Computer Codes of Ethics in A Ever Changing Technological Environment Essay


Write a paper of no fewer than ten pages in length (12 point font, double spaced) on one of the following topics: The Usefulness of Professional Codes of Ethics, An Engineer’s Environmental Responsibilities or Computer Ethics. You must utilize at least three philosophical sources.

If you choose The Usefulness of Professional Codes of Ethics, one of the sources must be Ladd. If you choose An Engineer’s Environmental Responsibilities, one of the sources must be Leopold. If you choose Computer Ethics, one of the sources must be Moor.

Include a complete bibliography.

John Ladd
My role as a philosopher is to act as a gadfly. If this were Athens in the
fifth century B. c. you would probably throw me in prison for what I shall
say, and I would be promptly condemned to death for attacking your idols. But
you can’t do that in this day and age; you can’t even ask for your money
back, since I am not being paid. All that you can do is to throw eggs at me
or simply walk out!
My theme is stated in the title: it is that the whole notion of an organized
professional ethics is an absurdity-intellectual and moral. Furthermore, I
shall argue that there are few positive benefits to be derived from having a
code and the possibility of mischievous side effects of adopting a code is
substantial. Unfortunately, in the time allotted to me I can only summarize
what I have to say on this topic.
1. To begin with, ethics itself is basically an open-ended, reflective
and critical intellectual activity. It is essentially problematic and
controversial, both as far as its principles are concerned and in its
application. Ethics consists of issues to be examined, explored, discussed,
deliberated, and argued. Ethical principles can be established only as a
result of deliberation and argumentation. These principles are not the kind
of thing that can be settled by fiat, by agreement or by authority. To assume
that they can be is to confuse ethics with law-making, rule making, policymaking and other kinds of decision making. It follows that, ethical
principles, as such, cannot be established by associations, organizations, or
by a consensus of their members. To speak of codifying ethics, therefore,
makes no more sense than to speak of codifying medicine, anthropology or
2. Even if substantial agreement could be reached on ethical principles
and they could be set out in a code, the attempt to impose such principles on
others in the guise
Reprinted from Rosemary Chalk, Mark S. Frankel, and Sallie B. Chafer, eds.,
AAAS Professional Ethics Project: Professional Ethics Activities in the
Scientific and Engineering Societies (Washington, D.C.: AAAS, 1980), pp. 15459, with permission from the American Association for the Advancement of
of ethics contradicts the notion of ethics itself, which presumes that persons are
autonomous moral agents. In Kant’s terms, such an attempt makes ethicsheteronymous; it confuses ethics with some kind of externally imposed set of rules
such as a code of ethics which, indeed, is heteronymous. To put the point in more
popular language: ethics must, by its very nature, be self-directed rather than
3. Thus, in attaching disciplinary procedures, methods of adjudication and
principles that one calls “ethical” one automatically converts them into legal
rules or some other kind of authoritative rules of conduct such as the bylaws of
an organization, regulations promulgated by an official,
club rules, rules of etiquette, or other sorts of social standards of conduct. To
label such conventions, rules and standards “ethical” simply reflects an
intellectual confusion about the status and function of these conventions, rules
and standards. Historically, it should be noted that the term “ethical” was
introduced merely to indicate that the code of the Royal College of Physicians was
not to be construed as a criminal code (i.e., a legal code). Here “ethical” means
simply non-legal.
4. That is not to say that ethics has no relevance for projects involving
the creation, certification and enforcement of rules of conduct for members of
certain groups. But logically it has the same kind of relevance that it has for the
law. As with law, its role in connection with these projects is to appraise,
criticize and perhaps even defend (or condemn) the projects themselves, the rules,
regulations and procedures they prescribe, and the social and political goals and
institutions they represent. But although ethics can be used to judge or evaluate a
disciplinary code, penal code, code of honor or what goes by the name of a “code of
ethics,” it cannot be identified with any of these, for the reasons that have
already been mentioned.
5. Being a professional does not automatically make a person an expert in
ethics, even in the ethics of that person’s own particular profession — unless of
course we decide to call the “club rules” of a profession its ethics. The reason for
this is that there are no experts in ethics in the sense of expert in which
professionals have a
special expertise that others do not share. As Plato pointed out long ago in the
Protagoras, knowledge of virtue is not like the technical knowledge that is possessed
by an architect or shipbuilder. In a sense, everyone is, or ought to be, a teacher of
virtue; there are no professional qualifications that are necessary for doing ethics.
6. Moreover, there is no special ethics belonging to professionals.
Professionals are not, simply because they are professionals, exempt from the common
obligations, duties and responsibilities that are binding on ordinary people. They do
not have a special moral status that allows them to do things that no one else can.
Doctors have no special -right to be rude, to deceive, or to order people around like
children, etc. Likewise, lawyers do not have a special right to bend the law to help
their clients, to bully witnesses, or to be cruel and brutal-simply because they
think that it is in the interests of their client. Professional codes cannot,
therefore, confer such rights and immunities; for there is no such thing as
professional ethical immunity.
7. We might ask: do professionals, by virtue of their special professional
status, have special duties and obligations over and above those they would have as
ordinary people? Before we can answer this question, we must first decide what is
meant: by the terms “profession” and “professional,” which are very loose terms
that are used as labels for a variety of different occupational categories. The
distinctive element in professionalism is generally held to be that professionals
have undergone advanced, specialized training and that they exercise control over
the nature of their job and the services they provide. In addition, the older
professions, lawyers, physicians, professors and ministers typically have clients
to whom they provide services as individuals. (I use the term “client” generically
so as to include patients, students, and parishioners.) When professionals have
“individual clients, new moral relationships are created that demand special types
of trust and loyalty. Thus, in order to answer the question, we need to examine the
context under which special duties and obligations of professionals might arise.
8. In discussing specific ethical issues relating to the professions, it is
convenient to divide them into issues of macro-ethics and micro-ethics. The former
comprise what might be called collective or social problems, that is problems
confronting members of a profession as a group in their relation to society; the
latter, issues of micro-ethics, are concerned with moral aspects of personal
relationships between individual professionals and other individuals who are their
clients, their colleagues and their employers. Clearly the particulars in both
kinds of ethics vary considerably from one profession to another. I shall make only
two general comments.
9. Micro-ethical issues concern the personal relationships between individuals.
Many of these issues simply involve the application of ordinary notions of honesty,
decency, civility, humanity, considerateness, respect and responsibility.
Therefore, it should not be necessary to devise a special code to tell
professionals that they ought to refrain from cheating and lying, or to make them
treat their clients (and patients) with respect, or to tell them that they ought to
ask for informed consent for invasive actions. It is a common mistake to assume
that all the extralegal norms and conventions governing professional relationships
have a moral status, for every profession has norms and conventions that have as
little to do with morality as the ceremonial dress and titles that are customarily
associated with the older professions.
10. The macro–ethical problems in professionalism are more problematic and
controversial. What are the social responsibilities of professionals
as a group?
What can and should they do to influence social policy? Here, I submit, the issue
is not one of professional roles, but of professional power. For professionals as a
group have a great deal of power; and power begets responsibility. Physicians as a
group can, for instance, exercise a great deal of influence on the quality and cost
of health care; and lawyers can have a great deal of influence on how the law is
made and administered, etc.
11. So-called “codes of professional ethics” have nothing to contribute either
to micro-ethics or to macro–ethics as just outlined. It should also be obvious
that they do not fit under either of these two categories. Any association,
including a professional association, can, of course, adopt a code of conduct for
its members and lay down disciplinary procedures and sanctions to enforce
conformity with its rules. But to call such a disciplinary code a code of ethics is
at once pretentious and sanctimonious. Even
worse, it is to make a false and misleading claim, namely, that the
profession in question has the authority or special competence to create an
ethics, that it is able authoritatively to set forth what the principles of
ethics are, and that it has its own brand of ethics that it can impose on
its, members and on society.
I have briefly stated the case against taking a code of professional
ethics to be a serious ethical enterprise. It might be objected, however,
that I have neglected to recognize some of the benefits that come from having
professional codes of ethics. In order to discuss these possible benefits, I
shall first examine what some of the objectives of codes of ethics might be,
then I shall consider some possible benefits of having a code, and, finally,
I shall point out some of the mischievous aspect of codes.
In order to be crystal clear about the purposes and objectives of a code, we must
begin by asking: to whom is the code addressed? Although ostensibly codes of ethics are
addressed to the members of the profession, their true purposes and objectives are sometimes
easier to ascertain if we recognize that codes are in fact often directed at other
addressees than members. Accordingly, the real addressees might be any of the following- (a)
members of the profession, (b) clients or buyers of the professional services, (c) other
agents dealing with professionals, such as government or private institutions like
universities or hospitals, or (d) the public at large. With this in mind, let us examine
some possible objectives.
First, the objective of a professional code might be “inspirational,” that is, it might
be used to inspire members to be more “ethical” in their conduct. The assumption on which
this objective is premised is that professionals are somehow likely to be amoral or
submoral, perhaps, as the result of becoming professionals, and so it is necessary to exhort
them to be moral, e.g., to be honest. I suppose there is nothing objectionable to having a
code for this reason, it would be something like the Boy Scout’s Code of Honor, something to
frame and hang in one’s office. I have severe reservations, however, about whether a code is
really needed for this purpose and whether it will do any good; for those to whom it is
addressed and who need it the most will not adhere to it anyway, and the rest of the good
people in the profession will not need it because they already know what they ought to do.
For this reason, many respectable members of a profession regard its code as a joke and as
something not to be taken seriously. (Incidentally, for much the same kind of reasons as
those just given, there are no professional codes in the academic or clerical professions.)
A second objective might be to alert professionals to the morals aspects of their
work that they might have overlooked. In
jargon, it might serve to sensitize them or to
raise their consciousness. This, of course, “is a worthy goal it is the goal of moral
education. Morality, after all, is not just a matter of doing or not doing, but also a
matter of feeling and thinking. But, here again, it is doubtful that it is possible to make
people have the right feelings or think rightly through enacting a code. A code is hardly
the best means for teaching morality.
Thirdly, a code might, as it was traditionally, be a disciplinary code or a “penal”
code used to enforce certain rules of the profession on its members in order
to defend the integrity of the professional and to protect its professional
standards. This kind of function is often referred to as “self-policing.” It
is unlikely, however, that the kind of disciplining that is in question here
could be handled in a code of ethics, a code that would set forth in detail
criteria for determining malpractice. On the contrary, the “ethical” code of
-a profession is usually used to discipline its members for other sorts of
“unethical conduct, ” such as stealing a client away from a colleague, for
making disparaging remarks about a colleague in public, or for departing from
some other sort of norm of the profession. (In the original code of the Royal
College of Physicians, members who failed to attend the funeral of a
colleague were subject to a fine!) It is clear that when we talk of a
disciplinary code, as distinguished from an exhortatory code, a lot of new
questions arise that cannot be treated here; for a disciplinary code is
quasi-legal in nature, it involves adjudicative organs and processes, and it
is usually connected with complicated issues relating to such things as
A fourth objective might be to offer advice in cases of moral
perplexity about what to do: e.g., should one report a colleague for
malfeasance? Should one let a severely defective newborn die? If such cases
present genuine perplexities, then they cannot and should not be solved by
reference to a code. To try to solve them through a code is like trying to do
surgery with a carving knife! If it is not a genuine perplexity, then the
code would be unnecessary.
A fifth objective of a professional code of ethics is to alert,
prospective clients and employers to what they may and may not expect by way
of service from a member of the profession concerned. The official code of an
association, say, of engineers, provides as authoritative statement of what
is proper and what is improper conduct of the professional. Thus, a code
serves to protect a professional from improper demands on the part of
employer or client, e.g., that he lie about or cover up defective work that
constitutes a public hazard. Codes may thus serve to protect “whistleblowers.” (The real addressee in this case is the employer or client.)
I now come to what I shall call “secondary objectives,” that is, objectives
that one might hesitate always to call “ethical,” especially since they often
provide an opportunity for abuse.
The first secondary objective is to enhance the image of the profession
in the public eye. The code is supposed to communicate to the general public
(the addressee) the idea that the members of the profession concerned are
service oriented and that the interests of the client are always given first
place over the interests of the professional himself. Because they have a
code they may be expected to be trustworthy.
Another secondary objective of a code is to protect the monopoly of the
profession in question. Historically, this appears to have been the
principal objective of a so -called code of ethics, e. g., Percival’s code of
medical ethics. Its aim is to exclude from practice those who are outside the
professional in-group and to regulate the conduct of the members of the
profession so as to protect it from encroachment from outside.
Sometimes this kind of professional monopoly is in the public interest and
often it is not.
Another secondary objective of professional codes of ethics, mentioned
in some of the literature, is that having a code serves as a status symbol;
one of the credentials to be considered a profession is that you have a code
of ethics. If you want to make your occupation a profession, then you must
frame a code of ethics for it; so there are codes for real estate agents,
insurance agents, used car dealers, electricians, barbers, etc., and these
codes serve, at least in the eyes of some, to raise their members to the
social status of lawyers and doctors.
I now want to call attention to some of the mischievous side-effects of
adopting a code of ethics:
The first and most obvious bit of mischief, is that having a code will
give a sense of complacency to professionals about their conduct. “We have a
code of ethics,” they will say, “so everything we do is ethical.” Inasmuch as
a code, of necessity, prescribes what is minimal, a professional may be
encouraged by the code to deliver what is minimal rather than the best that
he can do. “I did everything that the code requires”.
Even more mischievous than complacency and the consequent selfcongratulation, is the fact that a code of ethics can be used as a cover-up
for what might be called basically “unethical” or “irresponsible” conduct.
Perhaps the most mischievous side-effect of codes of ethics is that
they tend to divert attention from the macro-ethical problems of a profession
to its micro-ethical problems. There is a lot of talk about whistle-blowing.
But it concerns individuals almost exclusively. What is really needed is a
thorough scrutiny of professions as collective bodies, of their role in
society and their effect on the public interest. What role should the
professions play in determining the use of technology, its development and
expansion, and the distribution of the costs (e.g., disposition of toxic
wastes) as well as the benefits of technology? What is the significance of
professionalism from the moral point of view for democracy, social equality,
liberty and justice? There are lots of ethical problems to be dealt with. To
concentrate on codes of ethics as if they represented the real ethical
problems connected with professionalism is to capitulate to struthianism
(from the Greek word struthos=ostrich).
One final objection to codes that needs to be mentioned is that they
inevitably represent what John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the
majority” or, if not that, the “tyranny of the establishment.” They serve to
and are designed to discourage if not suppress the dissenter, the innovator,
the critic.
By way of conclusion, let me say a few words about what an association
of professionals can do about ethics. On theoretical grounds, I have argued
that it cannot codify an ethics and it cannot authoritatively establish
ethical principles or prescribed guidelines for the conduct of its members
as if it were creating an ethics! But there is still much that associations
can do to promote further understanding of and sensitivity to ethical issues
connected with
professional activities. For example, they can fill a very useful educational
function by encouraging their members to participate in extended discussions
of issues of both micro – ethics and macro – ethics, e.g., questions about
responsibility; for these issues obviously need to be examined and discussed
much more extensively than they are at present especially by those who are in
a position to do something about them.
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The Land Ethic
By Aldo Leopold,
from A Sand County Almanac, 1948
When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged all on one
rope a dozen slave-girls of his house-hold, whom he suspected of misbehavior
during his absence.
This hanging involved no question of propriety. The girls were property. The
disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right and
Concepts of right and wrong were not lacking from Odysseus’ Greece: witness
the fidelity of his wife through the long years before at last his black-prowed
galleys clove the wine-dark seas for home. The ethical structure of that day
covered wives, but had not yet been extended to human chattels. During the
three thousand years which have since elapsed, ethical criteria have been
extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those
judged by expediency only.
The Ethical Sequence
This extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a
process in ecological evolution. Its sequence may be described in ecological as
well as in philosophic terns. An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom
action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically is a
differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of
one thing. The thing has its origin in the tendency of interdependent
individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologist calls fees
symbioses. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original
free-for-all competition has been re placed, in part, by co-operative
mechanisms with an ethical content.
The complexity of co-operative mechanisms has increase with population
density, and with the efficiency of tools was simpler, for example, to define
the anti-social uses sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than of
bullet and billboards in the age of motors.
The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals; the Mosaic
Decalogue is an example. Later accretions dealt with the relation between the
individual and society. The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to
society, democracy to integrate social organization to the individual.
There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals
and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property.
The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but no
The extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is, if I read
the evidence correctly, an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.
It is the third step in a sequence. The first two have already been taken.
Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the
despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has
not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as
the embryo of such an affirmation.
An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological
situations so new or intricate, or involving such deferred reactions, that the
path of social expediency is not discernible to the average individual. Animal
instincts are modes of guidance for the individual in meeting such situations.
Ethics are possibly a kind of community instinct in-the-making.
The Community Concept
All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a
member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to
compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include
soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.
This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the
land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and who do we
love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver
Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn
turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage Certainly not the plants, of which
we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the
animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most
beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration,
management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to
continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a
natural state.
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the
land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his
fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.
In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is
eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the
conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick and
just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worth-less, in community
life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests
eventually defeat themselves.
In the biotic community, a parallel situation exists. Abraham knew exactly
what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth. At
the present moment, the assurance with which we regard this assumption is
inverse to the degree of our education.
The ordinary citizen today assumes that science know what makes the
community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure that he does not. He knows
that the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never bus fully
That man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team is shown by an ecological
interpretation of history. Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in
terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people
and land. The characteristics of the land determined the facts quite as
potently as the characteristics of the men who lived on it.
Consider, for example, the settlement of the Mississippi valley. In the years
following the Revolution, three groups were contending for its control: the
native Indian, the French and English traders, and the American settlers.
Historians wonder what would have happened if the English at Detroit had
thrown a little more weight into the Indian side of those tipsy scales which
decided the outcome of the colonial migration into the cane-lands of Kentucky.
It is time now to ponder the fact that the cane-lands, when subjected to the
particular mixture of forces represented by the cow plow, fire, and axe of the
pioneer, became bluegrass. What if the plant succession inherent in this dark
and bloody ground had, under the impact of these forces given us some
worthless sedge, shrub, or weed? Would Boone and Kenton have held out?
Would there have been any overflow into Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri?
Any Louisiana Purchase? Any transcontinental union of new states? Any Civil
Kentucky was one sentence in the drama of history. W are commonly told what
the human actors in this drama tried to do, but we are seldom told that their
success, or the lack of it, hung in large degree on the reaction of particular
soils to the impact of the particular forces exerted by their occupancy. In the
case of Kentucky, we do not even know where the bluegrass came from—
whether it is a native species, or a stowaway from Europe.
Contrast the cane-lands with what hindsight tells us about the Southwest,
where the pioneers were equally brave, resourceful, and persevering. The
impact of occupancy here brought no bluegrass, or other plant fitted to
withstand the bumps and buffetings of hard use. This region, when grazed by
livestock, reverted through a series of more and more worthless grasses,
shrubs, and weeds to a condition of unstable equilibrium. Each recession of
plant types bred erosion, each increment to erosion bred a further recession of
plants. The result today is a progressive and mutual deterioration, not only of
plants and soils, but of the animal community subsisting thereon. The early
settlers did not expect this: on the cienegas of New Mexico some even cut
ditches to hasten it. So subtle has been its progress that few residents of the
region are aware of it. It is quite invisible to the tourist who finds this wrecked
landscape colorful and charming (as indeed it is, but it bears scant
resemblance to what it was in 1848).
This same landscape was ‘developed’ once before, but with quite different
results. The Pueblo Indians settled the Southwest in pre-Columbian times, but
they happened not to be equipped with range livestock. Their civilization
expired, but not because their land expired.
In India, regions devoid of any sod-forming grass have been settled, apparently
without wrecking the land, by the simple expedient of carrying the grass to the
cow, rather than vice versa. (Was this the result of some deep wisdom or was it
just good luck? I do not know. )
In short, the plant succession steered the course of history; the pioneer simply
demonstrated, for good or ill, which successions inhered in the land. Is history
taught in this spirit? It will be, once the concept of land as a community really
penetrates our intellectual life.
The Ecological Conscience
Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. Despite nearly a
century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail’s pace; progress
still consists largely in letterhead pieties and conventional oratory. On the back
forty we still slip two steps backward for each forward stride.
The usual answer to this dilemma is ‘more conservation education.’ No one will
debate this, but is it certain that on the volume of education needs stepping
up? Is something lacking in the content as well?
It is difficult to give a fair summary of its content in brief form, but, as I
understand it, the content is substantially this: obey the law, vote right, join
some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your own
land; the government will do the rest.
Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no
right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in
the current philosophy of values. In respect of land-use, it urges only
enlightened self-interest. Just how far will such education flake us? An example
will perhaps yield a partial answer.
By 1930 it had become clear to all except the ecologically blind that
southwestern Wisconsin’s topsoil was slipping seaward. In 1933 the farmers
were told that if they would adopt certain remedial practices for five years,
the public would donate CCC labor to install them, plus the necessary
machinery and materials. The offer was widely accepted, but the practices
were widely forgotten when the five-year contract period was up. The farmers
continued only those practices that yielded an immediate and visible economic
gain for themselves.
This led to the idea that maybe farmers would learn more quickly if they
themselves wrote the rules. Accordingly the Wisconsin Legislature in 1937
passed the Soil Conservation District Law. This said to farmers, in effect: we,
the Public, will furnish you free technical service and loan you specialized
machinery, if you will write your own rules for land-use. Each county may
write its own rules, and they will have the force of law. Nearly all the counties
promptly organized to accept the proffered help, but after a decade of
operation, no county has yet written a single rule. There has been visible
progress in such practices as strip-cropping, pasture renovation, and soil
liming, but none in fencing woodlots against grazing, and none in excluding
plow and cow from steep slopes. The farmers, in short, have elected those
remedial practices which were profitable anyhow, and ignored those which
were profitable to the community, but not clearly profitable to themselves.
When one asks why no rules have been written, one is told that the community
is not yet ready to support them; education must precede rules. But the
education actually in progress makes no mention of obligations to land over and
above those dictated by self-interest. The net result is that we have more
education but less soil, fewer healthy woods and as many floods as in 1937.
The puzzling aspect of such situations is that the existence of obligations over
and above self-interest is taken for granted in such rural community enterprises
as the betterment of roads, schools, churches, and baseball teams. Their
existence is not taken for granted, nor as yet seriously discussed, in bettering
the behavior of the water that falls o the land, or in the preserving of the
beauty or diversity o the farm landscape. Land-use ethics are still governed
wholly by economic self-interest, just as social ethics were century ago.
To sum up: we asked the farmer to do what he conveniently could to save his
soil, and he has done just that and only that. The farmer who clears the woods
off a 75 percent slope, turns his cows into the clearing, and dumps its rainfall,
rocks, and soil into the community creek, is still (if otherwise decent) a
respected member of society. If he puts lime on his fields and plants his crops
on contour, he is still entitled to all the privileges and emoluments of his Soil
Conservation District. The District is a beautiful piece of social machinery, but
it is coughing along on two cylinders because we have been too timid, and too
anxious for quick success, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his
obligations. Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem
we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.
No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal
change in our intellectual emphasis loyalties, affections, and convictions. The
proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies
in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt
to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.
Substitutes for a Land Ethic
When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand out a stone, we are at
pains to explain how much the stone resembles bread. I now describe some of
the stones which serve in lieu of a land ethic.
One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic
motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value.
Wildflowers and songbird are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and
animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be
sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use Yet these creatures are
members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on
its integrity they are entitled to continuance.
When one of these non-economic categories is threatened and if we happen to
love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginning
of the century song birds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists
jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence the effect that
insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be
economic in order to b valid.
It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We have no land ethic yet,
but we have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should
continue as a matter o biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of
economic advantage to us.
A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mammals, raptorial birds, and
fish-eating birds. Time was when biologists somewhat overworked the evidence
that these creatures preserve the health of game by killing weaklings or that
they control rodents for the farmer, or that they prey only on ‘worthless’
species. Here again, the evidence had to be economic in order to be valid. It is
only in recent years that we hear the more honest argument that predators are
members of the community, and that no special interest has the right to
exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real or fancied, to itself.
Unfortunately this enlightened view still in the talk stage. In the field the
extermination o predators goes merrily on: witness the impending erasure of
the timber wolf by fiat of Congress, the Conservation Bureaus, and many state
Some species of trees have been ‘read out of the party’ by economics-minded
foresters because they grow too slowly, or have too low a sale value to pay as
timber crops: white cedar, tamarack, cypress, beech, and hemlock are
examples. In Europe, where forestry is ecologically more advanced, the noncommercial tree species are recognized as members of the native forest
community, to be preserved as such, within reason. Moreover some (like
beech) have seen found to have a valuable function in building up soil fertility.
The interdependence of the forest and its constituent tree species, ground
flora, and fauna is taken for granted.
Lack of economic value is sometimes a character not only of species or groups,
but of entire biotic communities: marshes, bogs, dunes, and ‘deserts’ are
examples. Our formula in such cases is to relegate their conservation to
government as refuges, monuments, or parks. The difficulty is that these
communities are usually interspersed with more valuable private lands; the
government cannot possibly own or control such scattered parcels. The net
effect is that we have relegated some of them to ultimate extinction over large
areas. If the private owner were ecologically minded, he would be proud to be
the custodian of a reasonable proportion of such areas, which add diversity and
beauty to his farm and to his community.
In some instances, the assumed lack of profit in these ‘waste’ areas has proved
to be wrong, but only after most of them had been done away with. The
present scramble to reflood muskrat marshes is a case in point.
Where is a clear tendency in American conservation to relegate to government
all necessary jobs that private land owners fail to perform? Government
ownership, operation subsidy, or regulation is now widely prevalent in forestry
range management, soil and watershed management, park and wilderness
conservation, fisheries management, and migratory bird management, with
more to come. Most of this growth in governmental conservation is proper and
logical, some of it is inevitable. That I imply no disapproval of it is implicit in
the fact that I have spent most of my life working for it. Nevertheless the
question arises: What is the ultimate magnitude of the enterprise? Will the tax
base carry its eventual ramifications? At what point will governmental
conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped by its own dimensions?
The answer, if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force
which assigns more obligation to the private landowner.
Industrial landowners and users, especially lumbermen and stockmen, are
inclined to wail long and loudly about the extension of government ownership
and regulation to land, but (with notable exceptions) they show little
disposition to develop the only visible alternative: the voluntary practice of
conservation on their own lands.
When the private landowner is asked to perform some unprofitable act for the
good of the community, he today assents only with outstretched palm. If the
act costs him cash this is fair and proper, but when it costs only forethought,
open-mindedness, or time, the issue is at least debatable. The overwhelming
growth of land-use subsidies in recent years must be ascribed, in large part, to
the government’s own agencies for conservation education: the land bureaus,
the agricultural colleges, and the extension services. As far as I can detect, no
ethical obligation toward land is taught in these institutions.
To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is
hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many
elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as
far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think,
that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the
uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions
eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by
An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only visible remedy
for these situations.
The Land Pyramid
An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes
the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be
ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or
otherwise have faith in.
The image commonly employed in conservation education is ‘the balance of
nature.’ For reasons too lengthy to detail here, this figure of speech fails to
describe accurately what little we know about the land mechanism. A much
truer image is the one employed in ecology: the biotic pyramid. I shall first
sketch the pyramid as a symbol of land, and later develop some of its
implications in terms of land-use.
Plants absorb energy from the sun. This energy flow through a circuit called the
biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers. The bottom
layer is the soil. A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect layer on the plants, a
bird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up through various animal
groups to the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores.
The species of a layer are alike not in where they came from, or in what they
look like, but rather in what they eat. Each successive layer depends on those
below it for food and often for other services, and each in turn furnishes food
and services to those above. Proceeding upward, each successive layer
decreases in numerical abundance. Thus, for every carnivore there are
hundreds of his prey, thousands of their prey, millions of insects, uncountable
plants. The pyramidal form of the system reflects this numerical progression
from apex to base. Man shares an intermediate layer with the bears, raccoons,
and squirrels which eat both meat and vegetables.
The lines of dependency for food and other services are called food chains.
Thus soil-oak-deer-Indian is a chain that has now been largely converted to
soil-corn-cow-farmer. Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many
chains. The deer eats a hundred plants other than oak, and the cow a hundred
plants other than corn. Both, then, are links in a hundred chains. The pyramid
is a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the
system proves it to be a highly organized structure. Its functioning depends on
the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts.
In the beginning, the pyramid of life was low and squat; the food chains short
and simple Evolution has added layer after layer, link after link. Man is one of
thousands of accretions to the height and complexity of the pyramid. Science
has given us many doubts, but it has given us at least one certainty: the trend
of evolution is to elaborate and diversify the biota.
Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a
circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which
conduct energy up ward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is no
closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added b absorption from
the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a
sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life. There is
always a net loss y downhill wash, but this is normally small and offset by the
decay of rocks. It is deposited in the ocean and, in the course of geological
time, raised to form new lands and new pyramids.
The velocity and character of the upward flow of energy depend on the
complex structure of the plant and animal community, much as the upward
flow of sap in a tree depends on its complex cellular organization. Without this
complexity, normal circulation would presumably not occur. Structure means
the characteristic numbers, as well as the characteristic kinds and functions, of
the component species. This interdependence between the complex structure
of the land and its smooth functioning as an energy unit is one of its basic
When a change occurs in one part of the circuit, many other parts must adjust
themselves to it. Change does not necessarily obstruct or divert the flow of
energy; evolution is a long series of self-induced changes, the net result of
which has been to elaborate the flow mechanism and to lengthen the circuit.
Evolutionary changes, however, are usually slow and local. Man’s invention of
tools has enable him to make changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity) and
One change is in the composition of floras and fauna. The larger predators are
lopped of f the apex of the pyramid food chains, for the first time in history,
become short rather than longer. Domesticated species from other land are
substituted for wild ones, and wild ones are moved new habitats. In this worldwide pooling of faunas and floras, some species get out of bounds as pests and
disease others are extinguished. Such effects are seldom intended foreseen;
they represent unpredicted and often untraceable readjustments in the
structure. Agricultural science is large a race between the emergence of new
pests and the emergence of new techniques for their control.
Another change touches the flow of energy through plant and animals and its
return to the soil. Fertility is the ability of soil to receive, store, and release
energy. Agriculture, by overdrafts on the soil, or by too radical a substitution
domestic for native species in the superstructure, may derange the channels of
flow or deplete storage. Soils depleted of their storage, or of the organic
matter which anchors it wash away faster than they form. This is erosion.
Waters, like soil, are part of the energy circuit. Industry by polluting waters or
obstructing them with dams, may exclude the plants and animals necessary to
keep energy in circulation.
Transportation brings about another basic change: the plants or animals grown
in one region are now consumed and returned to the soil in another.
Transportation taps the energy stored in rocks, and in the air, and uses it
elsewhere; thus we fertilize the garden with nitrogen gleaned by the guano
birds from the fishes of seas on the other side of the Equator. Thus the
formerly localized and self-contained circuits are pooled on a world-wide scale.
The process of altering the pyramid for human occupation releases stored
energy, and this often gives rise, during the Pioneering period, to a deceptive
exuberance of plant and animal life, both wild and tame. These releases of
biotic capital tend to becloud or postpone the penalties of violence.
This thumbnail sketch of land as an energy circuit conveys three basic ideas:
(1) That land is not merely soil.
(2) That the native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may
or may not.
(3) That man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes,
and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.
These ideas, collectively, raise two basic issues: Can the land adjust itself to
the new order? Can the desired alterations be accomplished with less violence?
Biotas seem to differ in their capacity to sustain violent conversion. Western
Europe, for example, carries a far different pyramid than Caesar found there.
Some large animals are lost; swampy forests have become meadows or plow
land; many new plants and animals are introduced, some of which escaped as
pests; the remaining natives are greatly changed in distribution and
abundance. Yet the soil is still there and, with the help of imported nutrients,
still fertile, the waters flow normally; the new structure seems to function and
to persist. There is no visible stoppage or derangement of the circuit.
Western Europe, then, has a resistant biota. Its inner processes are tough,
elastic, resistant to strain. No matter how violent the alterations, the pyramid,
so far, has developed some new modus vivendi which preserves its habitability
for man, and for most of the other natives.
Japan seems to present another instance of radical conversion without
Most other civilized regions, and some as yet barely touched by civilization,
display various stages of disorganization, varying from initial symptoms to
advanced wastage In Asia Minor and North Africa diagnosis is confused by
climatic changes, which may have been either the cause or the effect of
advanced wastage. In the United States the degree of disorganization varies
locally; it is worst in the Southwest, the Ozarks, and parts of the South, and
least in New England and the Northwest. Better land-uses may still arrest it in
the less advanced regions. In parts of Mexico South America, South Africa, and
Australia a violent and accelerating wastage is in progress, but I cannot assess
the prospects.
This almost world-wide display of disorganization in the land seems to be
similar to disease in an animal, except that it never culminates in complete
disorganization or death. The land recovers, but at some reduced level of
complexity and with a reduced carrying capacity for people, plants, and
animals. Many biotas currently regarded as ‘lands of opportunity’ are in fact
already subsisting on exploitative agriculture, i.e. they have already exceeded
their sustained carrying capacity. Most of South America is overpopulated in
this sense.
In arid regions we attempt to offset the process of wastage by reclamation, but
it is only too evident that the prospective longevity of reclamation projects is
often short. In our own West, the best of them may not last a century.
The combined evidence of history and ecology seems to support one general
deduction: the less violent the man made changes, the greater the probability
of successful readjustment in the pyramid. Violence, in turn, varies with human
population density; a dense population requires more violent conversion. In this
respect, North America has a better chance for permanence than Europe, if she
can contrive to limit her density.
This deduction runs counter to our current philosophy which assumes that
because a small increase in density enriched human life, that an indefinite
increase will enrich it indefinitely. Ecology knows of no density relationship
that holds for indefinitely wide limits. All gains from density are subject to a
law of diminishing returns.
Whatever may be the equation for men and land, it is improbable that we as
yet know all its terms. Recent discoveries in mineral and vitamin nutrition
reveal unsuspected dependencies in the up-circuit: incredibly minute
quantities of certain substances determine the value of soils to plants, of
plants to animals. What of the down-circuit? What of the vanishing species, the
preservation of which we now regard as an esthetic luxury? They helped build
the soil; in which unsuspected ways may they be essential to its maintenance?
Professor Weaver proposes that we use prairie flowers to re-flocculate the
wasting soils of the dust bowl; who knows what purpose cranes and condors,
otters and grizzlies may some day be used?
Land Health and the A-B Cleavage
A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this
in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the
land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our
effort to understand and preserve this capacity.
Conservationists are notorious for their dissensions. Superficially these seem to
add up to mere confusion, but a more careful scrutiny reveals a single plane of
cleavage common to many specialized fields. In each field one group (A)
regards the land as soil, and its function as commodity-production; another
group (B) regards the land as a biota, and its function as something broader.
How much broader is admittedly in a state of doubt and confusion.
In my own field, forestry, group A is quite content to grow trees like cabbages,
with cellulose as the basic forest commodity. It feels no inhibition against
violence; its ideology is agronomic. Group B. on the other hand, sees forestry
as fundamentally different from agronomy because it employs natural species,
and manages a natural environment rather than creating an artificial one.
Group B prefers natural reproduction on principle. It worries on biotic as well
as economic grounds about the loss of species like chestnut, and the
threatened loss of the white pines. It worries about whole series of secondary
forest functions: wildlife, recreation, watersheds, wilderness areas. To my
mind, Group B feels the stirrings of an ecological conscience.
In the wildlife field, a parallel cleavage exists. For Group A the basic
commodities are sport and meat; the yardstick of production are ciphers of
take in pheasants and trout. Artificial propagation is acceptable as a
permanent as we as a temporary recourse—if its unit costs permit. Group B on
the other hand, worries about a whole series of biotic side-issues. What is the
cost in predators of producing a game crop? Should we have further recourse to
exotics? How can management restore the shrinking species, like prairie
grouse, already hopeless as shootable game? How can management restore the
threatened rarities, like trumpeter swan and whooping crane? Can management
principles be extended to wildflowers? Here again it is clear to me that we
have the same A-B cleavage as in forestry.
In the larger field of agriculture I am less competent to speak, but there seem
to be somewhat parallel cleavages. Scientific agriculture was actively
developing before ecology was born, hence a slower penetration of ecological
concepts might be expected. Moreover the farmer, by the very nature of his
techniques, must modify the biota more radically than the forester or the
wildlife manager. Nevertheless, there are many discontents in agriculture
which seem to add up to a new vision of ‘biotic farming.’
Perhaps the most important of these is the new evidence that poundage or
tonnage is no measure of the food-value of farm crops; the products of fertile
soil may be qualitatively as well as quantitatively superior. We can bolster
poundage from depleted soils by pouring on imported fertility, but we are not
necessarily bolstering food-value. The possible ultimate ramifications of this
idea are so immense that I must leave their exposition to abler pens.
The discontent that labels itself ‘organic farming,’ while bearing some of the
earmarks of a cult, is nevertheless biotic in its direction, particularly in its
insistence on the importance of soil flora and fauna.
The ecological fundamentals of agriculture are just a poorly known to the
public as in other fields of land-use. For example, few educated people realize
that the marvelous advances in technique made during recent decades are
improvements in the pump, rather than the well. Acre for acre, they have
barely sufficed to offset the sinking level of fertility.
In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the
conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword
versus science the search-light on his universe; land the slave and servant
versus land the collective organism. Robinson’s injunction to Tristram may well
be applied, at this juncture, to Homo sapiens as species in geological time:
Whether you will or not You are a King, Tristram,
for you are one Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
When they are gone, not the same place it was.
Mark what you leave.
The Outlook
It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love,
respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of
course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in
the philosophical sense.
Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the
fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather
than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separate
from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He
has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops
grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to
be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by
hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well. Synthetic
substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him
better than the originals. In short, land is something he has ‘outgrown.’
Almost equally serious as an obstacle to a land ethic is the attitude of the
farmer for whom the land is still an adversary or a taskmaster that keeps him in
slavery. Theoretically, the mechanization of farming ought to cut the farmer’s
chains, ‘ but whether it really does is debatable.
One of the requisites for an ecological comprehension of land is an
understanding of ecology, and this is by no means co-extensive with
‘education’; in fact, much higher education seems deliberately to avoid
ecological concepts. An understanding of ecology does not necessarily originate
in courses bearing ecological labels; it is quite as likely to be labeled
geography, botany, agronomy, history, or economics. This is as it should be,
but whatever the label, ecological training is scarce.
The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in
obvious revolt against these ‘modern’ trends.
The ‘key-log’ which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an
ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic
problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically
right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends
to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is
wrong when it tends otherwise.
It of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of
what can or cannot be done for land. It always has and it always will. The
fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck, and
which we now need to cast off, is the belief that economics determines all
land-use. This is simply not true. An innumerable host of actions and attitudes,
comprising perhaps the bulk of all land relations, is determined by the landusers’ tastes and predilections, rather than by his purse. The bulk of all land
relations hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill and faith rather than
on investments of cash. As a land-user thinketh, so is he.
I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution
because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’ Only the most
superficial student of history supposes that Moses ‘wrote’ the Decalogue; it
evolved in the minds of a thinking community, and Moses wrote tentative
summary of it for a ‘seminar.’ I say tentative because evolution never stops.
The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well an emotional process.
Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even
dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land
or of economic land-use. I think it is a truism that as the ethical frontier
advances from the individual to the community, its intellectual content
The mechanism of operation is the same for any ethic: social approbation for
right actions: social disapproval for wrong actions.
By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are
remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and we are proud of our
yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good
points but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its
successful use.
About the author:
Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, on January 11 1887. As a boy he
developed a lively interest in field ornithology and natural history and after
schooling in Burlington, at Lawrenceville Prep in New Jersey, and the She field
Scientific School at Yale, he enrolled in the Yale forestry school, the first
graduate school of forestry in the United States. Graduating with a masters in
1909, he joined the U.S. Forest Service, by 1912 was supervisor of the millionacre Carson National Forest, and in 1924 accepted the position of Associate
Director of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, the
principal research institution of the Forest Service at that time. In 1933 he was
appointed to the newly created chair in Game Management at the University of
Wisconsin, a position he held until his death.
Leopold was throughout his life at the forefront of the conservation
movement—indeed, he is widely acknowledged as the father of wildlife
conservation in America. Though perhaps best known for A Sand County
Almanac, he was also an internationally respected scientist, authored the
classic text Game Management, which is still in use today, wrote over 350
articles, mostly on scientific and policy matters and was an advisor on
conservation to the United Nations He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1948
while helping his neighbors fight a grass fire. He has subsequently been named
to the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Hall of Fame, and in 1978,
the John Burroughs Memorial Association awarded him the John Burroughs
Medal for his lifework and, in particular, for A Sand County Almanac.
Return to North Glen or Reading List or Credo
What is Computer Ethics?*
* This article first appeared in Terrell Ward Bynum, ed., Computers & Ethics, Blackwell, 1985,
pp.266 – 75. (A special issue of the journal Metaphilosophy.)
James H. Moor

A Proposed Definition
The Revolutionary Machine
Anatomy of the Computer Revolution
The Invisibility Factor
A Proposed Definition
Computers are special technology and they raise some special ethical issues. In this essay I will
discuss what makes computers different from other technology and how this difference makes a
difference in ethical considerations. In particular, I want to characterize computer ethics and show
why this emerging field is both intellectually interesting and enormously important.
On my view, computer ethics is the analysis of the nature and social impact of computer technology
and the corresponding formulation and justification of policies for the ethical use of such technology.
I use the phrase “computer technology” because I take the subject matter of the field broadly to
include computers and associated technology. For instance, I include concerns about software as
well as hardware and concerns about networks connecting computers as well as computers
A typical problem in computer ethics arises because there is a policy vacuum about how computer
technology should be used. Computers provide us with new capabilities and these in turn give us
new choices for action. Often, either no policies for conduct in these situations exist or existing
policies seem inadequate. A central task of computer ethics is to determine what we should do in
such cases, i.e., to formulate policies to guide our actions. Of course, some ethical situations
confront us as individuals and some as a society. Computer ethics includes consideration of both
personal and social policies for the ethical use of computer technology.
Now it may seem that all that needs to be done is the mechanical application of an ethical theory to
generate the appropriate policy. But this is usually not possible. A difficulty is that along with a
policy vacuum there is often a conceptual vacuum. Although a problem in computer ethics may
seem clear initially, a little reflection reveals a conceptual muddle. What is needed in such cases is
an analysis which provides a coherent conceptual framework within which to formulate a policy for
action. Indeed, much of the important work in computer ethics is devoted to proposing conceptual
frameworks for understanding ethical problems involving computer technology.
An example may help to clarify the kind of conceptual work that is required. Let’s suppose we are
trying to formulate a policy for protecting computer programs. Initially, the idea may seem clear
enough. We are looking for a policy for protecting a kind of intellectual property. But then a number
of questions which do not have obvious answers emerge. What is a computer program? Is it really
intellectual property which can be owned or is it more like an idea, an algorithm, which is not owned
by anybody? If a computer program is intellectual property, is it an expression of an idea that is
owned (traditionally protectable by copyright) or is it a process that is owned (traditionally
protectable by patent)? Is a machine-readable program a copy of a human-readable program?
Clearly, we need a conceptualization of the nature of a computer program in order to answer these
kinds of questions. Moreover, these questions must be answered in order to formulate a useful
policy for protecting computer programs. Notice that the conceptualization we pick will not only
affect how a policy will be applied but to a certain extent what the facts are. For instance, in this
case the conceptualization will determine when programs count as instances of the same program.
Even within a coherent conceptual framework, the formulation of a policy for using computer
technology can be difficult. As we consider different policies we discover something about what we
value and what we don’t. Because computer technology provides us with new possibilities for acting,
new values emerge. For example, creating software has value in our culture which it didn’t have a
few decades ago. And old values have to be reconsidered. For instance, assuming software is
intellectual property, why should intellectual property be protected? In general, the consideration of
alternative policies forces us to discover and make explicit what our value preferences are.
The mark of a basic problem in computer ethics is one in which computer technology is essentially
involved and there is an uncertainty about what to do and even about how to understand the
situation. Hence, not all ethical situations involving computers are central to computer ethics. If a
burglar steals available office equipment including computers, then the burglar has done something
legally and ethically wrong. But this is really an issue for general law and ethics. Computers are only
accidentally involved in this situation, and there is no policy or conceptual vacuum to fill. The
situation and the applicable policy are clear.
In one sense I am arguing for the special status of computer ethics as a field of study. Applied
ethics is not simply ethics applied. But, I also wish to stress the underlying importance of general
ethics and science to computer ethics. Ethical theory provides categories and procedures for
determining what is ethically relevant. For example, what kinds of things are good? What are our
basic rights? What is an impartial point of view? These considerations are essential in comparing
and justifying policies for ethical conduct. Similarly, scientific information is crucial in ethical
evaluations. It is amazing how many times ethical disputes turn not on disagreements about values
but on disagreements about facts.
On my view, computer ethics is a dynamic and complex field of study which considers the
relationships among facts, conceptualizations, policies and values with regard to constantly
changing computer technology. Computer ethics is not a fixed set of rules which one shellacs and
hangs on the wall. Nor is computer ethics the rote application of ethical principles to a value-free
technology. Computer ethics requires us to think anew about the nature of computer technology
and our values. Although computer ethics is a field between science and ethics and depends on
them, it is also a discipline in its own right which provides both conceptualizations for understanding
and policies for using computer technology.
Though I have indicated some of the intellectually interesting features of computer ethics, I have
not said much about the problems of the field or about its practical importance. The only example I
have used so far is the issue of protecting computer programs which may seem to be a very narrow
concern. In fact, I believe the domain of computer ethics is quite large and extends to issues which
affect all of us. Now I want to turn to a consideration of these issues and argue for the practical
importance of computer ethics. I will proceed not by giving a list of problems but rather by
analyzing the conditions and forces which generate ethical issues about computer technology. In
particular, I want to analyze what is special about computers, what social impact computers will
have, and what is operationally suspect about computing technology. I hope to show something of
the nature of computer ethics by doing some computer ethics.
What is Computer Ethics?*
James H. Moor

A Proposed Definition
The Revolutionary Machine
Anatomy of the Computer Revolution
The Invisibility Factor
The Revolutionary Machine
What is special about computers? It is often said that a Computer Revolution is taking place, but
what is it about computers that makes them revolutionary? One difficulty in assessing the
revolutionary nature of computers is that the word “revolutionary” has been devalued. Even minor
technological improvements are heralded as revolutionary. A manufacturer of a new dripless
pouring spout may well promote it as revolutionary. If minor technological improvements are
revolutionary, then undoubtedly ever-changing computer technology is revolutionary. The
interesting issue, of course, is whether there is some nontrivial sense in which computers are
revolutionary. What makes computer technology importantly different from other technology? Is
there any real basis for comparing the Computer Revolution with the Industrial Revolution?
If we look around for features that make computers revolutionary, several features suggest
themselves. For example, in our society computers are affordable and abundant. It is not much of
an exaggeration to say that currently in our society every major business, factory, school, bank,
and hospital is rushing to utilize computer technology. Millions of personal computers are being sold
for home use. Moreover, computers are integral parts of products which don’t look much like
computers such as watches and automobiles. Computers are abundant and inexpensive, but so are
pencils. Mere abundance and affordability don’t seem sufficient to justify any claim to technological
One might claim the newness of computers makes them revolutionary. Such a thesis requires
qualification. Electronic digital computers have been around for forty years. In fact, if the abacus
counts as a computer, then computer technology is among the oldest technologies. A better way to
state this claim is that recent engineering advances in computers make them revolutionary.
Obviously, computers have been immensely improved over the last forty years. Along with dramatic
increases in computer speed and memory there have been dramatic decreases in computer size.
Computer manufacturers are quick to point out that desk top computers today exceed the
engineering specifications of computers which filled rooms only a few decades ago. There has been
also a determined effort by companies to make computer hardware and computer software easier to
use. Computers may not be completely user friendly but at least they are much less unfriendly.
However, as important as these features are, they don’t seem to get to the heart of the Computer
Revolution. Small, fast, powerful and easy-to-use electric can openers are great improvements over
earlier can openers, but they aren’t in the relevant sense revolutionary.
Of course, it is important that computers are abundant, less expensive, smaller, faster, and more
powerful and friendly. But, these features serve as enabling conditions for the spread of the
Computer Revolution. The essence of the Computer Revolution is found in the nature of a computer
itself. What is revolutionary about computers is logical malleability. Computers are logically
malleable in that they can be shaped and molded to do any activity that can be characterized in
terms of inputs, outputs, and connecting logical operations. Logical operations are the precisely
defined steps which take a computer from one state to the next. The logic of computers can be
massaged and shaped in endless ways through changes in hardware and software. Just as the
power of a steam engine was a raw resource of the Industrial Revolution so the logic of a computer
is a raw resource of the Computer Revolution. Because logic applies everywhere, the potential
applications of computer technology appear limitless. The computer is the nearest thing we have to
a universal tool. Indeed, the limits of computers are largely the limits of our own creativity. The
driving question of the Computer Revolution is “How can we mold the logic of computers to better
serve our purposes?”
I think logical malleability explains the already widespread application of computers and hints at the
enormous impact computers are destined to have. Understanding the logical malleability of
computers is essential to understanding the power of the developing technological revolution.
Understanding logical malleability is also important in setting policies for the use of computers.
Other ways of conceiving computers serve less well as a basis for formulating and justifying policies
for action.
Consider an alternative and popular conception of computers in which computers are understood as
number crunchers, i.e., essentially as numerical devices. On this conception computers are nothing
but big calculators. It might be maintained on this view that mathematical and scientific applications
should take precedence over non-numerical applications such as word processing. My position, on
the contrary, is that computers are logically malleable. The arithmetic interpretation is certainly a
correct one, but it is only one among many interpretations. Logical malleability has both a syntactic
and a semantic dimension. Syntactically, the logic of computers is malleable in terms of the number
and variety of possible states and operations. Semantically, the logic of computers is malleable in
that the states of the computer can be taken to represent anything. Computers manipulate symbols
but they don’t care what the symbols represent. Thus, there is no ontological basis for giving
preference to numerical applications over non-numerical applications.
The fact that computers can be described in mathematical language, even at a very low level,
doesn’t make them essentially numerical. For example, machine language is conveniently and
traditionally expressed in 0’s and l’s. But the 0’s and l’s simply designate different physical states.
We could label these states as “on” and “off” or “yin” and “yang” and apply binary logic. Obviously,
at some levels it is useful to use mathematical notation to describe computer operations, and it is
reasonable to use it. The mistake is to reify the mathematical notation as the essence of a computer
and then use this conception to make judgments about the appropriate use of computers.
In general, our conceptions of computer technology will affect our policies for using it. I believe the
importance of properly conceiving the nature and impact of computer technology will increase as
the Computer Revolution unfolds.
What is Computer Ethics?*
James H. Moor

A Proposed Definition
The Revolutionary Machine
Anatomy of the Computer Revolution
The Invisibility Factor
Anatomy of the Computer Revolution
Because the Computer Revolution is in progress, it is difficult to get a perspective on its
development. By looking at the Industrial Revolution I believe we can get some insight into the
nature of a technological revolution. Roughly, the Industrial Revolution in England occurred in two
major stages. The first stage was the technological introduction stage which took place during the
last half of the Eighteenth Century. During this stage inventions and processes were introduced,
tested, and improved. There was an industrialization of limited segments of the economy,
particularly in agriculture and textiles. The second stage was the technological permeation stage
which took place during the Nineteenth Century. As factory work increased and the populations of
cities swelled, not only did well known social evils emerge, but equally significantly corresponding
changes in human activities and institutions, ranging from labor unions to health services, occurred.
The forces of industrialization dramatically transformed the society.
My conjecture is that the Computer Revolution will follow a similar two stage development. The first
stage, the introduction stage, has been occurring during the last forty years. Electronic computers
have been created and refined. We are gradually entering the second stage, the permeation stage,
in which computer technology will become an integral part of institutions throughout our society. I
think that in the coming decades many human activities and social institutions will be transformed
by computer technology and that this transforming effect of computerization will raise a wide range
of issues for computer ethics.
What I mean by “transformed” is that the basic nature or purpose of an activity or institution is
changed. This is marked by the kinds of questions that are asked. During the introduction stage
computers are understood as tools for doing standard jobs. A typical question for this stage is “How
well does a computer do such and such an activity?” Later, during the permeation stage, computers
become an integral part of the activity. A typical question for this stage is “What is the nature and
value of such and such an activity?” In our society there is already some evidence of the
transforming effect of computerization as marked by the kind of questions being asked.
For example, for years computers have been used to count votes. Now the election process is
becoming highly computerized. Computers can be used to count votes and to make projections
about the outcome. Television networks use computers both to determine quickly who is winning
and to display the results in a technologically impressive manner. During the last presidential
election in the United States [1984] the television networks projected the results not only before
the polls in California were closed but also before the polls in New York were closed. In fact, voting
was still going on in over half the states when the winner was announced. The question is no longer
“How efficiently do computers count votes in a fair election?” but “What is a fair election?” Is it
appropriate that some people know the outcome before they vote? The problem is that computers
not only tabulate the votes for each candidate but likely influence the number and distribution of
these votes. For better or worse, our electoral process is being transformed.
As computers permeate more and more of our society, I think we will see more and more of the
transforming effect of computers on our basic institutions and practices. Nobody can know for sure
how our computerized society will look fifty years from now, but it is reasonable to think that
various aspects of our daily work will be transformed. Computers have been used for years by
businesses to expedite routine work, such as calculating payrolls; but as personal computers
become widespread and allow executives to work at home, and as robots do more and more factory
work, the emerging question will be not merely “How well do computers help us work?” but “What is
the nature of this work?”
Traditional work may no longer be defined as something that normally happens at a specific time or
a specific place. Work for us may become less doing a job than instructing a computer to do a job.
As the concept of work begins to change, the values associated with the old concept will have to be
reexamined. Executives who work at a computer terminal at home will lose some spontaneous
interaction with colleagues. Factory workers who direct robots by pressing buttons may take less
pride in a finished product. And similar effects can be expected in other types of work. Commercial
pilots who watch computers fly their planes may find their jobs to be different from what they
A further example of the transforming effect of computer technology is found in financial
institutions. As the transfer and storage of funds becomes increasingly computerized the question
will be not merely “How well do computers count money?” but “What is money?” For instance, in a
cashless society in which debits are made to one’s account electronically at the point of sale, has
money disappeared in favor of computer records or have electronic impulses become money? What
opportunities and values are lost or gained when money becomes intangible?
Still another likely area for the transforming effect of computers is education. Currently, educational
packages for computers are rather limited. Now it is quite proper to ask “How well do computers
educate?” But as teachers and students exchange more and more information indirectly via
computer networks and as computers take over more routine instructional activities, the question
will inevitably switch to “What is education?” The values associated with the traditional way of
educating will be challenged. How much human contact is necessary or desirable for learning? What
is education when computers do the teaching?
The point of this futuristic discussion is to suggest the likely impact of computer technology. Though
I don’t know what the details will be, I believe the kind of transformation I am suggesting is likely to
occur. This is all I need to support my argument for the practical importance of computer ethics. In
brief, the argument is as follows: The revolutionary feature of computers is their logical malleability.
Logical malleability assures the enormous application of computer technology. This will bring about
the Computer Revolution. During the Computer Revolution many of our human activities and social
institutions will be transformed. These transformations will leave us with policy and conceptual
vacuums about how to use computer technology. Such policy and conceptual vacuums are the
marks of basic problems within computer ethics. Therefore, computer ethics is a field of substantial
practical importance.
I find this argument for the practical value of computer ethics convincing. I think it shows that
computer ethics is likely to have increasing application in our society. This argument does rest on a
vision of the Computer Revolution which not everyone may share. Therefore, I will turn to another
argument for the practical importance of computer ethics which doesn’t depend upon any particular
view of the Computer Revolution. This argument rests on the invisibility factor and suggests a
number of ethical issues confronting computer ethics now.
What is Computer Ethics?*
James H. Moor

A Proposed Definition
The Revolutionary Machine
Anatomy of the Computer Revolution
The Invisibility Factor
The Invisibility Factor
There is an important fact about computers. Most of the time and under most conditions computer
operations are invisible. One may be quite knowledgeable about the inputs and outputs of a
computer and only dimly aware of the internal processing. This invisibility factor often generates
policy vacuums about how to use computer technology. Here I will mention three kinds of invisibility
which can have ethical significance.
The most obvious kind of invisibility which has ethical significance is invisible abuse. Invisible abuse
is the intentional use of the invisible operations of a computer to engage in unethical conduct. A
classic example of this is the case of a programmer who realized he could steal excess interest from
a bank. When interest on a bank account is calculated, there is often a fraction of a cent left over
after rounding off. This programmer instructed a computer to deposit these fractions of a cent to his
own account. Although this is an ordinary case of stealing, it is relevant to computer ethics in that
computer technology is essentially involved and there is a question about what policy to institute in
order to best detect and prevent such abuse. Without access to the program used for stealing the
interest or to a sophisticated accounting program such an activity may easily go unnoticed.
Another possibility for invisible abuse is the invasion of the property and privacy of others. A
computer can be programmed to contact another computer over phone lines and surreptitiously
remove or alter confidential information. Sometimes an inexpensive computer and a telephone
hookup is all it takes. A group of teenagers, who named themselves “the 414s” after the Milwaukee
telephone exchange, used their home computers to invade a New York hospital, a California bank,
and a government nuclear weapons laboratory. These break-ins were done as pranks, but obviously
such invasions can be done with malice and be difficult or impossible to detect.
A particularly insidious example of invisible abuse is the use of computers for surveillance. For
instance, a company’s central computer can monitor the work done on computer terminals far
better and more discreetly than the most dedicated sweatshop manager. Also, computers can be
programmed to monitor phone calls and electronic mail without giving any evidence of tampering. A
Texas oil company, for example, was baffled why it was always outbid on leasing rights for Alaskan
territory until it discovered another bidder was tapping its data transmission lines near its Alaskan
computer terminal.
A second variety of the invisibility factor, which is more subtle and conceptually interesting than the
first, is the presence of invisible programming values. Invisible programming values are those
values which are embedded in a computer program.
Writing a computer program is like building a house. No matter how detailed the specifications may
be, a builder must make numerous decisions about matters not specified in order to construct the
house. Different houses are compatible with a given set of specifications. Similarly, a request for a
computer program is made at a level of abstraction usually far removed from the details of the
actual programming language. In order to implement a program which satisfies the specifications a
programmer makes some value judgments about what is important and what is not. These values
become embedded in the final product and may be invisible to someone who runs the program.
Consider, for example, computerized airline reservations. Many different programs could be written
to produce a reservation service. American Airlines once promoted such a service called “SABRE.”
This program had a bias for American Airline flights built in so that sometimes an American Airline
flight was suggested by the computer even if it was not the best flight available. Indeed, Braniff
Airlines, which went into bankruptcy for awhile, sued American Airlines on the grounds that this kind
of bias in the reservation service contributed to its financial difficulties.
Although the general use of a biased reservation service is ethically suspicious, a programmer of
such a service may or may not be engaged in invisible abuse. There may be a difference between
how a programmer intends a program to be used and how it is actually used. Moreover, even if one
sets out to create a program for a completely unbiased reservation service, some value judgments
are latent in the program because some choices have to be made about how the program operates.
Are airlines listed in alphabetical order? Is more than one listed at a time? Are flights just before the
time requested listed? For what period after the time requested are flights listed? Some answers, at
least implicitly, have to be given to these questions when the program is written. Whatever answers
are chosen will build certain values into the program.
Sometimes invisible programming values are so invisible that even the programmers are unaware of
them. Programs may have bugs or may be based on implicit assumptions which don’t become
obvious until there is a crisis. For example, the operators of the ill-fated Three Mile Island nuclear
power plant were trained on a computer which was programmed to simulate possible malfunctions
including malfunctions which were dependent on other malfunctions. But, as the Kemeny
Commission which investigated the disaster discovered, the simulator was not programmed to
generate simultaneous, independent malfunctions. In the actual failure at Three Mile Island the
operators were faced with exactly this situation – simultaneous, independent malfunctions. The
inadequacy of the computer simulation was the result of a programming decision, as unconscious or
implicit as that decision may have been. Shortly after the disaster the computer was reprogrammed
to simulate situations like the one that did occur at Three Mile Island.
A third variety of the invisibility factor, which is perhaps the most disturbing, is invisible complex
calculation. Computers today are capable of enormous calculations beyond human comprehension.
Even if a program is understood, it does not follow that the calculations based on that program are
understood. Computers today perform, and certainly supercomputers in the future will perform,
calculations which are too complex for human inspection and understanding.
An interesting example of such complex calculation occurred in 1976 when a computer worked on
the four color conjecture. The four color problem, a puzzle mathematicians have worked on for over
a century is to show that a map can be colored with at most four colors so that no adjacent areas
have the same color. Mathematicians at the University of Illinois broke the problem down into
thousands of cases and programmed computers to consider them. After more than a thousand
hours of computer time on various computers, the four color conjecture was proved correct. What is
interesting about this mathematical proof, compared to traditional proofs, is that it is largely
invisible. The general structure of the proof is known and found in the program and any particular
part of the computer’s activity can be examined, but practically speaking the calculations are too
enormous for humans to examine them all.
The issue is how much we should trust a computer’s invisible calculations. This becomes a
significant ethical issue as the consequences grow in importance. For instance, computers are used
by the military in making decisions about launching nuclear weapons. On the one hand, computers
are fallible and there may not be time to confirm their assessment of the situation. On the other
hand, making decisions about launching nuclear weapons without using computers may be even
more fallible and more dangerous. What should be our policy about trusting invisible calculations?
A partial solution to the invisibility problem may lie with computers themselves. One of the
strengths of computers is the ability to locate hidden information and display it. Computers can
make the invisible visible. Information which is lost in a sea of data can be clearly revealed with the
proper computer analysis. But, that’s the catch. We don’t always know when, where, and how to
direct the computer’s attention.
The invisibility factor presents us with a dilemma. We are happy in one sense that the operations of
a computer are invisible. We don’t want to inspect every computerized transaction or program every
step for ourselves or watch every computer calculation. In terms of efficiency the invisibility factor is
a blessing. But it is just this invisibility that makes us vulnerable. We are open to invisible abuse or
invisible programming of inappropriate values or invisible miscalculation. The challenge for
computer ethics is to formulate policies which will help us deal with this dilemma. We must decide
when to trust computers and when not to trust them. This is another reason why computer ethics is
so important.
Dartmouth College
The Research Center on Computing & Society
at Southern Connecticut State University
501 Crescent Street | New Haven, CT 06515
Director: (203) 392-6790 | e-mail:
© 2000 – 2004 – Research Center on Computing & Society

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