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Ethics by Design

Self-driving vehicles clearly have the potential to produce both benefit and harm to individuals in society. In order to reach useful conclusions about these kinds of questions, it is important to consider the role of ethical reflection.
Person thinking in car

Self-driving vehicles clearly have the potential to produce both benefit and harm to individuals in society. In order to reach useful conclusions about these kinds of questions, it is important to consider the role of ethical reflection. Ethics is concerned with ‘doing the right thing’. It is a reflection of the occurrence of harm to moral agents. This includes harms relating to the environment, equality, psychological harm and so on.

The Ethical Perspective

To think about something from an ethical perspective, it is important to consider a variety of approaches including those which are rule-based rights and wrongs, and those which consider the end result or goal/purpose.

Ethics has been a cornerstone of philosophy for centuries. Ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that guides people around basic human conduct. Ethics gives us overarching principles to define the limits of acceptable behaviour or morality for society – guidelines of what a given society will consider ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Deontological and Consequentialist Systems

Although ethics has its many schools of thought, there tend to be two basic approaches. On the one hand, there are rule-based systems, which judge the morality of an action by whether it satisfies pre-defined rules. For example, a rule-based (or ‘deontological’ system) might have a rule stating that killing people is ‘wrong’, which would govern thinking about the morality of war, abortion, euthanasia etc. On the other hand, there are consequentialist systems, which consider the consequences of an action: the more good consequences an action has, the more ‘right’ that action is. This might lead to very different ethical decisions based on arguments about social good.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of ‘ethics principles’ – over 70 since 2017, in fact (Jobin et al., 2019). These principles are designed primarily to guide decision making, but also are intended to aid accountability and responsibility. As a result there has been a focus on ethics by design and a shift toward regulation and assurance.

Ethics by Design

Ethics by design is an approach that aims to systematically include and embed ethical approaches to the design and development of technologies.

Ethical values or principles help to maximise the positive impacts of technology and minimise any potential negative effects on society. This could include considerations of consequence as well as the application of ethical use principles such as privacy, human rights, safety, honesty etc.

This raises specific ethical concerns about the intent of a system, to bring benefit and avoid harm. It’s governance to be transparent and accountable and matters of fairness and privacy.

Law and Ethics

The differences between the law and ethics also need to be observed. Much of our ethics are adapted socially, while laws are regulations set by authorities. Failure to obey the law results in punishment, whereas there is no official line of punishment for a violation of ethics. It might be helpful to think of laws as sets of rules and regulations which are legally binding, and ethics as a set of guidelines or principles governed by individual or professional norms, instead of government, without a ‘binding’ nature e.g what a person must do, versus what a person should do. Major breaches of a moral code are also likely to be against the law; criminal law providing a clear example of where morality and law would likely merge.

However, law is influenced by a range of factors which means they have a bureaucratic function, often with little connection with morality. Many argue that the law has a right to uphold common morality and we see this in the debate over the legislation of assisted dying – where campaigners argue that people with life-threatening illness have the right to choose to die and to ask people to help them not to be punished. Some believe this is simply morally wrong in any circumstance.

Legal and ethical questions affect many areas of computing including privacy, sharing, hacking and the environment. Some of the issues relating to technology development that are legal are (arguably) not ethical, and vice versa. An example relates to privacy and social platforms and who owns your data. In the case of social networks, photographs that are uploaded to these platforms often legally become the property of the website, but it also poses the question: at what stage can private information like this be used and for what purpose?

© University of York
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