A question of responsibility

Hermann Rampacher
Published in The Computer Bulletin, Volume 6, Part 3, June 1994

This is the first of a two-part article, in which the author investigates to what extent scientists have a responsibility towards society. Part two will follow in our next issue. The article is dedicated to the memory of the late Alan Taylor, FBCS, BCS Professional Director until his death in May 1991.

Science today has awesome power to preserve or to ruin life. The grater the power, the higher the responsibility scientists bear towards individuals, towards society and towards all living creatures. In 1979 Hans Jonas, in his work ‘The Principle of responsibility’, made an impressive analysis of the necessity for a new set of ethics to govern responsibility towards life in the age of innovative science.

We are accustomed to the concept that responsible behaviour means to preserve individuals from harm. Hence, if the scientific community shows commitment to the protection of society from harm by professionalism in its work, the community responds by behaving responsibly.

"Knowledge and human power are synonymous, since the ignorance of the cause frustrates the effect" wrote Francis Bacon in 1597. Explaining the causal nature of the world by the use of empirical theories is the primary and creative objective of science. The more this creative objective is reached through pure research, the stronger becomes the power of science to preserve society from harm through application-oriented research – something we refer to as the innovative objective.

In applying a new rational ethical theory without metaphysical foundations called ‘The theory of opportunities in life’, we are searching for answers to the following questions:
  • How can moral standards be justified?

  • Which subgroup of moral standards determines the responsibility of IT professionals towards society?

  • In what lie the causes of well known conflicts over moral standards and are there typical conflicts in IT?

  • How can dividing lines be drawn between individual and collective responsibility?
Preventable versus inevitable harm
All restraints on individual opportunities in life – falsehood, intolerance, violence theft, illiteracy – we regard as harmful. "The theory of opportunities in life" draws the distinction between preventable and inevitable harm. Preventable harm can be countered by strict adherence to moral standards justified by reasoned argument. Inevitable harm – natural disasters, illness, lack of resources, unemployment, ignorance – can occur in spite of individual conformance to the requirements of society’s scientific precepts.

Universal behavioural rules which will certainly prevent harm are called ethical standards. Those which will only probably prevent harm, even if followed correctly, we call ethical semi-standards. Every harmful event can be given a measurable value called its rank. The unit of measurements is determined by the consequence of the event. Killing can never be undone or compensated for, so the act of killing is of the highest rank. Wounding, on the other hand, can be healed using modern medical methods, thus is lower in rank.

The need for ethical standards, justified by reasoned argument as well as ethical semi-standards, determined empirically, is methodologically accepted as an axiom. "The theory of opportunities in life" represents an objective ethical basis for economics, jurisprudence and the innovative sciences.

The general methodological rule used to identify a harmful event is the judgement of whether its effect might be destruction or impairment of society as a whole, e.g. an universal rule to lie would destroy the ability of a society to function. Kant’s famous categorical imperative , "Make the maxim of thy conduct such that it might become a universal law," I understand as "behave in accordance with a universal rule without which society could not function." If, and only if, in a social system all those responsible for making the rules take into account ethical standards and semi-standards will the resulting society experience minimal harm and present optimised individual opportunities in life. We call this fictitious social system one with a highest possible degree of reason in human affairs (Herbert A. Simon 1983) or the ‘ideal human society’. It also serves as a benchmark against which to measure the degree of reason in human affairs of real contemporary societies.

Thus we have arrived an another definition of responsibility towards society – that of increasing the degree of reason in human affairs to the best of one’s ability. Using "The theory of opportunities in life" we can create an ethical research programme to establish whether there are minimum sets of mutually independent basic ethical standards and semi-standards with respect to the social structure of a society using the model of the highest possible degree of reason in human affairs. We can also establish whether the determination of time-dependent ranks of those basic standards has been established through empirical research.

The well-known "Theory of Justice" formulated by John Rawls in 1971 has many points in common with the theory pursued here. But Rawls bases his thinking on the idea that the moral standards accepted by society are brought about by carefully thought out rational discussions among free citizens who have reached the age of majority but who argue under a "veil of uncertainty", not knowing whether circumstances will alter for each individual who may be rich or poor, healthy or sick, intelligent or naďve, powerful or powerless. This is in line with the highest principle of "justice as fairness" but is different from the theory under discussion here – the degree of harm can be measured, the degree of fairness cannot.

According to the "The theory of opportunities in life" the objective of each society is to optimise individual opportunities in life in order to ensure that they have the freedom to be themselves and decide what they want to do with their life without permanent and idealised ethical discussion.