Module 1: Introduction to Ethical Theories
The concepts of ethics, character, right and wrong, and good and evil have captivated
humankind since we began to live in groups, communicate, and pass judgment on each other.
The morality of our actions is based on motivation, group rules and norms, and the end result.
The difficult questions of ethics and information technology (IT) may not have been considered
by previous generations, but what is good, evil, right, and wrong in human behavior certainly
has been. With these historical foundations and systematic analyses of present-day and future IT
challenges, we are equipped for both the varied ethical battles we will face and the ethical
successes we desire.
Although most of you will be called upon to practice applied ethics in typical business situations,
you'll find that the foundation for such application is a basic understanding of fundamental
ethical theories. These ethical theories include the work of ancient philosophers such as Plato and
Aristotle. This module introduces the widely accepted core ethical philosophies, which will serve
to provide you with a basic understanding of ethical thought. With this knowledge, you can begin
to relate these theoretical frameworks to practical ethical applications in today's IT environment.
Let's start with a fundamental question: "Why be ethical and moral?" At the
most existential level, it may not matter. But we don't live our lives in a vacuum—we live our
lives with our friends, relatives, acquaintances, co-workers, strangers, and fellow wanderers. To
be ethical and moral allows us to be counted upon by others and to be better than we would
otherwise be. This, in turn, engenders trust and allows us to have productive relationships with
other people and in society. Our ethical system, supported by critical thinking skills, is what
enables us to make distinctions between what is good, bad, right, or wrong.
An individual's ethical system is based upon his or her personal values and beliefs as they relate
to what is important and is, therefore, highly individualized. Values are things that are important
to us. "Values can be categorized into three areas: Moral (fairness, truth, justice, love,
happiness), Pragmatic (efficiency, thrift, health, variety, patience) and Aesthetic (attractive, soft,
cold, square)" (Navran, n.d.). Moral values influence our ethical system. These values may or
may not be supported by individual beliefs. For example, a person is faced with a decision—he
borrowed a friend's car and accidentally backed into a tree stump, denting the fender—should he
confess or make up a story about how it happened when the car was parked? If he had a
personal value of honesty, he would decide not to lie to his friend. Or, he could have a strong
belief that lying is wrong because it shows disrespect for another person and, therefore, he
would tell the truth. In either case, the ethical decision making was influenced by his system of
values or beliefs. These may come from family, culture, experience, education, and so on.
This discussion brings us to the term ethics. Frank Navran, principal consultant with the Ethics
Resource Center (ERC), defines ethics as "the study of what we understand to be good and right
behavior and how people make those judgments" (n.d.). Behavior that is consistent with one's
moral values would be considered ethical behavior. Actions that are inconsistent with one's view
of right, just, and good are considered unethical behavior. However, it is important to note that
determining what is ethical is not just an individual decision—it also is determined societally.
We will witness this larger social dimension in this course, which is designed to provide you with
an understanding of the specific ethical issues that have arisen as information technology has
evolved over the last few decades. The very changes that enhanced technology causes in society
also create ethical issues and dilemmas not previously encountered. The lack of precedent in
many areas, combined with the ease of potentially operating outside of ethical paradigms, pose
significant challenges to end users, IT analysts, programmers, technicians, and managers of
information systems. We must be prepared logically and scientifically to understand ethics and to
practice using ethical guidelines in order to achieve good and right solutions and to plan courses
of action in times of change and uncertainty.
You can see from the benefits discussed above that knowledge, respect for, and a deeper
understanding of norms and laws and their source—ethics and morals—is extremely useful.
Ethical thought and theories are tools to facilitate our ethical decision-making process. They can
provide the foundation on which to build a great company, or to become a better and more
productive employee, a better neighbor, and a better person. Still, some professionals may
wonder "Why study ethics?" Robert Hartley, author of Business Ethics: Violations of the Public
Trust (Hartley, 1993, pp. 322–324) closes his book with four insights, which speak directly to
this question for business and IT professionals. They are:
The modern era is one of caveat vendidor, "Let the seller beware." For IT managers, this
is an important reason to understand and practice ethics.
In business (and in life), adversity is not forever. But Hartley points out that when
business problems are handled unethically, the adversity becomes a permanent flaw and
results in company, organization, and individual failure.
Trusting relationships (with customers, employees, and suppliers) are critical keys to
success. Ethical behavior is part and parcel of building and maintaining the trust
relationship, and hence business success.
One person can make a difference. This difference may be for good or evil, but one
person equipped with the understanding of ethical decision-making, either by acting on it
or simply articulating it to others, changes history. This sometimes takes courage or
steadfastness—qualities that spring from basic ethical confidence.
In the world of information technology today and in the future, the application of these ethical
theories to day-to-day and strategic decision making is particularly relevant. The ability to garner
personal, corporate, and governmental information and to disseminate this data in thousands of
applications with various configurations and components brings significant responsibilities to
ensure the privacy, accuracy, and integrity of such information. The drive to collect and
distribute data at increasing volume and speed, whether for competitive advantage in the
marketplace or homeland security cannot overshadow the IT manager's responsibility to provide
appropriate controls, processes, and procedures to protect individual and organizational rights.
Let's begin building our understanding of several predominant ethical theories. Ethical theories
typically begin with the premise that what is being evaluated is good or bad, right or wrong.
Theorists seek to examine either the basic nature of the act or the results the act brings about.
As Deborah Johnson (2001, p. 29) states in Computer Ethics, philosophical ethics is normative
(explaining how things should be, not how they are at any given moment) and ethical theories
are prescriptive (prescribing the "desired" behavior). Frameworks for ethical analysis aim to
shape or guide the most beneficial outcome or behavior. There are two main categories of
normative ethical theories: teleology and deontology. Telos refers to end and deon refers to that
which is obligatory. These theories address the fundamental question of whether the "means
justify the end" or the "end justifies the means." Deontological ethical systems focus on the
principle of the matter (the means), not the end result. In contrast, teleological ethical systems
address the resulting consequences of an action (the ends).
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Teleological theories focus on maximizing the goodness of the cumulative end result of a decision
or action. In determining action, one considers the good of the end result before the immediate
rightness of the action itself. These theories focus on consequences of an action or decision and
are often referred to as consequentialism. Teleological theories include utilitarianism, ethical
egoism, and common good ethics.
The most prevalent example of a teleological theory is utilitarianism, often associated with the
writings of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism looks for the greatest good for
the greatest number of people, including oneself. Individual rights and entitlements are
subservient to the general welfare. There are two main subtypes: act-utilitarianism (for which
the rules are more like rules-of-thumb/guidelines) and rule-utilitarianism (for which the rules are
more tightly defined and critical). Utilitarianism requires consideration of actions that generate
the best overall consequences for all parties involved. This entails:
determination of the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number
identifying the action that will maximize benefits for the greatest number of stakeholders
of the organization
This quote explains a bit more: "The fathers of utilitarianism thought of it principally as a system
of social and political decision, as offering a criterion and basis of judgment for legislators and
administrators" (Williams, 1993, p. 135). Utilitarianism is geared to administrative and
organizational decision-making, given that in complex systems or relationships, a single
individual may not have the resources to determine the overall benefit to the total number of
people affected by the decisions.
Ethical Egoism and Altruism
Egoism is maximizing your own benefits and minimizing harm to yourself. This is sometimes
thought of as behavioral Darwinism, and clearly it guides decision-making with an eye toward
basic survival. Although different aspects of this theory debate whether all human behavior is
self-serving or should be self-serving, it is impossible to know with certainty what internally
motivates an individual.
Altruism determines decisions and actions based on the interests of others, the perceived
maximized good for others, often at one's own expense or in a way directly opposed to the
Further debate can be found over whether ethical egoism also incorporates an element of
altruism. For example, a network engineer working for a vendor recommends to a client a
network security installation that generates a substantial commission for the engineer. However,
this installation also provides maximum network security for the benefit of the client. Is this selfserving or altruistic? The inability to distinguish pure motives in most practical applications, along
with the inherent conflict resulting from competing self-interests, leads to an unsurprising result:
these theories are not typically used in generally accepted frameworks for ethical decisionmaking.
The Common Good
The common-good approach comes from the teachings and writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero,
and Rawls. It is based on an assumption that within our society, certain general conditions are
equally advantageous to all and should therefore be maximized. These conditions include health
care, safety, peace, justice, and the environment. This is different from utilitarianism in that
utilitarianism strives for the maximum good for the most (but not necessarily all) people. The
common-good approach sets aside only those conditions that apply to all.
All teleological theories focus on the end result: what's best for me, what's best for you, or
what's best for some or all of us. One important factor in using teleological frameworks as a
guide to action is that you need to be able to understand accurately and project the end result
for the variety of affected groups. For egoism and altruism, this is perhaps not difficult. For
larger, more remote, and less-well-understood groups, teleological theories can lead to acts that
in turn become the bricks paving the road of good intentions. However, in information
technology, where many people are affected either positively or negatively by the acts of a few,
teleological theories can be very helpful.
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Deontology (Rights and Duties)
Deontological theories focus on defining the right action independently of and prior to
considerations of the goodness or badness of the outcomes. The prefix deonrefers to duty or
obligation—one acts because one is bound by honor or training to act in the right manner,
regardless of the outcome. Deontological theories include those that focus on protection of
universal rights and execution of universal duties, as well as those that protect less universal
rights and more specific duties. These rights and duties are usually learned and are often codified
in some traditional way. For example, theologism is a deontological theory based on the Ten
Commandments. Boy Scouts have a code that is intended as a guide to the rights of others and
personal duties. Deontology uses one's duty as the guide to action, regardless of the end results.
Kant's Categorical Imperative
Deontological theories are most often associated with Immanuel Kant and his categorical
imperative. Kant's famous categorical imperative takes two forms:
1. You ought never act in any way unless that way or act can be made into a universal
maxim (i.e., your act may be universalized for all people), and
2. Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as
an end and never only as a means.
Kant's duty-based approach might directly conflict with teleological approaches, for in a
utilitarian solution, individuals could very easily serve as the means for other ends. Duty-based
ethical analysis leads a manager to consider the following questions:
1. What if everyone did what I'm about to do? What kind of world would this be? Can I
universalize the course of action I am considering?
2. Does this course of action violate any basic ethical duties?
3. Are there alternatives that better conform to these duties? If each alternative seems to
violate one duty or another, which is the stronger duty?
Duty-Based Ethics (Pluralism)
A duty-based approach to ethics focuses on the universally recognized duties that we are morally
compelled to do. There are several "duties" that are recognized by most cultures as being
binding and self-evident. These duties include being honest, being fair, making reparations,
working toward self-improvement, and not hurting others. A duty-based approach would put
these obligations ahead of the end result, regardless of what it may be. Pluralism includes the
care-based ethical approach based simply on the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would
have them do unto you."
Rights-Based Ethics (Contractarianism)
A rights-based approach to ethics has its roots in the social contract philosophies of Rousseau,
Hobbes, and John Locke. These ideas are also at the foundation of the United States form of
government and history, and rights (whether natural or granted by governments) are intensely
held American ideological values. Because the global information technology leadership is
fundamentally an American creation, contractarian philosophical approaches in IT are widely
used, even if we don't think about it overtly. When invoking a rights-based or contractarian
framework, managers must carefully consider the rights of affected parties:
Which action or policy best upholds the human rights of the individuals involved?
Do any alternatives under consideration violate their fundamental human rights (i.e.,
liberty, privacy, and so on)?
Do any alternatives under consideration violate their institutional or legal rights (e.g.,
rights derived from a contract or other institutional arrangement)?
Fairness and Justice
The fairness-and-justice approach is based on the teachings of Aristotle. It is quite simple:
equals should be treated equally. Favoritism, a situation where some benefit for no justifiable
reason, is unethical. Discrimination, a situation where a burden is imposed on some who are not
relevantly different from the others, is also unethical. This approach is deontological because it
simply identifies a right and a duty, and does not specifically consider the end result.
Whereas teleological theories focus on results or consequences and deontological theories relate
to rights and duties, the virtue ethics approach attributes ethics to personal attitudes or
character traits and encourages all to develop to their highest potential. This theory includes the
virtues themselves: "motives and moral character, moral education, moral wisdom or
discernment, friendship and family relationships, a deep concept of happiness, the role of
emotions in one's moral life and the fundamentally important questions of what sort of person I
should be and how I should live my life" (Hursthouse, 2003). When faced with an ethical
dilemma, a virtue ethicist would focus on the character traits of honesty, generosity, or
compassion, for example, rather than consequences or rules. Virtue ethics is included in the area
of what is referred to as normative ethics.
The table below helps to organize the various ethical theories for you. Note that these theories
have evolved over time, and there are some overlapping ideas and theorists.
Major Ethical Theories
John Stuart Mill,
Seeks the greatest good for the
greatest number of people;
wants to make the world a better
Seeks to maximize one's
individual benefit and minimize
harm to self; key idea: survival.
Seeks to maximize decisions and
actions based on interests of
others, even if at own individual
expense; opposite of egoism.
Cicero and Rawls
Based on the assumption that
within society, we are all
pursuing common goals and
Based on Kant's categorical
imperative: all acts can be made
into a universal maximum; act
always as an end (not a means)
and John Locke
Seeks action or policy that best
upholds the human rights of
individuals involved (foundation
for United States form of
Fairness and Justice Aristotle
Equals should be treated equally;
favoritism and discrimination are
Seeks to encourage all to develop
to their highest potential
influenced by Plato
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What is computer ethics? This term can be used in a variety of ways. It may refer to applying
traditional ethical theories to IT situations, or it may entail the broader application that we see
with the prevalence of ethical codes, standards of conduct, and new areas of computer law and
policy. There also is an increasing interest in how sociology and psychology relate to computing.
Scholars generally agree that the study of computer ethics began with Norbert Wiener, an MIT
professor who worked during World War II to develop an anti-aircraft cannon. His work in the
1940s prompted Wiener and his associates to create a new field of study that Wiener
labeled cybernetics. Their work fostered the development of several ethical conclusions regarding
the potential implications of this type of advanced technology. Wiener published his book, The
Human Use of Human Beings, in 1950. Although the term computer ethics was not used by
Wiener and it was decades later that the term came into general use, his work certainly laid the
foundation for future study and analysis. His book became a cornerstone for the study of
computer ethi ...
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