Ethics and the IT scientist

Hermann H Rampacher

The Computer Bulletin, Volume 6, Part 4, September 1994

Part two of the article in which the author examines the scientist’s responsibilities towards society with particular reference to those in the global IT community.

In all societies there are responsible participants who offend against ethical standards or semi-standards and others who do not. This dictates the necessity for a non-linear society because of the feedback between those two groups. Most accepted moral standards are traditional, grouped into classes of closely related operational standards such as truthfulness, understanding, tolerance or solidarity, which we describe as basic ethical values. Generally, these are assimilated during the growth-up process of the individual and only sometimes as the result of permanent ethical debate. Falsehood, criminality and war are offences against ethical standards which reduce reason in human affairs as well as individual opportunity in life.

Certain ethical standards have more practical relevance than others, depending one one’s particular professional responsibility. A doctor is called upon to preserve life rather more often than, say, a musician. Further, ethical standards couched in different terms are often similar in content. In the absence of a full research programme of the kind described in part one of the article, it is only possible to outline the ethical standards appropriate to the IT profession.

The basic ethical values of understanding, competition, tolerance and solidarity are clearly required. In addition, the development of the innovative element of science requires non-violent understanding, free communication and effective national and international competition in education and economics.


The social responsibility of every IT practitioner requires a personal professional commitment to the strictest criterion of scientific truth. All scientific work must meet professional recognised theoretical and experimental standards and, at the same time, make it clear whether a statement is a supposition or a proven truth. In the IT community, this is particularly relevant with reference to what extent IT methods are valid and IT systems a reliable.


The aim of the global IT community to find ways of improving life through the development of innovative systems requires open discussion and exchange of technical ideas. This in turn means that all practitioners, regardless of gender, race, nationality or creed must be allowed to participate in such debate free from constraints on worldwide communication.


Without free and fair international competition, however, the benefits of creative science cannot be achieved. Social responsibility in IT demands that this competition be guaranteed with the scientist constantly striving to achieve higher standard of professional competence and supporting pure research initiatives without seeking individual advantage in a way which might distort competition at the expense of other individuals.

One practical consequence of this is that European IT must take an equal footing alongside the United States and Japan. Only fair competition can provide the essential means of safeguarding the environment and the peace of Europe while supporting the development of the former socialist states and countries of the Third World.

Collective responsibility

IT projects, as a rule, achieve their targets through teamwork, with each individual acting as if the success of the project as a whole depended on the quality and reliability of his or her work. This, however, cannot be limited solely to one project group or community of scientists but must be applied worldwide to ensure the best possible individual opportunities in life in the medium term.

All IT systems must be not only socially acceptable but must make a demonstrable contribution to improving the quality of life by freeing users from the shackles of ‘doing something which is neither creative nor intellectual’ (F L Bauer) and equally which results in a ‘form of system involving participation’ (C Floyd) and draws on the experiences and interests of those taking part in the system development as well as those who may be affected by it.

One way of improving opportunities in life might be to provide all IT faculties with ‘Institutes for IT and Society’ designed to meet interdisciplinary requirements and to develop methods in keeping with the theoretically supported and empirically substantiated evidence of such contributions.


Though not the first principle of ethics, fairness is a basic ethical value. No social system or sub-system can function in a stable manner if it is not governed by fair social rules. Nature itself, admittedly, is unfair, with some on whom she has bestowed great gifts – on which society must capitalise – and some who appear to have come away empty-handed.

Fairness demands that each member of a scientific group or of society as a whole is only required to do what he or she can comfortably accomplish.

War, peace and the environment

Throughout this century, wars have been decisively characterised by dedicated applications of the innovative sciences, most of which required an IT component for them to be viable.

IT specialists all over the world collaborate on military projects, thus becoming familiar with the extent of thus weapon systems as well as the consequences of using them.

There are additional professional considerations in the narrower sense which originate from the empirical character of IT – military systems can rarely be tested under realistic real-time conditions and as such are, in principle, unreliable; equally, there is a need that the public be informed of the range of technical problems underlying conflicts involving modern military technology.

Similarly, social responsibility requires that environmental IT be specifically extended as a field of research, with particular reference to IT systems which preserve health, save energy and raw materials or monitor the environment with, again, the need that the public be fully briefed on what is technically feasible.

Conflicts over standards

Social conflict is an universal characteristic of Western society, the humanity of which can essentially be judged by the degree of reason in human affairs as Ralf Dahrendorf demonstrates in ‘The Modern Social Conflict’ (1992).

Conflicts over standards generally arise out of infringement, caused either by ignorance of the importance of moral standards or by deliberate flouting of their rules; out of a lack of understanding of the process of interaction in a complex society and, finally, out of the unwillingness of some to observe traditional standards if by so doing there is a perceived personal disadvantage.

Legal standards – established by majority decisions in a parliament – help to enforce the important rules governing society and are backed by the threat of punitive sanctions decided upon by independent courts through reasoned argument.

So-called fundamental rights, as a rule, accord with such sets of moral standards, although there are moral standards which are not legal standards – usually backed by social sanctions exerted by family, neighbours, colleagues at work, the church and, sometimes, the public.

Two conflicts of standards which can affect IT practitioners can be used as examples. One such is contained in the dilemma facing those involved in the development of military weapons, for even in a war of self-defence the weapons will be used against innocent human beings. The second involves the IT specialist who supports developments which may result in people being made redundant although it is clear that without the development and use of such systems, many businesses would be forced to close down – with possible concomitant threats to a country’s economy.


Bacon says "Knowledge itself is power". Yet the specialist of the innovative sciences – with the exception of the medical profession – wield virtually no direct power within the scope of their own speciality.

Any individual without the power of decision bears limited responsibility towards society. Only the scientific community is in a position to raise its voice in warning and to advocate strategies for innovation fundamental to society and its environment and too crucial to be decided by politics or the economy.

Two peripheral conditions are necessary for this. Innovative IT must carry out continuous research into ‘IT and society in its environment’ and include ‘technical visions’ as a specialist area on the same footing with purely technical specialist areas; secondly the community of IT professionals must structure itself in such a way that it has some impact on society.

This could be achieved through IT professional bodies, such as the BCS, the GI in Germany our the Council of European Informatics Societies (CEPIS) in Europe. All IT practitioners would join forces to form representative national professional bodies which would the unite to form umbrella associations all over Europe, and, indeed, worldwide. Management panels would be appointed – through secret ballot – consisting of experts in all specialist areas and all relevant branches of IT.

These committees would take on the task of providing specialist communications, conferences and publications, advising politicians, briefing the public and working out conflicts over ethical standards affecting the profession. IT specialists would thus delegate that part of the individual responsibility denied to them because of their social situation.