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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Overview of Ethics in Tech Practice

Overview of Ethics in Tech Practice

Overview of Ethics in Tech Practice

Shannon Vallor, Irina Raicu, Brian Green


Overview of Ethics in Tech Practice

“Ethics” has become an increasingly urgent topic of discussion in the technology industry, from AI ethics to the ethics of robotics, virtual reality, and the ethics of our digital media culture. But what is ethics, really? And why focus specifically on ethics in technology contexts?

This short overview/reference guide does not give complete answers to those questions, but functions as a quick, readable orientation to stimulate deeper discussion. It also works to dispel some common myths/misunderstandings about ethics that can get in the way of effective ethics training in technology settings.

What Ethics Is ​Not​:
A Set of Fixed Rules to Follow (No fixed set of rules can cover all ethical cases/contexts)
A Purely Negative Frame: (“Don't do that! Or That! Or THAT!”)
Legal/Corporate 'Compliance' (Legal ≠ Ethical; Ethical ≠ Legal)
A Subjective Sense of Right/Wrong ("You have your ethics, I have mine")
Religious Belief ("It's right/wrong simply because my religion says so")
Non-moral Customs of Etiquette ("That is just Not Done here")
Uncritical Obedience to Authority (“It’s right/wrong because our CEO/President says it is”)

Ethics ​Is​:
Promoting objective (but context & culture-dependent) conditions of human flourishing
Respecting the dignity of others and the duties created in our relationships to them
Living as a person of integrity and principle
Promoting beneficial and just outcomes, while avoiding and minimizing harm to others
Cultivating one's own character to become increasingly more morally wise and trustworthy
Learning to more expertly see and navigate the moral world and its features
A skillful practice of moral perception, sensitivity, and flexible and discerning judgment

Kinds of Ethics

Formal Ethics
Theoretical Ethics (moral theory in philosophical ethics and moral psychology)
Normative Ethics (theories that say how we should act, how our ethical norms should be)
Descriptive Ethics (theories that neutrally describe what a society's ethical norms are)

Practical Ethics
Applied Ethics (Translating theoretical knowledge of ethics into specific action-guidance)
Professional Ethics (Ethical norms, values, & practices distinctive to a particular profession)
Technology Ethics (Theoretical or applied expertise in the relationship between tech & normative ethics: includes robot ethics, digital media ethics, data ethics, AI ethics, etc.)
Engineering and Design Ethics (A field of professional ethics that develops theoretical & applied insights into the distinctly ethical conditions of successful engineering/design)

This training focuses primarily on practical ethics, drawing on formal ethics in limited ways as a conceptual tool to help identify and classify ethical issues that commonly appear in technology practice.

Why Tech Ethics?

  • Technology is increasingly the medium through which we act with & toward others.
  • Technology increasingly shapes the social, political, economic, biological, psychological, & environmental conditions in which humans strive to flourish.
  • Technology makes us more powerful as a species but more vulnerable and interdependent as individuals; we flourish or collapse together.
  • Technological design and implementation decisions are concentrated in the hands of an increasingly elite few who do not embody the interests/needs/values of all.
  • Technology in our global economy manifests an impersonal drive to efficiency, optimization, measurement, control, & other machine values, often at the expense of humane values such as justice, compassion, nobility, freedom, and leadership.
  • Technological choices now have existential implications for future generations, for the survival/flourishing of humanity & others with whom we share the planet.
  • For humanity to have a future worth wanting, the growing power of technology must be matched by growth in human wisdom & responsibility; our efforts must be rebalanced to fuel the latter kind of growth that is presently in neglect.

Growing Concerns in Technology Ethics
The digital age has brought undeniable gains in economic productivity and efficiency. It has greatly amplified the scope, speeds, and scales at which humans can communicate, socialize, and access information. It has led to numerous medical and scientific breakthroughs that would have been impossible without it. But it has also had damaging social effects and created many new or amplified ethical risks. As technology changes, so do the specific risks, though some broad overarching ones are consistent:

  • Declining Transparency/Rising Opacity​: The broad lack of access to information about complex technological processes, algorithmically aided or automated decisions, technological risks, limitations, and effects, which makes it difficult for average citizens as well as regulators to respond to the rapid integration of new technologies into society
  • Algorithmic Bias and Injustice​: The use of algorithmic tools that conceal, legitimize, amplify, or perpetuate harmful or unjust biases in society
  • Diminished Data Rights: ​The growing difficulty of controlling access to sensitive information about us that may be used in ways we do not want, as well as concerns about the data used to develop and fuel generative AI models
  • Technological Manipulation:​ The use of AI and other tools to enable techniques such as targeted digital advertising, algorithmic deception, and behavioral ‘nudging’ to alter our beliefs, desires, emotions, habits, and values in ways that we do not control or want
  • The Surveillance Society: ​The development of increasingly sophisticated modes of digital surveillance, including face, gait, and voice-recognition algorithms to identify and track our behavior in both public and private spaces--especially as used by powerful actors in society to monitor the less powerful
  • The Attention Economy​: The increasing monetization of human attention, in ways that negatively impact the cognitive, emotional, and physical health of many individuals and families, create risks of technological addiction, and are correlated with significant economic and productivity losses in the workplace
  • Growing Machine Autonomy/Declining Human Control and Accountability: ​The expansion of automated decision-making in recent decades, and the corresponding growing difficulty to maintain meaningful human control of and accountability for medical, judicial, governmental, employment, educational, and military decisions
  • New ‘Digital Taylorism’: ​The new digital and AI-driven forms of 'scientific management' and control of workplace behavior, in ways that can be dehumanizing, demoralizing, and destructive to the mental and physical health of workers
  • Declining Social Trust/Civic Virtue: ​The impact of social media 'echo chambers', disinformation, AI deepfakes, politically motivated 'trolling', and tech-driven radicalization, polarization, and culture wars on democratic virtues and civic trust
  • Environmental Impact of Technology Development and Deployment: ​The rapid growth and spread of computing power (especially in AI development and deployment), which contributes to massive carbon emissions and accelerated climate change—combined with water usage, intensive mining of rare earth minerals and other non-renewable natural resources and an explosion in non-biodegradable and sometimes toxic 'e-waste', much of which is shipped off to poorer countries for unsafe disposal
  • Tech Monoculture:​ The global spread of new digital technologies such as smartphones, social media, and virtual assistants, all designed by a relatively homogenous culture of technologists who cannot represent or anticipate the full diversity of human experience, needs, and values
  • Increasing Concentration of Power:​ The tendency of new technologies to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of very few, and evidence of declining economic mobility and opportunity in some technologically-driven societies
  • Impact on Labor: The growing concern about technology deployment leading to mass unemployment by replacing human workers, and related concerns about the labor conditions of data labelers and other workers who participate in parts of the AI development process
  • Impact on the Information Ecosystem: The impact of AI-generated text, images, and audio that are flooding the internet and impacting both our current information streams and AI models trained on AI-generated data
  • Fraud and Cybercrime: The use of AI voice and video deepfakes and other emerging AI-driven techniques for criminal purposes, including fraud, child pornography and bioterrorism
  • Artificial Intelligence Safety: The concerns about “Artificial General Intelligence” (AGI) potentially surpassing human intelligence or otherwise posing existential risks to human and other life, and related debates about AI consciousness
  • Tech 'Solutionism': The belief that the risks and challenges described above can best be solved by the development of more and better technology--placing unwarranted faith in superficial ‘techno-fixes’ as opposed to more robust social, political, and economic reforms.

How Can Cultivating Ethics in Tech Practice Help?

The risks and challenges listed above are immensely complex and difficult to address; and as noted above, many of them require non-technological solutions and reforms. Still, given that many of the harms above have been amplified by failures of technologists to anticipate and adequately respond to ethical issues, these risks can be reduced and mitigated by ethical reforms of technology practice.

Key to such reform is cultivating more ethically skillful and responsive practices of technology design and engineering.

The free resources developed by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and included in this compendium are intended for tech companies, designers, developers, and engineers who want concrete, practical tools and guidelines for cultivating those skills in their organizations, and integrating ethics more fully into their products and design.

There is no 'silver bullet' here; creating technologies that will promote human flourishing and sustainable life on this planet is hard and uncertain work, involving difficult tradeoffs, some inevitable failures, and challenges that defy simple and stable solutions. But it is good work, work that can and must be done.

An initial part of that work is the identification of ethical issues. This, too, is a skill.

A Useful Metaphor: Ethical Issues are Like Birds                         

Like birds, ethical issues are

  • Everywhere (some local, some regional, some global; some rare and some common)
  • Varied (some big and some small; they exist in a huge range of different forms)
  • Sometimes difficult to spot (even when 'hidden in plain sight')
  • Frequently concentrated in particular areas/environments
  • Easier to spot and identify by people working in groups, rather than alone
  • Sometimes more easily spotted with the help of special guides, tools, or 'lenses'
  • More readily noticed by people who are in the habit of looking for them
  • Often anticipated by those who know where/when they tend to show up

Getting good at noticing and identifying ethical issues, like birdwatching, is a skill that takes repeated practice to develop.

But you don’t need to be an academic expert on moral philosophy to acquire this skill – just as most expert birdwatchers are not ornithologists.

What matters is not a theoretical knowledge of ethics (though this can be a useful tool, like a birdwatchers’ field guide), but practical experience and skill assessing the ethical landscape in those areas connected to your life and work.

What Tools Can Help to Build Ethics in Tech Practice?

Three kinds of tools are key:

  1. Conceptual frameworks​ that help you recognize ethical issues when you are in their presence and help you to describe them; as noted above, this is where a loose grasp of ethical theory can work like a field guide to practical ethical concerns.
  2. Case studies​ ​in the technology domain, including design and engineering, that can be analyzed as a part of ethical practice and skill development. Case studies function as a bridge, allowing acquired ethical knowledge and skills to transfer to new, real, professional situations in which they will be needed.
  3. Professional exercises/routines​ ​that can seamlessly integrate ethical practices and skills into existing workflows, company/team cultures, and organizational incentive structures.

This free set of resources includes tools of all three kinds:

  • a set of conceptual lenses ​for thinking about ethical concerns;
  • a set of relevant case studies​ with discussion questions that invite application of ethical reasoning and decision-making skills;
  • a professional toolkit ​consisting of seven habits/routines that can be integrated into technology workflows, cultures, and incentive structures;
  • a list of well-recognized best practices ​in tech design and engineering.

These materials can be selected and customized for ethics training at multiple levels (individual, team, department, division, corporate), but at each level they must be integrated with care as part of a genuine effort to build in sustainable​ ethical practices.

Ethics in tech practice is not something that can be checked off a checklist, or ‘completed’ as a task and then set aside. It’s a way of doing one’s work that must remain part of the technologists’ mindset, must be integrated in their daily work habits and those of their colleagues, and must be reinforced at all levels of leadership so that the retention and ongoing cultivation of ethical design and engineering skills (as well as ethical skills in other company roles) is noticed, acknowledged, and rewarded.

Without the necessary incentive structures, company-wide integration of ethical expertise and communication channels, and the resources for effective, sustainable implementation of ethical routines and tools, all the 'good intentions' in the world won't make much of a difference in the company's products or its employees' success in ethical practice.

The ethical reputation of technologists and technology products is quickly becoming one of the key metrics by which 'good' companies are judged, and a key factor in attracting and retaining top talent. Building ethical support systems is investing in the future of tech excellence.

First published May 2018. Revised and updated May 2024.

Jun 7, 2024