Why ethics for computer programmers matter

Liam Goring
3 min readJul 15, 2021

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Would you trust a person with no morals? If not, then why would you trust software the same way?

Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash

Computer software is everywhere, it allows planes to fly on autopilot, can drive your car, even do your taxes. More than ever we are entering a world where the simple matters that used to be handled by human hands are being processed by computers instead. But human hands had to make the software.

The emissions scandal from Volkswagen and BMW along with the rise in ransomware is a perfect example of software being used unethically and having greater impact to our lives. These two examples are two of the most prominent arguments for teaching ethics in computer science courses. Doctors need to take a course in ethics if they wish to practise medicine because it directly impacts people. So why shouldn’t our software developers also have to take an ethics course? They’re products directly impact people on the daily.

Photo by Luther.M.E. Bottrill on Unsplash

The ethical standpoint of software comes from the person who built it. A hacker builds their software to enter a system. The only difference between a white hat hacker (one who uses their talents to ensure systems are harder to penetrate) and a black hat (uses their talents for the sake of entering a system whether for personal gains or otherwise) is the intent of their use. Going back to the emissions scandal its clear to see that the software writers for those companies wrote it with the intent to cheat, making it unethical software. But did they write it with the intent to cheat? Maybe they wrote the code to optimize a few values to reduce costs, wouldn’t that be considered white hat? Well no, since the overall impact is far greater in terms of environmental costs than saving the company a few dollars.

Lets speculate on the examples we’ve provided as a spectrum with White Hats on the left, emissions scandal developers in the grey, and Black Hats on the right. How do we know what to change and value in order to become left or right. This is where ethics courses come in. They help us to narrow down our scope to really analyze the important parts of an action and determine what the best course should be.

I’ll leave you with some resources if you want to try and become a more ethical actor and I highly recommend reading my previous article on ‘The Ethical Computer Professional’ to get more information.

ACM’s Code of Ethics

IEEE

Aristotle’s Ethics

Thanks for Reading!

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Liam Goring

Philosophical Software Developer — https://liamgoring.com