Morality and Ethics and Computers
There are many different sides to the discussion on moral and ethical uses of
computers. In many situations, the morality of a particular use of a computer is up to the
individual to decide. For this reason, absolute laws about ethical computer usage is
almost, but not entirely, impossible to define.
The introduction of computers into the workplace has introduced many questions
as well: Should employers make sure the workplace is designed to minimize health risks
such as back strain and carpal tunnel syndrome for people who work with computers?
Can employers prohibit employees from sending personal memos by electronic mail to a
friend at the other side of the office? Should employers monitor employees' work on
computers? If so, should employees be warned beforehand? If warned, does that make
the practice okay? According to Kenneth Goodman, director of the Forum for Bioethics
and Philosophy at the University of Miami, who teaches courses in computer ethics,
"There's hardly a business that's not using computers."1 This makes these questions all
the more important for today's society to answer.
There are also many moral and ethical problems dealing with the use of computers
in the medical field. In one particular case, a technician trusted what he thought a
computer was telling him, and administered a deadly dose of radiation to a hospital
patient.2 In cases like these, it is difficult to decide who's fault it is. It could have been the
computer programmer's fault, but Goodman asks, "How much responsibility can you place
on a machine?"3
Many problems also occur when computers are used in education. Should
computers replace actual teachers in the classroom? In some schools, computers and
computer manuals have already started to replace teachers. I would consider this an
unethical use of computers because computers do not have the ability to think and interact
on an interpersonal basis.
Computers "dehumanize human activity"4 by taking away many jobs and making
many others "boring exercises in pushing the buttons that make the technology work." 5
Complete privacy is almost impossible in this computer age. By using a credit card
or check cashing card, entering a raffle, or subscribing to a magazine, people provide
information about themselves that can be sold to marketers and distributed to data bases
throughout the world. When people use the world-wide web, the sites they visit and
download things from, make a record that can be traced back to the person.6 This is not
protected, as it is when books are checked out of a library. Therefore, information about
someone's personal preferences and interests can be sold to anyone. A health insurance
company could find out if a particular person had bought alcohol or cigarettes and charge
that person a higher rate because he or she is a greater health risk. Although something
like this has not been reported yet, there are no laws against it, at this point.
More and more data base companies are monitoring individuals with little
regulation. "Other forms of monitoring-such as genetic screening-could eventually be
used to discriminate against individuals not because of their past but because of statistical
expectations about their future."7 For instance, people who do not have AIDS but carry
the antibodies are being discharged from the U.S. military and also fired from some jobs.
Who knows if this kind of medical information could lead employers to make decisions of
employment based on possible future illnesses rather than on job qualifications. Is this an
ethical use of computers?
One aspect of computers that is surely immoral and unethical is computer crime,
which has been on the rise lately. There are many different types of computer crime.
Three main types of crimes are making computer viruses, making illegal copies of
software, and actually stealing computers.
Computer viruses have been around for a decade but they became infamous when
the Michelangelo virus caused a scare on March 6, 1992. According to the National
Computer Security Association in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, there are 6000 known viruses
worldwide and about 200 new ones show up every month.8 These viruses are spread
quickly and easily and can destroy all information on a computer's hard drive. Now,
people must buy additional software just to detect viruses and possibly repair infected
Making illegal copies of software is also a growing problem in the computer
world. Most people find no problem in buying a computer program and giving a copy to
their friend or co-worker. Some people even make copies and sell them to others.
Software companies are starting to require computer users to type in a code before using
the software. They do this in many ways. Sometimes, they require you to use a "code
wheel" or look in a book for the code. The software companies go through this trouble to
discourage people from making illegal copies because every copy that is made is money
the company lost.
One other thing that is just starting to become a problem is actual computer theft.
With the introduction of notebook computers came a rise in computer theft. The same
qualities that make these computers perfect for business travelers-their small size and light
weight- make them very easy for thieves to steal as well. In 1994, 295,000 computers
were reported stolen with resulting losses totaling over 981 million dollars. 9 The amount
lost to theft is about twice the amount lost in all forms of computer malfunction or
The biggest news related to computers lately seems to always be about the
Internet. The Internet began decades ago, but is just becoming popular with the general
public now that technology is advancing and becoming cheaper. There are many aspects
of the Internet that can lead people into discussions concerning morality and ethics.
Much of the discussion of the Internet has to do with freedom of speech and the
First Amendment. Most Americans probably believe that the First Amendment is moral
because it is a national law. The problems arise because different people interpret the First
Amendment in different ways. In most cases since 1776, the First Amendment has been
easily defined and understood, but every once in a while, a situation appears which blurs
the lines. The Internet has caused one of these situations.
There is information on the Internet about everything from drugs to making
bombs. The United States government is trying to decide whether they should or should
not censor material on the Internet. The government does not censor information like this
in public libraries, so why should it censor this information on the Internet? The
government censors information like this on television though, so why wouldn't it censor
this on the Internet? If the government goes strictly by the First Amendment, it would not
censor anything on the Internet because that would be a violation of free speech. It is
obvious though, that the government does not always go directly by the First Amendment,
so this leaves the topic open to discussion.
Some people argue that this information would be dangerous if it got into the
wrong hands. Much of the information in the world would be dangerous if it got into
the wrong hands. Does this mean that we should perform background checks and
psychiatric tests on everyone before we give them any information? I believe it is
unethical to withhold information from anyone. All information should be given out
freely. It is up to the individual to decide how to use the knowledge they have.
Many people complain that there is a large number of sick and demented people on
the Internet. There are a large number of sick and demented people in the "real" world
as well. In fact, the same people who are on the Internet are in the real world, too. There
is not much we can do about them except arrest the people who take their sickness and
dementia too far and break the law.
Computers can be harmful and beneficial to people in many different ways. The
ways computers are beneficial are the most obvious. Computers can entertain us, they can
save us time and energy, as well as saving us from performing boring and laborious tasks.
Computers also can be physically harmful to people. People who use computers
too much can suffer from vision loss, to varying degrees, due to staring at the screen for
extended lengths of time . They can also have problems with the muscles in their hands
from typing so often. They can acquire back problems from sitting in chairs behind desks
at computer screens, all day long.
Some people say that computers allow humans to cheat. They give us the
answers. They allow us to stop thinking. They believe it is unethical for the computers to
do the work for us. These people may be right in that some humans allow computers to
do work for them, but then if people did not make use of the new inventions and time-
savers, farmers would still be plowing with a horse and we'd still be cooking on an open
fire. Until computers exhibit actual artificial intelligence, though, we are still the ones
doing the thinking. We program the computers to do what we want them to do.
In conclusion, I believe that, in most situations involving computers, the morality
or immorality of an action is up to the individual to decide, as it would be if computers
were not involved. We have seen, though, that there are many instances in which people
have, without a doubt, acted immorally and unethically.
1 Timothy O'Conner, "Computers Creating Ethical Dilemmas," USA Today Magazine
(September 1995) 7
2 Max Frankel, "Cyberrights," The New York Times Magazine (February 12, 1995) 26
3 O'Conner 7
4 James Coates, "Unabomber Case Underscores an On-Line Evil," Chicago Tribune (April
14, 1996) 5
5 Coates 5
6 O'Conner 7
7 Tom Forester, Computers in the Human Context (Cambridge: The MIT Press,1989) 403
8 Stephen A. Booht, "Doom Virus," Popular Mechanics (June 1995) 51
9 Philip Albinus, "Have You Seen This PC?," Home Office Computing (February 1996) 17
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