Managing conflicts between ethical principles and job duties

Despite its international context, discussion of the social implications of technology is surprisingly parochial. For example, the idea that individuals should have control over how their data is used is considered radical and innovative in the US, despite it being commonly accepted in Europe since the early 1980’s. The same applies to including professional and ethical training as part of computer science curricula – while a recent move in many US institutions, it’s been mandatory for BCS accredited courses in the UK for as long as I can remember. One lesson that comes from the UK’s experience here, and that I think would be of help to institutions following its lead, is that students being aware of ethics is not enough to protect society and individuals. There needs to also be strong codes of conduct, built on ethical principles, which practitioners are expected to follow.

For most computer science practitioners in the UK, the codes of conduct of relevance are from the field’s professional bodies – BCS and IET. They say roughly what you might expect – do a good job, follow instructions, avoid conflicts of interest, and consider the public interest. I’ve always found these to be a bit unsatisfactory, treating ethical decisions as the uncontroversial product of the application of consistent rules of professional conduct. These rules however don’t help with reality, where practitioners are faced with decisions where all options come at substantial personal or financial cost, where rules are inconsistent with themselves and ethical principles, all while faced with substantial uncertainty as to the consequences of their actions.

That’s why I am pleased to see that the ACM ethical code released today goes some way to acknowledge the complex interaction between technology and society, and provides tools to help practitioners navigate the challenges. In particular it gives some guidance on a topic I have long felt sorely lacking in the BCS and IET codes – what to do when instructions from your employer conflict with the public interest. At best, the BCS and IET codes are silent on how to handle such situations – if anything the BCS code puts emphasis on acting “in accordance” with employer instructions compared to requiring that members only “have due regard” for the public interest. In contrast, the ACM code is clear “that the public good is the paramount consideration”.

The ACM code also is clear that ethical practices are the responsibility of all. Management should enact rules that require ethical practices – they “should pursue clearly defined organizational policies that are consistent with the Code and effectively communicate them to relevant stakeholders. In addition, leaders should encourage and reward compliance with those policies, and take appropriate action when policies are violated.” But also, the code puts the duty on employees, through individual or collective action, to follow ethical practices even if management has not discharged their duty – “rules that are judged unethical should be challenged”.

Courses of action discussed in the ACM code are not limited to just challenging rules, but also actively disrupting unethical practices – “consider challenging the rule through existing channels before violating the rule. A computing professional who decides to violate a rule because it is unethical, or for any other reason, must consider potential consequences and accept responsibility for that action”.

One specific example of such disruptive action is whistleblowing, which the code recognizes as a legitimate course of action in the right circumstances – “if leaders do not act to curtail or mitigate such risks, it may be necessary to ‘blow the whistle’ to reduce potential harm”. However, my one disappointment in the code is that such disclosures are restricted to being made only through the “appropriate authorities” even though such authorities are often ineffective at instituting organizational change or protecting whistleblowers.

Implementing ethical policies is not without cost, and when doing so runs against business opportunities, profit often wins. It is nevertheless helpful that the code suggests that “in cases where misuse or harm are predictable or unavoidable, the best option may be to not implement the system”. The UK banks currently saying they can’t prevent push-payment fraud, resulting in life-changing losses to their customers, would do well to consider this principle. The current situation, where customers are held liable despite taking a normal level of care, is not an ethical practice.

Overall, I think this code is helpful and I am impressed at the breadth and depth of thought that clearly went into it. The code is also timely, as practitioners are now discovering their power to disrupt unethical practices through collective action and could take advantage of being given the permission to do so. The next task will be how to support and encourage the adoption of ethical principles and counteract the powerful forces that run into conflict with their practice.

2 thoughts on “Managing conflicts between ethical principles and job duties”

    1. I would agree, which realistically means leaking to the media, but I think the intention and obvious interpretation of the code is that such an option is not permitted. The ACM Code doesn’t have much by way of enforcement, but my concern over this language is that a whistleblower could be accused (whether in a legal court or the court of public opinion) of recklessness through violating the rules of their field’s professional body.

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