Let's say you are a hot-shot programmer and you're excelling in your computer science classes at your university. Or maybe you're an up-and-coming network administrator and you're taking industry classes. Or maybe you're both, or all of the above! You're taking programming and networking classes in college and at work. Should you also take a class in ethics? YES!
First, let's address the benefits you will gain from taking an ethics class. Thinking about ethics uses a different part of your brain than coding. Learning about ethical theories, ranging from Kantianism to Utilitarianism to Virtue Ethics, develops your conscience, not just your intellect. In ethics classes, you learn to slow down, to analyze scenarios where ethics play a role, and to apply ethical theories. You learn to contemplate, research, read philosophical treatises, and to discuss philosophy with other students. You are given an opportunity to develop your own ethical framework.
An ethics class will make you a more rounded human being. Your brain will thank you. Your friends and colleagues will be glad that you took this class also. You are now more likable, able to communicate with people not like you, and more thoughtful.
Second, let's talk about the benefits to society if you learn ethics. With a groundwork in ethics, you will be able to develop and deploy technology that benefits humans. Your work will not just bring you a high salary and make money for your corporation. Your work will help solve problems facing humans, animals, the planet, and the universe (if your technology is used for space travel).
I've encountered too many programmers and CS students who compartmentalize. They love coding and are good at it, but they assume that ethics is somebody else's job. No, you can't leave ethics to other people. Understanding and applying ethics is as much your job as coding is.
- What will you do when your boss asks you to deploy robots that will put hundreds of working-class wage-earners out of a job?
- What will you do when your fancy database is used to keep track of immigrant children who were taken away from their parents at the border?
- Have you thought about how your facial-recognition software can be used to breach people's privacy or to report to law enforcement the identity of protesters engaged in moral civil disobedience?
- Is the technology that you are developing making it easier for bullied students to feel isolated?
- Could you develop technology that would help reduce gun violence?
- What are the ethics of companies using unbreakable encryption that can be used by both bad and good people? What is the balance between safety and privacy in these cases?
- What are the ethics of hiring low-paid Chinese workers to manufacture digital products?
- Is the technology you are developing going to result in a net increase in the total good of affected parties?
- When artificial intelligence is as common as natural intelligence, will you be able to protect the rights of humans who haven't been able to afford to upgrade their brains?
- In your day-to-day work, are you behaving ethically? Can you say that you "act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law," as Kant would require? If everyone acted like you, would the workplace and society be a better or worse place? Is your behavior consistent with the actions of a virtuous person?
It's really easy to get caught up solving technical problems. There's nothing better than writing elegant code that works and is finally debugged. But don't let that feeling be your only goal. Remember that humans will use your code and it could do harm or be used in harmful ways. Develop and apply your ethics at every point of your career.
All students, regardless of their major, should think about how they will interact with others online, and they should learn their rights with regards to companies that deploy information technology, sometimes in unethical ways. For CS students, the thinking needs to go even deeper.
If you are a Computer Science or Management Information Science student, thinking about the ethics associated with the mainstream use of robots, data mining, algorithms, artificial intelligence, website advertising, surveillance, online voting, etc., is actually more important than learning how to develop and deploy these technologies. Our future depends on you getting this right.