AUCSC 490 — Introduction to Ethics

Introduction to Ethics

AUCSC 490 — Social and Ethical Issues for Computing Professionals

Jonathan Mohr

Augustana Faculty, University of Alberta

Categories of Ethical Frameworks

  • Teleological
    • Telos: goal or end.
    • The rightness or wrongness of an action depends on whether or not it brings about the desired end.
    • Example: utilitarianism.
  • Deontological
    • Deon: duty.
    • Considers actions to be intrinsically right or wrong, regardless of the consequences they effect.
    • Example: contractarianism.

Ethical Egoism

  • Ethical egoism: one should attempt to maximize one's own happiness.
  • Individual ethical egoism: the individual always ought to act to promote her/his best interest, regardless of other considerations.
  • Universal ethical egoism: all (human) beings ought to act in their own best interests, regardless of other considerations.

These definitions and the following discussion of ethical egoism are from Edgar, Morality and Machines (1997), Ch. 2 & 3.

See also Charles D. Kay's Varieties of Egoism.

Hobbes' Leviathan

  • Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) regards ethical egoism as the "state of nature": all humans are naturally selfish, aggressive, and without scruples.
  • The only way to prevent total annihilation is for humans to enter into a contract that they will not kill each other, steal from each other, etc., and then give absolute power to some absolute ruler ("Leviathan") to enforce the contract.
  • The law is the only basis for morality:
    • There is no society without law, and no morality without society.
    • Morality coincides with following the laws of the state.

Ayn Rand's Objectivism

  • Ayn Rand (1905–1982), The Virtue of Selfishness (1961): "The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."
    Only individuals are creative and, thus, only creative individuals are the ultimately valuable entities. Groups and group rules repress individual creativity; they are levelers. So it is the individual against the group, and the group ought to lose.
  • Altruism is a vice — not knowing how to live your life, but how to sacrifice it — and selfishness is the highest virtue.
  • Rand claims that the self-interests of rational beings, as rational beings, will never conflict ("live and let live").


  • A version of consequentialism: morality is solely a matter of consequences.
  • Classic utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873).
  • Utility: the net benefits (or good) created by an action.
  • The right course of action is to promote the general good (social utility) — the greatest net expectable utility for all parties affected by the action.
    • Compare ethical egoism: the greatest utility for the person performing the action.
  • Moral decisons made on the basis of rational, objective cost/benefit analysis.

Defining Utility

  • By what criteria are consequences measured?
    • Pleasure: maximize pleasure and minimize pain (Bentham's hedonistic utilitarianism)
    • Happiness: an enduring pleasure of the mind or spirit rather than the body, such as the realization of goals or hopes for one's life
    • Ideal goods: freedom, knowledge, friendship, health, justice, aesthetic awareness (G.E. Moore)
    • Preference satisfaction: individual preferences (K. Arrow)
  • Utilitarian calculus: assigning relative values to various occurrences.
    • hedons: units of pleasure or happiness
    • dolors: units of displeasure, suffering or unhappiness

What Consequences?

  • Act utilitarianism: Perform the act that will produce the greatest overall utility.
    • Individual decisions are made on a case-by-case basis; every case is judged on its individual merits.
    • One can use "rules of thumb" that summarize past experience in similar situations to save calculation.
    • Allows for exceptions: the general rule "Don't lie" should be broken if the Gestapo asks if you have seen any Jews who have escaped from their jails.
  • Rule utilitarianism: Act in accordance with those rules that will produce the greatest overall utility.
    • Focuses on rules that everyone should apply in certain types of circumstances in order to avoid the abuses that might occur under act utilitarianism.

Summarized in Hinman, Ethics (2003), Ch. 5.

See also Charles D. Kay's Notes on Utilitarianism and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Consequentialism.


  • A right is an entitlement or a claim to something.
    Rights are unequivocally enjoyed by all citizens, and the rights of a minority cannot be suspended or abolished even if that abolition will maximize social welfare. (Spinello, p. 13)
  • Negative rights: liberties; rights to act peacefully, free from external interference.
    • Examples: rights to life, free speech, property, privacy.
  • Positive rights: claim-rights; rights that impose an obligation on some people (e.g., the state) to provide certain things for the right-holder.
    • Examples: rights to food, housing, education, medical care.
  • Traditional view: We have basic rights by virtue of an implicit social contract between the individual and civil society.

See also the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Contractarianism.

Justice Theory

  • In A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls asks what sort of contract between individuals would be just.
    • Problem: We would each want rules that would favor us.
    • Solution: Justice has to be blind in a certain way. Imagine that those who decide on the rules for society are behind a veil of ignorance: they do no know what characteristics they will have.
  • Rules of justice:
    1. Each person should have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
    2. Social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are both
      (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and
      (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

See also Charles D. Kay's Justice as Fairness and the section Rationalism and Justice in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Justice as a Virtue.

Moral Duty

  • Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) sought a rational basis for ethics.
  • The only thing that is good without qualification is a good will (good intentions).
    • A good will is good in itself, not because of what it accomplishes, but because of its intrinsic worth.
  • A human action is good only if it is done from a sense of duty.
  • Objective moral principle: one on which all rational agents would agree and act upon if they were being fully rational.
    • The explicit formulation of an objective principle is an imperative (command), such as, "Always tell the truth."
    • A hypothetical imperative postulates an end, then specifies a means to that end: "If you want A, then do B."
    • A categorical imperative represents an action that is necessary in itself and it commands that action: an unconditional good and highest principle of action.
  • From Edgar, Morality and Machines (1997), Ch. 3.

The Categorical Imperative

  • Two forms:
  1. Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.
  2. Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.
  • No reference to one's wishes (inclination, self-interest), but only to one's duty.
  • The ends never justify the means if one's actions do not respect the individual human rights of others.

See also Charles D. Kay's Notes on Deontology and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Kant's Moral Philosophy.

Aristotle's Virtue Ethics

  • Virtue: excellence.
    • Moral virtue: excellence of human character (e.g., courage, benevolence, generosity, honesty, tolerance, self-control).
    • Focuses on good character rather than on right action; people of good character make good decisions..
    • Happiness as an activity of the soul in accordance with human virtue: we are happy when we are being the best that we can be.
  • For an act to be virtuous, you must:
    • know that what you are doing is virtuous;
    • choose the act;
    • do the action for its own sake; and
    • do it according to a fixed, unchanging principle or out of a fixed character.

See also the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aristotle's Ethics.

Normative Principles

  • Principilism is commonly used in biomedical ethics.
  • Moral principles as prima facie duties that are always in force but may conflict on occasion.
    • Autonomy: respect the other person's capacity of self-determination.
    • Nonmaleficence: avoid unnecessary harm or injury to others.
    • Beneficence: act to advance the welfare of other people.
    • Justice: act fairly and impartially.
  • Prudential requirements determine when one principle should be given more weight than another:
    • Be sure that there is a realistic prospect of achieving the moral objective one has chosen to honor.
    • No alternative course of action is possible that would honor both conflicting obligations.
    • Minimize the effects of infringing on the prima facie duty.

From Spinello, p. 21–23.

Ethical Relativism

  • Descriptive claim: It is a matter of fact that different cultures or groups have different moral values, and the moral norms of a given society change over time.
    • Infanticide and polygamy are permissible in some cultures, but considered wrong in others.
    • Slavery was considered morally permissible by many in the U.S. at one time.
  • Normative claim: Ethics — what is right and wrong — is relative to your society.
    • Does this mean there are no universal moral rights or wrongs, or only that people's beliefs about right and wrong or their interpretations of what is right or wrong in different contexts might differ?
    • Logically, such a claim must presuppose at least one universal moral principle: one ought to do what is considered right by one's society.
  • We ought to respect (tolerate) people with moral beliefs different from our own. Corollary: We are protected in principle against judgment by other cultures.
  • What happens when cultures overlap (e.g., due to trade, immigration, tourism)?

Based on Johnson, Computer Ethics, 3e, p. 30–36.

The Evolution of Ethics

  • E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) included "the hypothesis that some [cultural] universals (including the moral sense) may come from a human nature shaped by natural selection" (Pinker, The Blank Slate, p. 108).
    Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. (Ruse and Wilson, 1989, p. 316)

The Evolution of Altruism

  • Nepotistic altruism: Hamilton shows how family love — a tendency to make sacrifices for relatives — could have evolved.
    Relatives share genes, so any gene that nudges an organism to help a relative would be indirectly helping a copy of itself. The gene will proliferate if the cost incurred by the favor is less than the benefit conferred to the relative, discounted by the degree of relatedness (one-half for a full sibling or offspring, one-eighth for a first cousin, and so on). (Pinker, p. 109)
  • Reciprocal altruism can evolve when organisms trade favors (e.g., grooming, feeding, protecting), if the parties:
    • can recognize each other,
    • interact repeatedly,
    • can confer a large benefit on others at small cost to themselves,
    • keep a memory for favors offered or denied,
    • are impelled to reciprocate accordingly. (Pinker, p. 243)

The Evolution of the Social and Moralistic Emotions

  • A natural history of the emotions making up the moral sense (Haidt, cited in Pinker, p. 271)
    • Other-condemning emotions — contempt, anger, and disgust — prompt one to punish cheaters.
    • Other-praising emotions — gratitude, moral awe (being moved) — prompt one to reward altruists.
    • Other-suffering emotions — sympathy, compassion, and empathy — prompt one to help a needy beneficiary.
    • Self-conscious emotions — guilt, shame, and embarrassment — prompt one to avoid cheating or to repair its effects.
  • The demands of reciprocal altruism can explain why these emotions evolved (Pinker, p. 243):
    • Sympathy and trust prompt people to extend the first favor.
    • Gratitude and loyalty prompt them to repay favors.
    • Guilt and shame deter them from hurting or failing to repay others.
    • Anger and contempt prompt them to avoid or punish cheaters.

Family Love

  • Love and solidarity are relative: people are more caring toward their relatives.
    In traditional foraging societies, genetic relatives are more likely to live together, work in each other's gardens, protect each other, and adopt each other's needy or orphaned children, and are less likely to attack, feud with, and kill each other. Even in modern societies, which tend to sunder ties of kinship, the more closely two people are genetically related, the more inclined they are to come to one another's aid, especially in life-or-death situations. (Pinker, p. 245)
  • Family love trumps utilitarianism and the categorical imperative:
    Family love indeed subverts the ideal of what we should feel for every soul in the world. Moral philosophers play with a hypothetical dilemma in which people can run through the left door of a burning building to save some number of children or through the right door to save their own child. If you are a parent, ponder this question: Is there any number of children that would lead you to pick the left door? (Pinker, p. 245)
  • Kinship metaphors are often used to unite a social group (e.g., brotherhood/sisterhood, "the Augustana family").

Dangers of the Moral Sense

  • The human moral sense, like our other faculties, is prone to systematic error.
    • We tend to conflate prestige with morality (e.g., classy, honorable, noble vs. low-class, vulgar).
    • We confuse morality with purity (pure, unblemished, and tainted can apply to both cleanliness/dirt and virtue/sin).
    • We can easily switch from judging behavior in terms of preference to judging in terms of value (e.g., smoking used to be regarded as a matter of preference, but is now treated as an immoral act).
  • Many atrocities have been committed throught the use of degradation — a diminution of a victim's status or cleanliness.
    • Racism is often expressed as a desire to avoid contamination (e.g., the "untouchable" caste in India).
    • Jews in WWII Germany were stripped of dignity by giving them a humiliating appearance (awkward prison garb, crudely shaved heads) and forcing them to live in filthy conditions.
  • We should be suspicious of appeals to sentiment ("gut feeling") in resolving difficult moral issues.
  • (Pinker, pp. 270–275.)