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Waning ethics in Computer Science and IT

By turtleshadow in Culture
Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 08:21:57 AM EST
Tags: Round Table (all tags)
Round Table

Recently community discussions, technology aside, have really been about ethics and philosophy in relation to Computer Science. The gamut of discussion has ranged from collaboration in programming and plagiarism , utilizing technology to alter identity, and outright attempts at legislated invasion of privacy. All this round about buzz of ethics and philosophy really begs the question, "What is there out in the world to assist students and professionals alike prepare and deal with the pressures of profit, of instant communication and now things like ungodly genetic bit twiddling?"

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comments (24)
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For the past few months community discussions have often revolved around discussions of ethics and philosophy in relation to Computer Science. The discussions have ranged from direct IT related what is collaboration and what is plagarism , utilizing technology to alter, mask or masquerade your persona , and outright attempts at circumventing privacy; Echelon & Carnivore. Issues also have included business practices that could only be carried because of the technology and of course how we interact in the presence of technology.

In doing a quick search at my Alma Mater I did not find a specific course in the CS curriculum. I had to go into the way back machine and determined the single course I was obliged to take was offered by the Department of Philosophy.

In doing a quick search of a few Universities, there was a substantial range in offerings from none, like mine; offered by another department, or a full Senior level seminar. While I know some K5 folks will say classes upon ethics are like classes concerning parenting -- disjointed and not very practical.
So I looked at the professional organizations searching ACM the SIGCAR after 30 years seems to not have been active for some time as their last published quarterly notes were 9/99. The IEEE group appears more active. But I don't see such professional organizations at most technical conferences, their impact at work; in terms of technical accreditation or in the trade in general.
I ask the community for a discussion of whether or not the University/Professional Training systems are doing the job in turning out technically sound and well rounded individuals that have the life skills to begin dealing with the sharks of the real world.

If not, discuss at the roundtable what is lacking.


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What is your formal training in ethics
o Stealing candy from babies is OK 14%
o Had a course, skipped all year & used the answers on the final from a testfile 3%
o None - don't need no stinking ethics 14%
o Just use K5 9%
o 1 course 21%
o 1 lecture or assignment 0%
o Can pass a "purity" test 13%
o Strive to not pass a "purity" test 23%

Votes: 76
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o genetic bit twiddling?"
o what is collaboration and what is plagarism
o persona
o Echelon
o Carnivore.
o practices
o interact
o Alma Mater
o active.
o Also by turtleshadow

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Waning ethics in Computer Science and IT | 43 comments (41 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Not waning... (3.80 / 5) (#1)
by ucblockhead on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 11:25:27 PM EST

I voted this up, because I think ethics discussions are badly needed, but I have to say that the premise in the title is incorrect in my view. Ethics isn't waning. It is at the same low level that its been since I've been involved in computers.

The technology has changed the way things work, but the people act pretty much the same. Plagiarism in computer assignments was common when I went to school in the mid eighties.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
If not waning, then what? (4.00 / 5) (#9)
by sugarman on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 01:51:04 AM EST

I'll agree that I don't think ethics are getting worse. They've never been great to begin with. The question is, is the lack of ethics in IT symptomatic of a lack of ethics in society as a whole, or is it endemic to the industry?

I mean one could argue that with role models such as Gates and Ellison, we might not be following in the best footsteps. However, Gates' whole "squeeze blood from a stone" mentality descends from what he perceived was theft of his personal work with the Altair compiler (I think I got the history right. Ah well, I will be corrected if I'm wrong.)

From a personal standpoint, some of my earliest memories are cracked games on a C-64 or Atari ST. So it had seemed right or natural to me for a while when growing up. Kinda the same way tape-trading was not a big deal. So the seeds are planted early on.

Or maybe it's just having to deal with lawyers and licensing issues that has rubbed off on us and removed all the good from our souls. I'm not sure, but I'd be interested in what some of the rest of you view the root cause(s) as.
[ Parent ]

Techies (3.25 / 4) (#11)
by ucblockhead on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 02:09:49 AM EST

Well, I think general ethics in society have never been particularly high, but I do think that us technical types often have something of an ethical blindspot. All too often, we spend so much time thinking about what we can do and not enough time thinking about what we should do. I suspect that a lot of really odious software solutions (carnivote, etc.) are created by people who think a whole lot about neat ideas and how to implement them, and too little about what, perhaps, they actually ought to be doing. Cracking is really the same thing. I remember being into the whole cracking thing, and truth was, the technical fun of the cracking was 75% of the attraction. In retrospect, that was an ethical mistake.
This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
Speeding to Laziness (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by turtleshadow on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 08:56:32 PM EST

I also cut my teeth on C=64, actually the Vic20. I think there are numerous root causes that at once are independent but also tend to enhance each others affects.
Probably the most important cause is the speed to laziness. We have all recognized it in ourselves and others.
  • Why be creative when you can plagairize.
  • Why buy when you can copy
  • Why learn when you just use what the last guy did
  • Why pay when someone else will get stuck with the bill
Poor exercise of self control and self-discipline, as you and other have said are not identifyable to CS or IT alone. Such things exists in all professions.

However I think the speed at which we can debase ourselves is perhaps abetted by the technology we use, seek and develop.
There is only one other other technology that allows instant porn on demand, and allows satisfaction of increasing voyeristic tendencies -- T.V. Companies developing IT methods to overtake T.V. because it offers an interactive piece that people seem ill equipped to resist thus creating a path to huge irresistable profits.
This speed is also deeply ingrained early on, we allow children even younger than preschool to be exposed to the speed, ie a computer flashing PIG spells PIG & somehow the kids learn faster. Kids learn to use the Internet to complete that last minute report. IIRC pushes instant communication to almost an inaliable right for teens.

The second is melencholy, not the violent or depressive type. I cant find the full name but its what the Greeks and other ancient cultures observed it and it's summed by saying "even the brightest can dulled by boredom with themselves." Having friends that buy and buy the latest games, TVs, gadgets, nicknacks, House and cars never to be satisfied. I have to scratch my head at this spiral. They seem to have to have these things, which never hold their heart for long at often any cost. Its like they cant escape themselves to question their own behaviors. I associate this melencholy to the answers given to why alot of research is done under the vestigages "We have done it because it was possible. We must use it because it exists." This is the type of research I think the world is better off without. The CNN article was a subconcious attempt at demonstrating this.
The reason why they did is because they wanted to prove a principle. If you can insert a gene from a jellyfish into a monkey, then you can insert a gene theoretically of a human being into a monkey .....Scientists actually don't hope to reach that goal. We've talked to many scientists and many ethicists, and they said they don't know of anyone who is trying to insert a gene from one species into a human being. Now that they have done it with a monkey, theoretically that would be possible, but there doesn't seem to be any medical or clinical reason why you would want to do that. --Cohen
So what is my root cause analysis. Simple lack of patience and melancholy. Something the Greeks couldn't figure out how to cure but now can happen at 100 fold speed and with near instant gratifcation that lasts only an instance.


[ Parent ]
Ungodly? (4.33 / 3) (#2)
by delmoi on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 11:31:34 PM EST

What is people's problem with genetic enginering? I honestly do not understand this at all.
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
Well this just came up today: (1.00 / 3) (#3)
by swf on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 11:48:55 PM EST

Where was it? Hmmm... here it is

[ Parent ]
link doesn't work (2.00 / 1) (#16)
by codemonkey_uk on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 05:46:57 AM EST

The page or file you've requested doesn't seem to exist on this server. You may have followed an incorrect link, typed the address incorrectly, or the page may have moved.

"The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way." - Bertrand Russell
[ Parent ]
Marking 0 is for trolling or abuse... (4.00 / 2) (#18)
by itsbruce on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 06:38:38 AM EST

not for simple errors. Marked up to amend. Please read the rating guidelines.


It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Corrected, but (4.00 / 2) (#20)
by codemonkey_uk on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 07:14:53 AM EST

I've re moderated to 1, but it poses the question:

What is the difference between a comment that only contains a broken link, and spam / troll? How do you tell the difference between a deliberate time waster, and an innocent mistake?
"The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way." - Bertrand Russell
[ Parent ]

Excercise restraint (4.25 / 4) (#21)
by itsbruce on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 08:14:23 AM EST

Mark 0 if the content is obviously malicious or spamful. If it's just inane or useless, mark a 1.


It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
abc.net.au eagerly archive (3.00 / 2) (#19)
by titus-g on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 06:51:33 AM EST

http://www.abc.net.au/news/newslink/weekly/newsnat-12jan2001-48.htm is where it's at now.

--"Essentially madness is like charity, it begins at home" --
[ Parent ]

not that I agree with these reasons (4.00 / 2) (#4)
by xriso on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 11:51:09 PM EST

but... Invasion into "organic" crops (intellectual property worsens the effect). Elite society of better people (see Gattacca). Harmful side-effects in food. Difficulty for farmers who cannot licence the GM crops (again, intellectual property). Malicious creation of harmful life. Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt.

Feel free to add reasons.
*** Quits: xriso:#kuro5hin (Forever)
[ Parent ]

treading on god's territory!!!!!!!*!#&@%^!&$4 (5.00 / 4) (#22)
by sayke on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 09:09:31 AM EST

check out this paper on what people think about genetic engineering. the executive summery is pretty enlightening... in essence, people are f00kin wacked. what it comes down to is a reflexive fear of the unknown, combined with an automatic dislike of making that-which-is-similar-to-us, less similar to us... both are, i think, rooted deeply in our evolutionary heritage. gee, thanks, evolution... for a decent set of arguments in favor of genetic engineering, check out this paper. i think it does a very decent job of refuting the common arguments against genetic engineering, and although i disagree with the author's choice of socio-ethical foundation (rule utilitarianism), it does not detract from his arguments in the slightest.

sayke, v2.3.1 /* i am the middle finger of the invisible hand */
[ Parent ]

Ethics and Technology are not closely related (4.66 / 9) (#5)
by theboz on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 11:59:31 PM EST

Part of the problem with people is that they (no, I am not human) tend to give personality traits to things that are not alive. This personification of things...such as saying that guns are evil...computers are intelligent...etc. is just ignorance and superstition on the part of the person discussing it. Technology is just another word to describe tools. So, when it comes to information technology, people expect to use the technology to give morals. This is the problem with censorware: computers are not sentient, and thus can not be moral creatures. Even if we can give a guide of morals, such as the 10 commandments, they are subjective to the person. Maybe I would prefer to have a robot that knows the three rules Asimov set up. Maybe I want to develop a military robot, so it would have to break the first rule. The morals change on the situation and on the use.

Since we have established that technology itself can not be held accountable for the moral usage of it, where do we look? People. The people have to bear the sole responsibility of the morals here. Now, we are living in a society where there are many different cultures and different morals clashing. We have libertarians and we have communists. How can we teach a class on morals, when we have such different ideals? This doesn't just apply to technology but to life in general. I think your focus is a bit too narrow when you look only at I.T. and computer science. It is everything that we are questioning our morals and such on.

What people really need, rather than being spoon-fed popular morals, is good critical thinking. We should be taught to listen with an open mind, and process things in our brain to know if they are true or false, good or bad. The morals we decide ourselves. Pretty much everyone agrees that stealing is wrong. But why do we think that? What is stealing exactly? Who does it hurt and how? People need to consider these things before they can even really consider stealing to be bad. It is the same way with technology. We need to ask ourselves questions such as:

  • Do computers allow me more freedom of speech, even if I can use it to lie and say harmful things to others? Would I want them to do that to me? What limits, if any can we make to protect us?
  • Does the ease of copying programs and data with computers constitute stealing? Can it be considered stealing when I copy something and the person has lost nothing? If I didn't get it free, would I have paid for it anyways? Is this still wrong?
  • Should we keep this open to people from all ages? What can we do to protect children from seeing bad things? Who's responsibility is it to protect children? How can this infringe on the rights of others if we censor things? What alternatives are there?
  • What bad things could happen with the control large businesses are having on my life? How are they getting more control in the government? What can I do to have my voice heard?

There are many other things. Rather than just telling people what to think, we should teach them how to think for themselves and let them draw their own conclusions. We need to teach critical thinking, skepticism, and the methods of science. Scientific method and democracy go hand in hand and are what a people need to survive. Ignorance is the destroyer of freedom and knowledge. If we are surrounded by ignorant people we get dumber; if we are surrounded by people smarter than us we gain knowledge. There is a saying that "iron sharpens iron" so we need to make ourselves better people and to think clearly, and most importantly teach others how to think for themselves. If they don't want to know, that is their choice as well, but ignorance is taught. All children have a natural curiosity, but eventually we are taught that we should not ask questions and just accept things on "faith" of some sort. We can unlearn this bad habit of just accepting everything as sheep, and become thinkers as we were when we were children.

There's a world of potential in every person. We all have the ability to better ourselves. I would say if you need guidance, turn to someone that knows more than you. Your grandparents, for example, have lived a long time and experienced a lot. They have learned lessons that you don't need to if you can just listen to them.

Listen, process what you heard in your mind, and build your own morals from there. You are the god of the universe between your ears. Live up to your responsibility to make yourself the best person you can be.


Not enough poll choices. (4.60 / 5) (#7)
by elenchos on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 12:10:50 AM EST

At Gonzaga all students, even the engineers, are required to take three 3-credit hour Religious Studies classes: one each at the 100 (scripture), 200 (doctrine), and 300 (applied theology) levels; and four Philosophy classes: a 2-cr PHIL 101 Critical Thinking, 3-cr PHIL 201 Human Nature, 3-cr PHIL 301 Ethics, and finally a 3-cr 400-level philosophy class. Most CS students take Ethical Issues in the Use of Computers for their 400-level because it is crosslisted as a CS course as well. That's seven classes, totaling 20 credit hours of ethics, morals and religion.

Does it make bad people good? No. I think that was determined by the way their parents raised them during the time they were small children until adolescence. Possibly some prospective students look at the catalog of a school like this and say "No way am I going to waste my time with all that libbo fluff!" I think they are right, and they should go to a 2 year tech school like ITT, rather than wank around getting a bachelor's degree when that is not what they really want. Whereas those who actually wonder about the deeper questions, and think about the implications of their choices (Ethical people? Or just sentimental?) would be attracted to a school like this.

As far as if techs are generally unethical, can you imagine how it would be if all the people who could crack if they wanted to, did crack? For every script kiddie and evil genius out there, there must be 10,000 people showing restraint. If they all cut loose, there would be no networks, no unpirated software, no Internet commerce, nothing. It would be... glorious!!!

No. No, it would suck for everyone. Which is why we are all so good so much of the time.


Disagree, somewhat. (3.00 / 3) (#8)
by simmons75 on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 12:19:10 AM EST

I went from CS in my junior year at college to Journalism, where I was required to take more than one class that dealt with ethics. The thing I found is that those with a strong sense of what was ethical acted in an ethical way, while those entering the class with a weak sense of the ethical stayed that way.

I fail to see the logic behind your premise. You've seen discussions on ethics in IT and CS, you looked at universities for classes on ethics, didn't find many, and conclude that ethical behavior is waning in CS and IT? It's quite a mental leap to make.
So there.

Ethics in other fields (4.00 / 6) (#10)
by CheSera on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 02:01:24 AM EST

This has already been mentioned, but I think it needes further debate. Although you are correct in pointing out that most institutions of higher learning don't offer ethical or moral teaching for each individual major (CS, EE, Physics, etc) there are pleanty of optinal elective courses in the philosophy courses.

You won't find an ethics course in the CS curriculum probably. Maybe a philosophy course dealing with logic, but ethics are, and in my opinion should be the domain of the philosophy department. I did a quick check of my university's course list, and discovered only one major that actually had an ethics purely for its students. Journalism. No ethics for Engineers, Physics, or musicians. In today's society ethical guidence is relegated to those who seek it out either in the philosophy department or in extra-university sources (church, parents, etc...)

I don't really think that we can expect individual colleges within a University to develop a specfic ethics course just for their students. Perhaps we require a certain measure of philosophic teaching in every student? The state here requires a certain number of foreign language credits, why not do this for philosophy as well? I doubt it would go over well. Students already complain about the amout of "non-essential" material hoisted upon them. A course that won't directly increase their ability in their chosen career will be met with stiff oposition most likely. As to whether or not the University is doing a good job of turning out well rounded individuals, perhaps you should ask if we as individuals are doing a good job of rounding ourselves?


University use be to about developing curriculum (none / 0) (#39)
by turtleshadow on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 09:50:30 PM EST

I will point you to sigwinch's excellent response as to some reasons why ethic exercises specific to the discipline can be beneficial. I see the political pressures of students questioning "non-essential" classes. Its their money they want the most bang for their buck. The bang being technical classes of a technical degree.
I equate this mentality as walking in the first day picking up the syllabus and asking the teacher what questions will be on the final, whats the minimum on how many tests to pass and study at that level. You can do that I believe your cheating yourself. I'll agree that the 4 year technical degree is a myth and its a hard economic decision to face what classes to take or not.

The commercialization of the University System worldwide, beginning in the 60s has really corroded the univeristy process IMHO. I would never have thought to do as I spoke above. However I see it regularly in technical classes -- "So what's the certification test like, what are the questions" The vendor is typically willing to overly oblige. More "experts == more market." I see this chiseling away at most eduation systems and it concens me.

To me a University (educators, students, alumni, local and distant community) should be concerned with developing a program that not only develops the student, but in doing so develops society as well. Unfortunately many concentrate on football programs loner than what we are discussing here at K5 and that concerns me more but is off topic.

As for you last sentance -Bravo!- exactly!

[ Parent ]
Courses in Ethics are Not Needed (4.00 / 5) (#12)
by Robert Uhl on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 02:47:35 AM EST

There are several problems with so-called `Ethics' courses. The first is that modern-day ethics are an excuse to do what one wants, provided sufficient rationalisation can be given. Since, due to our prejudices, they cannot proscribe any course of action, they are useless--they cannot say not to do something. If a good enough excuse can be contrived, then it's `ethical.' Ethics is watered-down morality, and morality is watered-down religion.

The second problem is that any moral system, however weak and baseless (and `ethics'--which I distinguish from true ethics--admits it is baseless, since to base itself within any particular framework would be to favour that framework), must be lived; it cannot be simply taught. One cannot become a poet by being taught, but by being a poet. One cannot learn how to laugh and love. One cannot learn to be ethical--one either is, or isn't.

If one truly wants to learn ethics and not `ethics,' turn to philosophy and theology. Find out what the great minds of history have believed. See which ones strike a chord. If one has a religion, find out what one's religion preaches; if not, see what atheist philosophers have to offer. After accumulating all this information, strive to put the theory into practice. Strive to live ethically. Start small: give that beggar on the side of the street a $20; don't lose your temper with your wife; be pleasant to that annoying jerk at work. Work your way up: stop supporting businesses and individuals that act unethically; demand a stand on principles; try to do good, not just refrain from evil.

Trying to get this in a class through the biased eyes of a teacher (we're all biased--to state otherwise is to kie through one's teeth) is a futile task; Sisyphus had a better chance of success.

dealing with beggars (3.60 / 5) (#13)
by mattc on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 04:06:51 AM EST

A friend recommended this to me, and I think it is a good idea.

Rather than give a beggar money, you should give them something they need, like food. Chances are if you give them $20 they will just go buy another cheap bottle of wine or get a quick blowjob from the local whore. So instead give them some food, or maybe clothes. Usually the beggars stand around in the same general area every day so it shouldn't be too difficult to plan ahead to give them somehting.

Of course, in my friend's case.. a homeless guy told him he was starving so my friend went to a restaurant, bought a few burgers, and brought them back to the guy. THe homeless guy was pissed off... you see, he wasn't really hungry, he just wanted money.

[ Parent ]

It's a Good Idea (3.16 / 6) (#14)
by Robert Uhl on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 04:44:28 AM EST

I try to keep a few cans of food in my car. But I really don't care what the beggars spend money on. If drink or drugs are what get them through their lives, who am I to stand in their way? What they spend the money on is their business; that I give it to them is mine. Not that I don't sympathise with your concern--hence my own choice to carry around food--but I'm very big on personal responsibility. My employer should have no say in how I spend what I earn; should I have a say in how they spend what they're given? That's between them and God.

Also, I'm sick of folks who won't give because `he'll spend it on drugs' or `why doesn't he get welfare?' So I figure I'll do my best to counter-act them.

[ Parent ]

Money for drugs? (5.00 / 3) (#30)
by FlightTest on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 01:52:29 PM EST

Also, I'm sick of folks who won't give because `he'll spend it on drugs' or `why doesn't he get welfare?' So I figure I'll do my best to counter-act them.

Okay, I'm seriously asking this question. This is not flame-bait. If the beggar had a sign that said "Need money for drugs" would you give him the money?

The reason I ask is, the beggar in question clearly lied about what he wanted: "Of course, in my friend's case.. a homeless guy told him he was starving so my friend went to a restaurant, bought a few burgers, and brought them back to the guy. THe homeless guy was pissed off... you see, he wasn't really hungry, he just wanted money." So it's okay for the beggar to lie about why he wants the money, but it's not okay to want to make sure that food is bought when the stated reason for asking for the money is for food?

And I think your anaolgy with your empolyeer is wrong as well. You are correct that your employeer has no right to tell you how to spend your money. But your employeer isn't giving you money because you promised to buy food with it. Your employeer is giving you money because you are promising to do (or have already done) something for him. When you give money to a beggar who claims to need money for food, you are giving the money in return for a promise to buy food. Your employeer would stop paying you if he reasonably believed you wouldn't do what you were hired to do. I don't give cash to beggars because I don't believe they will do with it what they are promising.

Why did I flip? I got tired of coming up with last minute desparate solutions to impossible problems created by other fucking people.
[ Parent ]
What about an Honest Sign? (4.00 / 1) (#34)
by Robert Uhl on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 04:34:04 PM EST

I really don't know what I'd do. I daresay I'd give it to him, out of respect for being honest. I've seen beggars camped out by bars downtown before, and given them money--it was pretty obvious where it was going to go.

And it's fine to give them food instead of cash--the whole point is doing something nice for someone. I just don't like it when conditions are attached on kindness. Then it's no longer kind. Thus I don't give money in return for a promise to behave--I give it in return for having given it. The act of charity is its own reward.

I will admit that one cna probably make a bit of money as a beggar . If even 6 people given one a twenty apiece each day you're making as much as I am, post-tax and deductions. Not too out-of-line downtown, I should think.

[ Parent ]

Good, but you can do better. (5.00 / 1) (#43)
by elenchos on Sat Jan 13, 2001 at 04:37:16 PM EST

I think your understanding of the puropose of charity is dead on right.

The problem is of practicality, in that giving in the street has two flaws: One, it encourages behavior that is anti-social (and really pisses off the yuppie conservatives, who are tightfisted enough as it is!); and two, your money could go much farther if you gave it to a homeless shelter, rehab program, or other organization. Five dollars barely buys one meal for the guy on the street you give it to. The same money at a shelter can feed several. And most shelters have additional programs in place to actually help change the lives of their clients, not just feed them for a day. By not encouraging begging, you are directing them towards a program that can do more for them than you can. Females, the elderly, and the sick are often also pushed out of the choice begging spots by stronger homeless men; you shouln't be rewarding that. A shelter will distrubute help to everyone more equally.

So you should take whatever you are giving to pan-handlers and put it in check written to a charity that can help them more. Five minutes spent talking with one of those who operate such charities will be enough to convince you, after all they know as much about how to help homeless people as anybody.

[ Parent ]

That's not the problem (4.00 / 1) (#41)
by Brandybuck on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 10:19:05 PM EST

The problem isn't that they'll just go spend the money on drugs. The problem is that they lie. They *say* they will spend the money on food, but then spend it on something else. I don't know that a specific homeless individual is lying, but experience teaches me that they most likely are.

[ Parent ]
I had a similar experience ... (5.00 / 1) (#33)
by DontTreadOnMe on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 03:52:59 PM EST

...where I gave a homeless man food and got yelled at because "he didn't want the premade roast beef sandwitch, he wanted one from the deli."

I no longer give any money to the homeless, and I yell rather aggressively at the clueless suburbanites who come into my neighborhood and do so. There is a shelter down the street from where I live where they get a free meal and a free place to sleep.

There is no excuse for giving money (or food, really) to the homeless ... doing so merely encourages and propogates the self-defeating behavior (expecting something for nothing, substance abuse, etc.) that is keeping them down and exposes you to unnecessary risk. Furthermore, it makes life less pleasant for those of us living in areas where one has to deal with begging on a daily basis, by encouraging that behavior as well.

If one wants to do some real good (and isn't just trying to impress their date with their misguided "sensitivity") one should donate one's money to your local homeless shelter instead. They are notoriously underfunded and, unlike the liquor store on the corner, actually do help the homeless rather than simply exploiting them.
http://openflick.org - Fighting Copyright with Free Media
[ Parent ]
Ethics != Morality (5.00 / 2) (#36)
by sigwinch on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 06:59:55 PM EST

The first is that modern-day ethics are an excuse to do what one wants, provided sufficient rationalisation can be given. Since, due to our prejudices, they cannot proscribe any course of action, they are useless--they cannot say not to do something. If a good enough excuse can be contrived, then it's `ethical.'

To me, ethics is the logic behind duty. It has nothing to do with -- and is in fact completely orthogonal to -- morality. Ethics does not depend on culture, moral reference frame, or opinion. It applies equally well to all intelligent, semi-rational beings, be they people, sapient aliens, intelligent robots, or whatever. (In fact, I would argue that the laws of ethics could be deduced game-theoretic fashion from simple axioms of interpresonal behavior.)

Ethics is watered-down morality, and morality is watered-down religion.

Morality and religion are also orthogonal, but that's a flamewar for another discussion.

One cannot learn to be ethical--one either is, or isn't.

Neither can education make one a good song writer, but the formal study of music, musical notation, melody, and poetry could certainly help. And so it is with ethics. The student of ethics is made to examine and study situations that might arise, and thus gain experience reasoning about them. Gaining this practice in advance is valuable, for one usually has little time for clear thinking when an ethical conundrum arises in one's own life. Real ethical decisions must be made quickly, and often in the face of people who are trying to manipulate you emotionally.

One approach an ethics course takes is progressive complication. An example: You work for a chemical company, and must dispose of used water. The water is not highly contaminated or anything -- it's just cheaper to use fresh tap water than to recycle it. Your duty is clear: dump the water in the lake, use fresh water from the municipal water supply. Justification: duty to not waste employer's money.

But a complication arises! (As they are wont to do when a philosophy professor is in the room. ;-) The used water contains small amounts of a chemical suspected of causing cancer, in concentrations that might just barely be dangerous, and the lake is used for the city water supply. Your duty is clear: recycle the water. Justification: duty to avoid injuring people who would drink the bad chemical. But another complication arises! The city's water purification process removes 99.5% of the chemical, rendering it essentially harmless. Duty: dump water. Justification: avoid wasting money recycling. But wait, another complication! Whiny uneducated environazis might bitch and moan anyway, giving the company expensive bad publicity. Does the bad publicity outweigh the recycling cost? And does the city's purification process really clean the water, or is it unreliable? What about fishing in the lake? How will it affect my career if I make a publically unpopular decision?

The example decisions are all completely divorced from morality, and center on simple abstractions of duty and monetary-equivalent cost, yet the proper course of action is not at all clear.

Trying to get this in a class through the biased eyes of a teacher ... is a futile task; Sisyphus had a better chance of success.

The goal of an ethics teacher is not to make the students ethical, no more than the goal of a mathematics teacher is to turn the students into good little numbers. Rather, it is to give the students the mental tools to rationally analyze ethical questions. And it must be done before a dilemma arises: you cannot self-teach the calculus of cost while the VP of Marketing is screaming at you about the production schedule you want to slip. At that point, you need to be able to lay out all the costs and benefits and rationally justify your actions. You also need to be able to make rational compromises, and you won't have weeks to think about it.

I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

Ethics are needed .. (4.75 / 4) (#15)
by StrontiumDog on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 05:40:51 AM EST

... IT workers are professionals just like professionals in any other area, and a short course in ethics would be appropriate. (There is a difference between a brief course in ethics, and a whole semester of philosophy). There is no need for courses on the morality of machines, or the Three Laws Of Robotics. A few essentials, common to many other professions, is adequate.

- Thou shalt not roger thy customer excessively. Yes, the User is a dumb beast, and yes, making a buck is OK, but the practice of charging that sweet old granny $500 for replugging her PC ("serious problems with the voltage connectivity, ma'am") is dubious at best. If your physician shafted you in the same manner ($500 for curing that serious rhinoviral infection) you wouldn't be too happy, either.

- Don't create a disease and then offer the cure. Scaring the shit needlessly out of a customer and then offering a cure is not ethically OK. Antivirus companies are guilty of this, as were the hordes of Y2K "solution providers". How would you like it if doctors screamed "Ebola!!!" everytime they saw you?

- Users have rights too. As sysadmin, just because you can read personal emails, confidential memos, and restricted files, does not mean you should. Restrain yourself.

- When developing software, do what your customer asks; don't provide rubbish in the knowledge he is unlikely to find out. Don't lie that your product is securely encrypted when all you did was add ROT-13 capability to it.

Much of this may seem self-evident, or nothing more than honest business ethics dressed up in an IT jacket. That is absolutely true. There's also nothing wrong with running it past CS students at least once. It is unfortunate that many ITers seem to have less professional ethics than used car salesmen. This is not entirely harmless: it may just be me, but the status of the IT world has taken a serious bashing in 2000, from its all-time high in 1999. First it was the Y2K debacle: Civilisation As We Know It failed to end. Then it was the crashing of the dotcoms, the telecoms fiasco, and the end of the New Economy. This did the image of the industry no good, and the blame must be laid in no small measure on the shoulders of the IT industry itself. Ethics courses will not cure everything, and the urge to make a quick buck will always exist, but they do help.

Users have RIGHTS??? (2.00 / 2) (#23)
by DAldredge on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 10:37:13 AM EST

Are you INSANE! Have you not read the BOFH chronicals!

The word is American, not USian.
American \A*mer"i*can\, n. A native of America; -- originally applied to the aboriginal inhabitants, but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America, and especially to the citizens of the US
[ Parent ]
BOFH (3.00 / 1) (#28)
by alt on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 12:53:22 PM EST

Please Define "BOFH" Thanks

[ Parent ]
BOFH (3.50 / 2) (#29)
by crazycanuck on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 01:45:49 PM EST

BOFH=bastard operator from hell.

do a search on google, or go to www.theregister.co.uk where they have the BOFH chronicles.

[ Parent ]
Credentials and Recourse for the consumers? (none / 0) (#38)
by turtleshadow on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 09:16:22 PM EST

Your points are interesting. However in other professions people and businesses can be stripped of credentials or go out of business when its good name goes flat.
Unfortunately after so many $500 bills the company goes out of business only to send its bad seeds elsewhere. I meet MCSE's, CNA, Sun Certified professions everyday but I have yet to hear any of my collegues discuss or mention any person that has lost or have been stripped because dubious ethics or practices. I really hear few mentions of, "don't hire that person; her/his word's worse than a carsalesman." From my experience its typically "he/she is not a good person but an excellent coder and the project is late as it is." Our we doing ourselves and our career field an injustice by allowing such slack in our own judgement?
I know that product certification, or industry experience doesn't equate an M.D. or well established name but some people, typically the trusting user really makes no difference, somehow the tech mystique carries something with it. As the party in the "know" should we be taking steps to educate them or protect them?
Would it help if Companies began yanking credentials and publicly at that.


[ Parent ]
Not that simple. (none / 0) (#42)
by Spinoza on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 11:53:25 PM EST

The Y2K thing was more a media circus than a result of professional IT workers being alarmist. I'd say the relevant ethic in this case for IT professionals is never, ever talk to the media. No good can come of it.

As for user privacy rights, generally what you say is true, but there are a few problems. What if, for instance, a user at your work is suspected of using his email account to sell company secrets? Under what circumstances, and to what extent is it ethical to read someone's email, (if it is at all)? Also, there is the not uncommon situation of disk quotas. If a user exceeds their disk quota, and fails to reduce their usage of space, it is up to an admin to reduce the space occupied by the user's files. What is the correct course of action here? Bear in mind that this may involve deleting user files, in extreme cases.

Finally, doing what your customer asks is a fine idea, but seldom so straightforward. Customers don't often have a clear enough idea of what they want to do exactly that. Blanks must be filled in by the developer. Sometimes customers ask for things that are impossible. Sometimes impossible deadlines are set. Sometimes people won't listen to reason.

[ Parent ]

Ethics are waning everywhere (4.00 / 2) (#24)
by DJBongHit on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 11:05:55 AM EST

Computer Science and IT are not unique in our culture in the fact that ethical issues often go unconsidered in the search for the mighty buck. The ethical state of this country is in disarray, and I blame a good part of this on the fact that American society does not promote an ethical lifestyle - it promotes the exact opposite. We are constantly bombarded with commercials telling us what we need and that we must do whatever is possible to obtain these products, and this mindset has permeated through all areas of out life. Marketing may increase profits, but I don't like the way it is affecting our lifestyle.

We may have the neatest toys of any civilization in the history of the planet, but at what cost? Our planet is being destroyed, wildlife is being killed off at an alarming rate, and people don't care about anything but money or getting the latest Britney Spears single. Our country is in a sorry state, and it seems that American culture is spreading rapidly to other countries as well.


GNU GPL: Free as in herpes.

The planet will be fine. (5.00 / 1) (#32)
by Sax Maniac on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 02:17:11 PM EST

We may have the neatest toys of any civilization in the history of the planet, but at what cost? Our planet is being destroyed

This thinking is erroneous. The planet is not being destroyed. If you say such, then you have too high opinion of the human race. We could nuke the world forty times over and kill everything on the surface, and the planet would be fine. It would laugh at us as we fade away. It has patience, and will wait a few hundred million years for life to spring up again-- with our without us.

wildlife is being killed off at an alarming rate

Once again, all the species put out of existence by our pitiful race can't compare to the damage done by natural events, such as ice ages, asteroids crashing into the earth, or natural selection.

Now, I'm not saying go out and dump oil into your closest river and eat pandaburgers for dinner until they're all gone because It Just Doesn't Matter. In fact, I think just the opposite- I think it's great that there are some regulations preventing giant companies from fouling lakes with horrible chemicals. The air is so much cleaner than when I was a kid, there is notable progress and life is better because of it. However, I don't have any grand illusions that anything I, or the human race does, will harm the planet in any way. Sure, it may make it less of a nice place for us to live, but keep it in perspective. "Save the planet" doesn't mean save the planet, it means "let's keep this place comfortable for us to live."

and people don't care about anything but ... the latest Britney Spears single.

Well, not me at least. :)

Stop screwing around with printf and gdb and get a debugger that doesn't suck.
[ Parent ]

Re: The planet will be fine. (none / 0) (#35)
by WormGuy on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 05:29:22 PM EST

The air is so much cleaner than when I was a kid, there is notable progress and life is better because of it.
The air LOOKS cleaner than when you were a kid. Asthma is not increasing dramatically because of the overly clean air. Also, let's not quibble. The "planet" to most people means the delicate living skin of life we inhabit, and that is in danger. The rocks are doing fine. I am not a rock and neither are you.

[ Parent ]
I've never needed any ethics training. (4.25 / 4) (#25)
by marlowe on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 11:20:01 AM EST

I have a conscience.

-- The Americans are the Jews of the 21st century. Only we won't go as quietly to the gas chambers. --
Semi-OT: Genetically modified monkey (2.00 / 1) (#26)
by fluffy grue on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 11:48:53 AM EST

This is a bit off-topic, just a comment on that article on the genetically-modified monkey article linked to in the intro text. If you haven't read it, please do.

Man, that monkey in the picture is ugly. That is proof we should never, ever modify DNA again. I mean, damn, I've been seeing those genetically-modified monkeys everywhere, and it seems like they're taking over the world! In fact, they're all the most aggressive monkeys I've ever seen, even moreso than the abandoned monkeys which have been causing trouble in Paris. And those are being used pretty unethically too!

We should stop all changes to DNA - who knows what else might happen if we allow the random changing of DNA at a whim?
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]

It gets worse ... (2.20 / 5) (#31)
by StrontiumDog on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 02:15:39 PM EST

... results of illegal genetic experiments on humans have already been spotted by alert watchers. There are even suspicions, based on this evidence, that non-mammalian genes are being used to create transgenic humans. This immoral corporation is probably to blame for all this; not surprising, considering the almost inhuman nature of their primary customer.

This must indeed be stopped before it goes too far. One only hopes there is still enough time.

[ Parent ]

Both ACM and IEEE have strict codes of ethics (4.00 / 2) (#27)
by tmoertel on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 12:10:17 PM EST

As a member of both the ACM and IEEE, I know that each requires members to uphold a code of ethics:
ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
IEEE Code of Ethics

A quick read is instructive. Note how much the IEEE Code packs into a simple ten points.

These Codes aren't just lip service. Printed copies often appear in the respective societies' flagship journals, are included with membership credentials, and are kept up to date through periodic discussion and debate.

My blog | LectroTest

[ Disagree? Reply. ]

What happens to violators? (none / 0) (#40)
by elenchos on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 09:53:03 PM EST

AFAIK, they don't actually enforce these rules. Have they ever booted anyone for, say, violating rule #4 or something? If not, then I would say that they meet my definintion of `lip service.'

[ Parent ]

Waning ethics in Computer Science and IT | 43 comments (41 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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