Potential Project Description for 2008-09


Title: Good Computing: life stories of moral exemplars in the computing profession
Faculty: Chuck Huff, Psychology

Explicit attention to computer ethics began with Norbert Weiner’s (1950) groundbreaking book, The Human Use of Human Beings, and the teaching of computer ethics arguably started in the 1970s with the distribution of Walter Maner’s Starter Kit in Computer Ethics (see Bynum, 2001 for a short history). Since that time, many excellent scholars have entered the field and much work has been done. Work on the philosophical groundwork for computing ethics (Tavani, 2002; Floridi, 2008), the policy difficulties associated with computing (Moor, 1997; Nissenbaum, 1998; Tavani & Moor, 2001), and professional ethics in computing (Gotterbarn, 2001; Friedman, 1997) has multiplied and borne much fruit.

Yet oddly, we still know very little about how computer professionals manage to be ethical in their everyday lives. What skills and strategies do they use to navigate the normal (and the unusual) stresses, the conflicting demands, and the multiple possibilities and difficulties of their careers? In psychological terms we are interested in understanding how individuals achieve continued successful performance of ethical behavior in the field of computing. In philosophical terms we might cast the question as how individuals attain and practice the virtues of the computing profession. Certainly if we could learn something about this, it might influence the way we teach computer ethics to those who will become computer professionals.

One way to begin this inquiry is to follow the life stories of computer scientists who are known for their ethical commitment. We have documented 24 of these life stories in a series of interviews with moral exemplars in computing in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, people who are successfully integrating ethical concern into their practice of computing (Huff & Rogerson, 2005). This is exploratory work, but still it gives us a multifaceted picture of how moral exemplars in computing structure their lives, make their choices, and implement their plans.