CE001

IS COMPUTER ETHICS UNIQUE IN RELATION TO OTHER FIELDS OF ETHICS?

Copyright (C) 1999 by Professor Robert N. Barger University of Notre Dame

The principles of ethics remain relatively constant, no matter to what areas these principles might be applied. That is to say that the principles of medical ethics, legal ethics, and computer ethics do not different from one another.

However, new and unique problems (such as those presented by the computer in regard to privacy, ownership, and power relationships) do make for new questions about how these principles are to be applied to these new problems. Thus the unique features of the computer, such as its speed and storage capacity (whichare matters of scope and scale), give rise to new ethical problems.

I disagree with the claim that the computer is something more than a tool because of the impact it is having (and will continue to have) on society. I do agree that the computer is having a radical effect on society, but I claim that it is no more than simply a tool. The fact that it can be employed in many areas of life outside the workplace does not stand in the way of its being understood as a tool. Its great utility and its great potential for social impact come from the fact that it is a very basic kind of tool. I think of it as an extension of the human nervous system, with input, processing, and output functions. Its potential comes from the fact that is so similar to "human" operation.

In short, I do not believe that computer ethics are qualitatively different from medical ethics or legal ethics or any other kind of professional ethics. I do, however, believe that the scope and the scale of the problems raised by the computer...their quantitative aspect...give computer ethics a unique character.

One example of this difference in scope and scale occasioned by the computer occurs with the question of privacy: massive numbers of files can be retained on the computer indefinitely, and once information is recorded in these files and shared with other computers at lightning rates of speed, information about people (whether accurate or inaccurate) can take on a life of its own and invade privacy in a way never before possible in history.