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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Template for Technology Ethics Case Studies

By Brian Patrick Green with Irina Raicu

This template provides the basics for writing ethics case studies in technology (though with some modification it could be used in other fields as well).

There’s an old saying that “Circumstances make the case.” Because of this, an ethics case study template can only hope to capture most of the important details of a case (and not too many extraneous ones to confuse the analysis).

Cases are also used for different goals; as such, their framing and length will vary in order to highlight key ethical issues or different learning objectives.

Still, a case is a story—and every story answers a number of the following questions: “When?” “Where?” “What?” “Who?” “Which?” “How?” and “Why?” By aligning these basic categories of questions with typically ethically relevant concepts such as agency, motive, equity, etc., we can approximate a framework that will work for many cases.

Below are some questions that can guide the drafting of case studies.

“When” questions seek to address the ethically relevant temporal context of a case. Some “when” questions that might be worth answering include:

  • When this case occurred, was the timing intentional? Had the actions at issue been planned for a long time, or were they realized quickly, spontaneously, haphazardly?
  • Does this case concern the distant past, recent past, present, near future, or remote future? If it is sufficiently distant, how might we be limited from understanding or engaging with the case? How different was the context of this time, and is that morally significant?
  • In the relevant timeframe, were/are people aware of the existence of issues and dilemmas of the type reflected in the case?
  • In the relevant timeframe, were/are there resources available to enable better decisions?
  • Did the decision-makers in the case have sufficient time to consider their options or was judgment rushed? What could have been done to allow more time?
  • Do the case’s history and temporality affect the ethical analysis?

“Where” questions seek to address the ethically relevant location of a case, as well as related concerns such as jurisdiction. Some “where” questions that might be worth answering include:

  • Were the decision-makers local or distant? Did/does that proximity (or lack thereof) affect decision-making, and, if so, how?
  • What is ethically relevant about the location of this case? Consider this culturally, geographically, politically, religiously, racially, sexually, ethnically, hierarchically, in terms of normative expectations and/or specific buildings or areas of particular import (e.g. a hospital, school, or battleground). Relatedly: what does “location” mean for online products? Is it the location where they are developed? The locations in which they have impact?
  • In this place, were/are there resources available to enable better decisions?
  • In what jurisdiction did the case take place? Was/is jurisdiction in dispute? Was/is this jurisdiction respected? Was/is it legitimate?
  • How hard is it to get to this place? Does its isolation or proximity affect the moral assessment of this case?
  • Does location affect the ethical analysis of this case? Can this awareness of location help us make better choices in the future?

“What” questions seek to determine additional ethically relevant facts and data of the case. Some “what” questions that might be worth answering include:

  • What happened?
  • What were the involved parties aiming to accomplish? What did they in fact accomplish?
  • Did conflicts of interest bias judgment, or give the appearance of biasing judgment?
  • Did those involved freely agree to participate?
  • What rules and laws are/were relevant in this case? Were those rules ethical?
  • What virtues and vices were/are involved here?
  • Did this case harm or put at risk human life, health, freedom, and/or other goods?
  • Did this case harm or put at risk property, money, or other valuable goods?
  • Did the case involve technology with capacity for dual use?
  • Was any information in this case distorted, concealed, or “spun”?
  • What goods and bads in this case (or multiple conflicting goods/multiple conflicting bads) must be weighed against each other? How could the goods that are down-weighted still be respected?
  • Could justice be attained in this case? If so, in what way?
  • Does this case look different from the outside than it does to insiders? How should that be addressed?
  • Does this case involve any professions with ethical codes (or ones that ought to have ethical codes)? If so, were the codes adequate to the situation? Were they followed? Enforced?
  • Can this case be clearly bounded, or is it strongly networked with other related cases?
  • What processes could have been/could be implemented to improve the case’s outcomes?

 “Who” questions seek to determine the ethically relevant participants and their relationship to the case, including their level of agency. Some “who” questions that might be worth answering include:

  • Who were/are the people making decisions in this case, and why were/are they the decision-makers?
  • Who had/has the legitimate authority to make decisions in the case? (Is this case complicated by the ways in which power flows through social structures?)
  • Who were/are the stakeholders implicated? Who initiated the actions—i.e., who is the moral agent? Who was subjected to these actions?
  • Who followed or disobeyed someone else’s orders or rules?
  • Who is responsible, and in what ways? (Note those who deserve accolades as well as opprobrium.) Who should be thanked and appreciated? Who should be punished?
  • Whose perspectives were or should have been sought out, understood, and taken into account? Should some perspectives be/have been discounted and if so, why?
  • What organizations are involved in this case, and does their organizational status affect the case?
  • What non-human living things were implicated in the case, such as animals or the environment?
  • Who could have stepped in to help this case attain a better outcome?
  • Who should be responsible for setting this case right?
  • Who should learn the lessons of this case? Who should record those lessons? Who should teach those lessons?

“Which” questions seek to highlight key ethically relevant details and options in the case. Insufficient exploration can results in bad decisions. Some “which” questions that might be worth answering include:

  • Which among all the details are key to the ethical analysis? Which details are important but missing? Which details ultimately “make” the case?
  • How many actionable options are/were available? Was there an effort to avoid the worst but not to achieve the best?
  • Did some considerations clarify or obscure the good and bad in this case?
  • Which of the lessons that can be learned from this case are the most important? In which contexts should those lessons be taught, and who should teach and learn them?

“How” questions help determine how a situation arose. They seek causal relationships and probe how the past led to the current situation. Some “how” questions that might be worth answering include:

  • How did this case come about? What might be ethically relevant there?
  • Were the circumstances of this case created intentionally, unintentionally, or as a side-effect or other choices?
  • Did past decisions result in this case occurring? If so, how?
  • How is perspective relevant to this case?
  • How is bias involved in this case? Bias can include everything from racism, sexism, and discrimination of all sorts, to algorithmic bias diverting people towards time-sucking activities, internet radicalization, and more.
  • How are equality and inequality involved in this case? Are there imbalances of power between the stakeholders in this case, and, if so, how is that power dynamic relevant to the case? How can this imbalance of power be taken into account in a way that promotes fairness?
  • How are diversity and inclusion involved in this case?

“Why” questions focus on the goals that agents were pursuing which lead to a particular outcome. Some “why” questions that might be worth answering include:

  • Why did the parties act the way they did? What are/were their stated reasons (if they’ve stated any)?
  • What goals and purposes were involved in the actions in this case?
  • Why is this case significant? What does this case reveal about human goals, purposes, and end-seeking behavior?

A Note on Case Discussion Questions: Cases are often followed by discussion questions. These play a key role in helping participants focus on particular issues or objectives. At the same time, they should be broad enough to allow for exploration and analysis beyond what the case’s author might have foreseen.

Mar 15, 2019