The Importance of Ethics in Computing and Why Programmers Should Care

Software development is not commonly associated with ethical quandaries or moral conundrums. However, given the pervasive role of technology in our daily existence, it is becoming increasingly essential for designers and developers to consider the potential implications their creations could have on society. This is the crux of software ethics, an area that requires careful deliberation, particularly when crafting products that can potentially enhance the lives of their users.

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica controversy that surfaced earlier this year (as mentioned in this blog post) highlighted the enormous impact that a few lines of code, coupled with potent marketing strategies, can have on society. This incident raised widespread alarm and continues to be cited as an example, although there have been other cases where technology has been leveraged for manipulative purposes.

As software engineers continue to advance in their profession (you can hire talented software engineers from Works), it is crucial for them to realize that the impact of their programming extends well beyond the confines of their code editors.

Are Programmers Accountable for Moral Considerations?

When undertaking the development of large-scale software applications (as discussed in this blog post), it’s often necessary to establish complex and hierarchical teams comprising product managers, software architects, frontend and backend developers, designers, and more, depending on the specifics of the project. While it’s commonly believed that project managers and architects should be accountable for the impact of their work on users since they set the overall direction and objectives, it seems inequitable to burden programmers who are solely responsible for creating minor features, as they often lack a comprehensive understanding of the project’s scope. Ultimately, it’s unfair to expect such individuals to bear this moral weight.

All team members should share equal enthusiasm for both receiving credit and accepting accountability for the outcomes of the project, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. It’s unacceptable to eschew responsibility and pass the blame for unfavorable consequences to project managers. Every stakeholder involved should take equal responsibility for any mistakes that occur.

In mid-August, nearly 1,400 Google employees signed a petition requesting greater transparency into the ethical ramifications of the company’s actions. Concurrently, Google unveiled its intentions to establish a censored search engine aimed at aiding the objectives of the Chinese government, giving rise to a complex ethical dilemma. It’s vital for those contributing to the development of technology to consider the potential consequences of their products.

In Stack Overflow’s 2022 annual survey, over 51% of the 70,782 respondents who answered the Ethics section stated that they would refuse to create code for a product or purpose they deemed morally objectionable. Roughly a third of the respondents suggested that they might consider it, depending on the situation. This week, a comparable fictional scenario was presented in a Twitter poll to gain further insight. While the sample size was considerably smaller, the findings were incredibly akin to those of the Stack Overflow survey.

Based on the results of two surveys, it’s reasonable to conclude that at least a third of software developers either do not prioritize ethics or do not believe that it is part of their job while developing products. Unfortunately, either of these characteristics – whether it be naivety or carelessness – is undesirable in a programmer responsible for creating products that have real-world repercussions.

Is Certifying (Regulating) Software Developers Rational?

The capability and ethical standards of professionals in fields such as medicine, law, and finance are significant determinants in how we comprehend and assess these vocations. It’s not enough to simply ascertain that a doctor is qualified and possesses the necessary credentials; we must also ensure that they adhere to established medical ethics. For individuals in these fields, ethics is so deeply inculcated that it becomes almost second nature. This is because their work has a critical impact on people’s health, finances, economic stability, and quality of life. If a practitioner in one of these fields engages in egregious behavior, their license may be revoked.

Certain individuals have proposed that software developers should be subject to governmental regulation, necessitating certifications to demonstrate their qualifications and potentially rescinding them for producing “dirty code.” Although this proposal may seem reasonable in theory, it’s not practical in this circumstance. Comparing software engineering to other professions is inadequate, as software development has become pervasive in multiple industries such as healthcare, finance, automotive, entertainment, and industrial. Requiring universal certification for all of these domains would be infeasible and would make it challenging for programmers to stay competitive in the job market while acquiring an excessive amount of credentials.

Developing a solution to address the issue of the third developer who may generate inferior code under the “right circumstances” may be a challenging undertaking. This is due to the fact that some developers may wish to remain anonymous because of the delicate nature of scrutinizing products with malevolent objectives.

The Significance of Taking Ethical Implications into Account

It’s understandable why some may be reluctant to suggest that programmers take an ethics course in philosophy; nonetheless, it may be necessary to guarantee that the ethical repercussions of their work are taken into account. Basic ethical reasoning is an innate aspect of human thinking, and most individuals have a well-developed sense of what constitutes right and wrong. When moral considerations are disregarded in programming, it’s frequently attributable to a lack of knowledge or a belief that they will not be held responsible for their actions. It’s crucial that programmers ask all the appropriate questions to effectively evaluate the impact of their work on the end-user.

In contemporary times, software has become ubiquitous in virtually every sector of society. From the military to banks and airports to shopping centers, software is utilized to facilitate a diverse range of tasks. Therefore, exercising caution is crucial when developing software, as inadequate programming may lead to potentially catastrophic outcomes. For instance, individuals might be subjected to harm, property loss, or even imprisonment without proper precautionary measures. Recent incidents, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, illustrate the severe repercussions that may result from irresponsible software development. As a consequence of the controversy, many employees were laid off, and the company eventually filed for bankruptcy. It’s evident that those who create software must consider the human implications of their work and take proactive measures to guarantee the safety of people who will ultimately be impacted by their programming.

As professionals, it’s crucial that we allocate time to contemplate the ethical repercussions of our work. From a solitary freelancing project to a few lines of code, we must be conscious that our endeavors may have a lasting influence on how people across the globe are treated and the resources they can access. Our conduct has the ability to significantly transform living standards and must be addressed with the highest level of ethical and moral reflection.

It’s impractical to assume that individuals will consistently act ethically when they have the potential to gain significantly by failing to do so. Consequently, anyone may choose to remain ignorant of or indifferent to the consequences of their work because there are usually visible disconnections between the programmer and the end-user. However, in contrast, real people’s lives may face permanent changes as a result. The ethical implications (or lack thereof) of anyone involved in the development process may have a profound impact on individuals’ lives. Everyone stands to benefit when ethical considerations are taken into account.

Would you like to strengthen your programming team with exceptionally skilled professionals? If that’s the case, we’ll be thrilled to assist you in accomplishing exactly that. We can not only connect you with the most talented programmers, but we’re also seeking experienced developers who are eager to advance their careers. Don’t hesitate to contact us to discover more about how we can help you with this pursuit.

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