How can software engineers act ethically?

(Adapted with permission from An Introduction to Software Engineering Ethics by Shannon Vallor and Arvind Narayanan.)

Before starting this experience, please read What do we mean when we talk about ethics?.

There are a number of common habits and practices that create obstacles to living well in the moral sense; fortunately, there are also a number of common habits and practices that are highly conducive to living well:

Five Ethically Constructive Habits of Mind and Action:

1. Self- Reflection/Examination: This involves spending time on a regular basis (even daily) thinking about the person you want to become, in relation to the person you are today. It involves identifying character traits and habits that you would like to change or improve in your private and professional life; reflecting on whether you would be happy if those whom you admire and respect most knew all that you know about your actions, choices and character; and asking yourself how fully you are living up to the values you profess to yourself and others.

2. Looking for Moral Exemplars: Many of us spend a great deal of our time, often more than we realize, judging the shortcomings of others. We wallow in irritation or anger at what we perceive as unfair, unkind or incompetent behavior of others, we comfort ourselves by noting the even greater professional or private failings of others, and we justify ignoring the need for our own ethical improvement by noting that many others seem to be in no hurry to become better people either. What we miss when we focus on the shared faults of humanity are those exemplary actions we witness, and the exemplary persons in our communities, that offer us a path forward in our own self-development. Exemplary acts of forgiveness, compassion, grace, courage, creativity and justice have the power to draw our aspirations upward; especially when we consider that there is no reason why we would be incapable of these actions ourselves. But this cannot happen unless we are in the habit of looking for, and taking notice of, moral exemplars in the world around us.

3. Exercising our Moral Imaginations: It can be hard to notice our ethical obligations, or their importance, because we have difficulty imagining how what we do might affect others. In some sense we all know that our personal and professional choices almost always have consequences for the lives of others, whether good or bad. But rarely do we try to really imagine what it will be like to suffer the pain that our action is likely going to cause someone – or what it will be like to experience the joy, or relief of pain or worry that another choice of ours might bring. This becomes even harder as we consider stakeholders who live outside of our personal circles and beyond our daily view. The pain of your best friend who you have betrayed is easy to see, and not difficult to imagine before you act - but it is easy not to see, and not to imagine, the pain of a person on another continent, unknown to you, whose life has been ruined by identity theft because you knowingly allowed a product with gaping security holes to be released without providing customers a patch. The suffering of that person, and your responsibility for it, would be no less great simply because you had difficulty imagining it. Fortunately, our powers of imagination can be increased. Seeking out news, books, films and other sources of stories about the human condition can help us to better envision the lives of others, even those in very different circumstances from our own. This capacity for imaginative empathy, when habitually exercised, enlarges our ability to envision the likely impact of our actions on other stakeholders. Over time, this can help us to fulfill our ethical obligations and to live as better people.

4. Acknowledging Your Own Moral Strength: For the most part, living well in the ethical sense makes life easier, not harder. Acting like a person of courage, compassion and integrity is, in most circumstances, also the sort of action that garners respect, trust and friendship in both private and professional circles, and these are actions that we ourselves can enjoy and look back upon with satisfaction rather than guilt, disappointment or shame. But it is inevitable that sometimes the thing that is right will not be the easy thing, at least not in the short term. And all too often our moral will to live well gives out at exactly this point – under pressure, we take the easy (and wrong) way out, and try as best we can to put our moral failure and the harm we may have done or allowed out of our minds.

One of the most common reasons why we fail to act as we know we should is that we think we are too weak to do so, that we lack the strength to make difficult choices and face the consequences of doing what is right. But this is often more of a self-justifying and self-fulfilling fantasy than a reality; just as a healthy person may tell herself that she simply can’t run five miles, thus sparing her the effort of trying what millions of others just like her have accomplished, a person may tell herself that she simply can’t tell the truth when it will greatly inconvenience or embarrass her, or that she simply can’t help someone in need when it will cost her something she wants for herself. But of course people do these things every day; they tell the morally important truth and take the heat, they sell their boat so that their disabled friend’s family does not become homeless, they report frauds from which they might otherwise have benefited financially. These people are not a different species from the rest of us; they just have not forgotten or discounted their own moral strength. And in turn, they live very nearly as they should, and as we at any time can, if we simply have the will.

5. Seeking the Company of Other Moral Persons – many have noted the importance of friendship in moral development; in the 4th century B.C. the Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that a virtuous friend can be a ‘second self,’ one who represents the very qualities of character that we value and aspire to preserve in ourselves.10 He notes also that living well in the ethical sense requires ethical actions, and that activity is generally easier and more pleasurable in the company of others. Thus seeking the company of other moral persons can keep us from feeling isolated and alone in our moral commitments; friends of moral character can increase our pleasure and self-esteem when we do well alongside them, they can call us out when we act inconsistently with our own professed ideals and values, they can help us reason through difficult moral choices, and they can take on the inevitable challenges of ethical life with us, allowing us to weather them together. Aside from this, and as compared with persons who are ethically compromised, persons of moral character are direct sources of pleasure and comfort – we benefit daily from their kindness, honesty, mercy, wisdom and courage, just as they find comfort and happiness in ours.

Questions for discussion

  1. Of these five moral habits and practices, which do you think you are best at presently? Which of these habits, if any, would you like to do more to cultivate?

  2. In what specific ways, small or large, do you think adopting some or all of these habits could change a person’s personal and professional life?