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Saturday, March 02, 2024

Reid Blackman, Ph.D. Courtesy of Reid Blackman's LinkedIn Page. 

What About Ethics?

When it comes to emerging industries, it’s time to get ethicists in on the conversation.

Each time I go to an information session or a job fair on campus, I find myself asking the same question: 

What about ethics? Do ethicists have a role to play at your company?

Usually, the presenter will respond with a diplomatic “no” — something to the effect of: “While it isn’t a department here, per se, the ethical implications of what we do are always in the back of our minds.”

Other times, I will be told that ethics is really more of a subcategory of the legal or compliance departments. In other cases, the “no” will not be diplomatic at all.

Ultimately, whether the “no” is proudly said or muttered under one’s breath, it’s a “no” that should not be tolerated anymore.

Ethics has never been a priority for emerging industries. Talking about the exciting developments of artificial intelligence or the potential of space explorations is, to put it simply, more fun than policing innovation.

The problems created by emerging industries, though, are real and unavoidable. A healthcare algorithm used to determine follow-up care was found to disproportionately favor its white patients. A political consulting firm manipulated voters by mining the data of 50 million Facebook users. A self-driving car killed a woman.

Suddenly, talking about innovation doesn’t feel so “fun.”

All of these cases — cases where innovation concerns humanity — are why ethicists need to be seen as essential. 

“The greater the threat to a minimally decent life… the higher the need for ethicists,” said Reid Blackman, a technical ethics consultant. “There are difficult ethical decisions to make, and there are decisions being made in highly complex environments wherein it might be difficult to see the ethical implications. Ethicists are good at figuring those things out.” 

The reality, though, is that there are very few ethicists in decision-making roles in fields like tech. This, in part, has to do with the fact that we don’t really know what “practical ethics” looks like.

It can't be written off as an issue of compliance, and it can’t be regarded as just an aspect of law, so determining what is legal is an entirely different question from determining what is just. It may be legal to cheat on your spouse, for instance, but it certainly isn’t moral. If companies believe that they are being appropriately policed by the legal department and nothing else, they’re going to continue to run into ethical issues.

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If it isn’t law and it is compliance, though, then what is practical ethics? To some, it might seem like an oxymoron — there’s nothing “practical” about a class of college freshmen debating the ethics of the trolley problem for the umpteenth time and coming to no conclusion. While that may be true, the study of philosophy nonetheless brings out skills that are uniquely and decisively practical. 

“Philosophers, all else equal, are trained to analyze and break down and critique at a deeper level than any other discipline,” Blackman said.

In fields where the potential limits and pitfalls of an idea are still being discovered, it is essential to have someone in your corner who is thinking about every implication and can work with you every step of the way.

There is still an issue, though, with expecting an ethicist to just stand over the shoulders of a software engineer or a data scientist and make suggestions. Ethics is perceived as a soft, subjective discipline that puts parameters on creativity, so it is something developers are eager to ignore.

Practical ethicists need to be more than “commenters.” They need to be a part of an institutional system of checks and balances. To create this system, we can reference the one practical discipline that is properly engaging ethicists: medicine.

Bioethicists have put ethics “into process in the right sort of way,” Blackman said. “There are requirements about when you have to see an institutional review board (IRB), there are standards you have to meet for the IRB to approve you, and it’s an everyday operation to get approval before you start your experiment.”

Of course, when the experiment in question involves the immediate life or death of a human being (as is often the case with medical ethics),  these ethical review processes do not feel trivial at all. We are a long way from respecting ethics to the same degree in industries like tech.

It’s time we realize that these other industries are every bit as life and death and start letting ethicists in on the conversation.

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