hardware and computer softwareeasier to use. Computers may not be completely user friendly but at least theyare much less unfriendly. However, as important as these features are, theydon't seem to get to the heart of the Computer Revolution. Small, fast,powerful and easy-to-use electric can openers are great improvements overearlier can openers, but they aren't in the relevant sense revolutionary.

Of course, it is important that computers are abundant, less expensive,smaller, faster, and more powerful and friendly. But, these features serveas enabling conditions for the spread of the Computer Revolution. The essenceof the Computer Revolution is found in the nature of a computer itself.What is revolutionary about computers is logical malleability. Computersare logically malleable in that they can be shaped and molded to do anyactivity that can be characterized in terms of inputs, outputs, and connectinglogical operations. Logical operations are the precisely defined stepswhich take a computer from one state to the next. The logic of computerscan be massaged and shaped in endless ways through changes in hardwareand software. Just as the power of a steam engine was a raw resource ofthe Industrial Revolution so the logic of a computer is a raw resourceof the Computer Revolution. Because logic applies everywhere, the potentialapplications of computer technology appear limitless. The computer is thenearest thing we have to a universal tool. Indeed, the limits of computersare largely the limits of our own creativity. The driving question of theComputer Revolution is "How can we mold the logic of computers to betterserve our purposes?"

I think logical malleability explains the already widespread applicationof computers and hints at the enormous impact computers are destined tohave. Understanding the logical malleability of computers is essentialto understanding the power of the developing technological revolution.Understanding logical malleability is also important in setting policiesfor the use of computers. Other ways of conceiving computers serve lesswell as a basis for formulating and justifying policies for action.

Consider an alternative and popular conception of computers in whichcomputers are understood as number crunchers, i.e., essentially as numericaldevices. On this conception computers are nothing but big calculators. Itmight be maintained on this view that mathematical and scientific applicationsshould take precedence over nonnumerical applications such as word processing.My position, on the contrary, is that computers are logically malleable. Thearithmetic interpretation is certainly a correct one, but it is only one amongmany interpretations. Logical malleability has both a syntactic and a semanticdimension. Syntactically, the logic of computers is malleable in terms of thenumber and variety of possible states and operations. Semantically, the logicof computers is malleable in that the states of the computer can be taken torepresent anything. Computers manipulate symbols but they don't care what thesymbols represent. Thus, there is no ontological basis for giving preference tonumerical applications over nonnumerical applications.

The fact that computers can be described in mathematical language, evenat a very low level, doesn't make them essentially numerical. For example,machine language is conveniently and traditionally expressed in 0's andl's. But the 0's and l's simply designate different physical states. Wecould label these states as "on" and "off" or "yin" and "yang" and applybinary logic. Obviously, at some levels it is useful to use mathematicalnotation to describe computer operations, and it is reasonable to use it.The mistake is to reify the mathematical notation as the essence of a computerand then use this conception to make judgments about the appropriate useof computers.

In general, our conceptions of computer technology will affect ourpolicies for using it. I believe the importance of properly conceivingthe nature and impact of computer technology will increase as the ComputerRevolution unfolds.


Because the Computer Revolution is in progress, it is difficult to get aperspective on its development. By looking at the Industrial Revolution Ibelieve we can get some insight into the nature of a technological revolution.Roughly, the Industrial Revolution in England occurred in two major stages.The first stage was the technological introduction stage which took placeduring the last half of the Eighteenth Century. During this stage inventionsand processes were introduced, tested, and improved. There was anindustrialization of limited segments of the economy, particularly inagriculture and textiles. The second stage was the technological permeationstage which took place during the Nineteenth Century. As factory work increasedand the populations of cities swelled, not only did well known social evilsemerge, but equally significantly corresponding changes in human activities andinstitutions, ranging from labor unions to health services, occurred. Theforces of industrialization dramatically transformed the society.

My conjecture is that the Computer Revolution will follow a similartwo stage development. The first stage, the introduction stage, has beenoccurring during the last forty years. Electronic computers have been createdand refined. We are gradually entering the second stage, the permeationstage, in which computer technology will become an integral part of institutionsthroughout our society. I think that in the coming decades many human activitiesand social institutions will be transformed by computer technology andthat this transforming effect of computerization will raise a wide rangeof issues for computer ethics.

What I mean by "transformed" is that the basic nature or purpose ofan activity or institution is changed. This is marked by the kinds of questionsthat are asked. During the introduction stage computers are understoodas tools for doing standard jobs. A typical question for this stage is"How well does a computer do such and such an activity?" Later, duringthe permeation stage, computers become an integral part of the activity.A typical question for this stage is "What is the nature and value of suchand such an activity?" In our society there is already some evidence ofthe transforming effect of computerization as marked by the kind of questionsbeing asked.

For example, for years computers have been used to count votes. Nowthe election process is becoming highly computerized. Computers can beused to count votes and to make projections about the outcome. Televisionnetworks use computers both to determine quickly who is winning and todisplay the results in a technologically impressive manner. During thelast presidential election in the United States [1984] the television networksprojected the results not only before the polls in California were closedbut also before the polls in New York were closed. In fact, voting wasstill going on in over half the states when the winner was announced. Thequestion is no longer "How efficiently do computers count votes in a fairelection?" but "What is a fair election?" Is it appropriate that some peopleknow the outcome before they vote? The problem is that computers not onlytabulate the votes for each candidate but likely influence the number anddistribution of these votes. For better or worse, our electoral processis being transformed.

As computers permeate more and more of our society, I think we willsee more and more of the transforming effect of computers on our basicinstitutions and practices. Nobody can know for sure how our computerizedsociety will look fifty years from now, but it is reasonable to think thatvarious aspects of our daily work will be transformed. Computers have beenused for years by businesses to expedite routine work, such as calculatingpayrolls; but as personal computers become widespread and allow executivesto work at home, and as robots do more and more factory work, the emergingquestion will be not merely "How well do computers help us work?" but "Whatis the nature of this work?"

Traditional work may no longer be defined as something that normally happensat a specific time or a specific place. Work for us may become less doing a jobthan instructing a computer to do a job. As the concept of work begins tochange, the values associated with the old concept will have to be reexamined.Executives who work at a computer terminal at home will lose some spontaneousinteraction with colleagues. Factory workers who direct robots by pressingbuttons may take less pride in a finished product. And similar effects can beexpected in other types of work. Commercial pilots who watch computers flytheir planes may find their jobs to be different from what they expected.

A further example of the transforming effect of computer technologyis found in financial institutions. As the transfer and storage of fundsbecomes increasingly computerized the question will be not merely "Howwell do computers count money?" but "What is money?" For instance, in acashless society in which debits are made to one's account electronicallyat the point of sale, has money disappeared in favor of computer recordsor have electronic impulses become money? What opportunities and valuesare lost or gained when money becomes intangible?

Still another likely area for the transforming effect of computersis education. Currently, educational packages for computers are ratherlimited. Now it is quite proper to ask "How well do computers educate?"But as teachers and students exchange more and more information indirectlyvia computer networks and as computers take over more routine instructionalactivities, the question will inevitably switch to "What is education?"The values associated with the traditional way of educating will be challenged.How much human contact is necessary or desirable for learning? What iseducation when computers do the teaching?

The point of this futuristic discussion is to suggest the likely impact ofcomputer technology. Though I don't know what the details will be, I believethe kind of transformation I am suggesting is likely to occur. This is all Ineed to support my argument for the practical importance of computer ethics. Inbrief, the argument is as follows: The revolutionary feature of computers istheir logical malleability. Logical malleability assures the enormousapplication of computer technology. This will bring about the ComputerRevolution. During the Computer Revolution many of our human activities andsocial institutions will be transformed. These transformations will leave uswith policy and conceptual vacuums about how to use computer technology. Suchpolicy and conceptual vacuums are the marks of basic problems within computerethics. Therefore, computer ethics is a field of substantial practicalimportance.

I find this argument for the practical value of computer ethics convincing.I think it shows that computer ethics is likely to have increasing applicationin our society. This argument does rest on a vision of the Computer Revolutionwhich not everyone may share. Therefore, I will turn to another argumentfor the practical importance of computer ethics which doesn't depend uponany particular view of the Computer Revolution. This argument rests onthe invisibility factor and suggests a number of ethical issues confrontingcomputer ethics now.


There is an important fact about computers. Most of the time and under mostconditions computer operations are invisible. One may be quite knowledgeableabout the inputs and outputs of a computer and only dimly aware of the internalprocessing. This invisibility factor often generates policy vacuums about howto use computer technology. Here I will mention three kinds of invisibilitywhich can have ethical significance.

The most obvious kind of invisibility which has ethical significanceis invisible abuse. Invisible abuse is the intentional use of the invisibleoperations of a computer to engage in unethical conduct. A classic exampleof this is the case of a programmer who realized he could steal excessinterest from a bank. When interest on a bank account is calculated, thereis often a fraction of a cent left over after rounding off. This programmerinstructed a computer to deposit these fractions of a cent to his own account.Although this is an ordinary case of stealing, it is relevant to computerethics in that computer technology is essentially involved and there isa question about what policy to institute in order to best detect and preventsuch abuse. Without access to the program used for stealing the interestor to a sophisticated accounting program such an activity may easily goun-noticed.

Another possibility for invisible abuse is the invasion of the propertyand privacy of others. A computer can be programmed to contact anothercomputer over phone lines and surreptitiously remove or alter confidentialinformation. Sometimes an inexpensive computer and a telephone hookup isall it takes. A group of teenagers, who named themselves "the 414s" afterthe Milwaukee telephone exchange, used their home computers to invade aNew York hospital, a California bank, and a government nuclear weaponslaboratory. These break-ins were done as pranks, but obviously such invasionscan be done with malice and be difficult or impossible to detect.

A particularly insidious example of invisible abuse is the use of computersfor surveillance. For instance, a company's central computer can monitorthe work done on computer terminals far better and more discreetly thanthe most dedicated sweatshop manager. Also, computers can be programmedto monitor phone calls and electronic mail without giving any evidenceof tampering. A Texas oil company, for example, was baffled why it wasalways outbid on leasing rights for Alaskan territory until it discoveredanother bidder was tapping its data transmission lines near its Alaskancomputer terminal.

A second variety of the invisibility factor, which is more subtle andconceptually interesting than the first, is the presence of invisibleprogramming values. Invisible programming values are those values which areembedded in a computer program.

Writing a computer program is like building a house. No matter how detailedthe specifications may be, a builder must make numerous decisions about mattersnot specified in order to construct the house. Different houses are compatiblewith a given set of specifications. Similarly, a request for a computer programis made at a level of abstraction usually far removed from the details of theactual programming language. In order to implement a program which satisfiesthe specifications a programmer makes some value judgments about what isimportant and what is not. These values become embedded in the final productand may be invisible to someone who runs the program.

Consider, for example, computerized airline reservations. Many differentprograms could be written to produce a reservation service. American Airlinesonce promoted such a service called "SABRE". This program had a bias forAmerican Airline flights built in so that sometimes an American Airlineflight was suggested by the computer even if it was not the best flightavailable. Indeed, Braniff Airlines, which went into bankruptcy for awhile,sued American Airlines on the grounds that this kind of bias in the reservationservice contributed to its financial difficulties.

Although the general use of a biased reservation service is ethicallysuspicious, a programmer of such a service may or may not be engaged ininvisible abuse. There may be a difference between how a programmer intendsa program to be used and how it is actually used. Moreover, even if onesets out to create a program for a completely unbiased reservation service,some value judgments are latent in the program because some choices haveto be made about how the program operates. Are airlines listed in alphabeticalorder? Is more than one listed at a time? Are flights just before the timerequested listed? For what period after the time requested are flightslisted? Some answers, at least implicitly, have to be given to these questionswhen the program is written. Whatever answers are chosen will build certainvalues into the program.

Sometimes invisible programming values are so invisible that even theprogrammers are unaware of them. Programs may have bugs or may be based onimplicit assumptions which don't become obvious until there is a crisis. Forexample, the operators of the ill-fated Three Mile Island nuclear power plantwere trained on a computer which was programmed to simulate possiblemalfunctions including malfunctions which were dependent on other malfunctions.But, as the Kemeny Commission which investigated the disaster discovered, thesimulator was not programmed to generate simultaneous, independentmalfunctions. In the actual failure at Three Mile Island the operators werefaced with exactly this situation simultaneous, independent malfunctions. Theinadequacy of the computer simulation was the result of a programming decision,as unconscious or implicit as that decision may have been. Shortly after thedisaster the computer was reprogrammed to simulate situations like the one thatdid occur at Three Mile Island.

A third variety of the invisibility factor, which is perhaps the mostdisturbing, is invisible complex calculation. Computers today are capable ofenormous calculations beyond human comprehension. Even if a program isunderstood, it does not follow that the calculations based on that program areunderstood. Computers today perform, and certainly supercomputers in the futurewill perform, calculations which are too complex for human inspection andunderstanding.

An interesting example of such complex calculation occurred in 1976 when acomputer worked on the four color conjecture. The four color problem, a puzzlemathematicians have worked on for over a century is to show that a map can becolored with at most four colors so that no adjacent areas have the same color.Mathematicians at the University of Illinois broke the problem down intothousands of cases and programmed computers to consider them. After more than athousand hours of computer time on various computers, the four color conjecturewas proved correct. What is interesting about this mathematical proof, comparedto traditional proofs, is that it is largely invisible. The general structureof the proof is known and found in the program and any particular part of thecomputer's activity can be examined, but practically speaking the calculationsare too enormous for humans to examine them all.

The issue is how much we should trust a computer's invisible calculations.This becomes a significant ethical issue as the consequences grow inimportance. For instance, computers are used by the military in makingdecisions about launching nuclear weapons. On the one hand, computers arefallible and there may not be time to confirm their assessment of thesituation. On the other hand, making decisions about launching nuclear weaponswithout using computers may be even more fallible and more dangerous. Whatshould be our policy about trusting invisible calculations?

A partial solution to the invisibility problem may lie with computersthemselves. One of the strengths of computers is the ability to locate hiddeninformation and display it. Computers can make the invisible visible.Information which is lost in a sea of data can be clearly revealed with theproper computer analysis. But, that's the catch. We don't always know when,where, and how to direct the computer's attention. The invisibility factorpresents us with a dilemma. We are happy in one sense that the operations of acomputer are invisible. We don't want to inspect every computerized transactionor program every step for ourselves or watch every computer calculation. Interms of efficiency the invisibility factor is a blessing. But it is just thisinvisibility that makes us vulnerable. We are open to invisible abuse orinvisible programming of inappropriate values or invisible miscalculation. Thechallenge for computer ethics is to formulate policies which will help us dealwith this dilemma. We must decide when to trust computers and when not to trustthem. This is another reason why computer ethics is so important.

Dartmouth College

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