IT's sense of 'duty' a moral problem, ethicist argues

Duty-based problems rather than consequence-based problems dominate the IT managers ethical thinking, argues researcher

ICT managers should lead by example and engage in ethical training, according to a new study by the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE).

The study, which was conducted by ethicist Dr Richard Lucas from the Australian National University, sought to examine integrity systems and workplace codes of ethics at play in the ICT industry.

Lucas deemed the study was overdue for an industry in the midst of a skills shortage and where workers were increasingly plagued by time-constraints and new pressures.

As part of the research, an online survey and several interviews were conducted to establish how people in the ICT industry actually think about ethics. Over 350 respondents were asked to identify the types of moral problems they routinely encountered in the workplace.

Survey respondents were faced with a checklist of moral problems that were afterwards grouped into different types, such as duty-, rights-, consequence-, and character-based problems.

Respondents themselves were also grouped, according to broad occupational type, such as developers, managers, administrators. They were then asked to select the moral problems most commonly encountered from the list.

Interestingly, the researchers found that respondents all experienced the same moral problems: compromising quality and functionality to meet deadlines, and unprofessional behaviour were overwhelmingly selected as the most visible moral problems in the workplace.

One example of unprofessional behaviour Lucas singled out was that of vendors.

"Vendors or IT people when they have to talk to users will make promises they know that they just can't keep for one reason or another but they make them anyway," he said.

The study also found that duty-based moral problems tended to be picked over consequence-based ones.

"IT people picked duty-based problems way out of proportion to the number of duty-based problems we presented," Lucas said. He added that the trend could stem from "them not recognizing consequence-based problems [because] so many IT people are so removed from the consequences of what they do."

As a purely hypothetical example: "If somebody doesn't test something properly in a piece of Centrelink software that is going to go into production -- one that changes how people get their pensions. The system crashes. And as a result, people don't get their payments. But when you talk to the IT people who are doing the testing, it never ever occurred to them that a consequence of them not doing their testing properly would be that people are seriously economically distressed because they didn't get their payment."

The example demonstrated in the Centrelink hypothetical can be caused by the existence of "moral distance" in the IT professional, he said.

The problem becomes acute in circumstances where individuals are performing under stress, which is the case for many working in the ICT industry today. Without training and the space for reflection, staff tend to revert to what Lucas calls "fundamental behaviours", which are instinctual responses to high stress situations.

In order to close this gap, Lucas claims a link must be made between personal codes of ethics and institutional codes of ethics.

At present, he said, "the problem is that there is a severe disconnect between a code of ethics - somebody from management has promulgated this thing - and what people actually believe themselves."

The core issue is that there exists no system of rules and regulations which will provide guidance for every moral problem, Lucas said, suggesting that more ethics training, and managers leading by example, could help to create a more comprehensive integrity system for the ICT industry.

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