Monday, March 06, 2006

Winnipeg CIPS February Dinner Debrief

"How Information Technology Gives Leverage to Ethics and What We Should Do About It"
with Dr. Arthur Schafer

Dr. Schafer is a hugely qualified and very well-known public speaker. And he certainly showed us that he deserves the reputation. He was a very personable speaker, beginning and ending his talks with humorous, and relevant, personal anecdotes.

Throughout the hour long discussion, he constantly referred to his personal area of expertise. Unfortunately that area is in bioethics, not information technology. His many insights and discussion points basically all came from the experience of medical research and the Drug industry.

Dr. Schafer did his best to constantly refer back to I.T. , however I was hoping for some more pointed discussion of Standards of Ethics and the I.T. industry’s special considerations for ethics. A better title for the discussion might have been “Ethical Lessons the Medical Industry Can Teach I.T.”

Still, it was a very interesting discussion, and Dr. Schafer is a very engaging speaker. He started with the key point that I.T. was a professionalizing industry, not a mature profession such as medicine or engineering.

Currently, the I.T. industry’s primary standard for behavior is the law. But Dr. Schafer made the point that the legal requirements we are faced with form a very minimal standard. As a professional organization, CIPS members should aspire to more.

The problem is that we come to wear “many hats”, according to Dr. Schafer. We are supposed to serve the needs of our company, our own economic interests as sellers of our skills and knowledge, and finally a vague notion of altruistic service to the public.

In a perfect world, these different considerations would always agree. Employers would never ask us to do anything that harmed the public good. Faithfully and truthfully serving our company would always be the best financial decision we could make… But of course, there are often times when the different roles required of an “ethical professional” do conflict.

Therefore, Dr. Schafer implied that the real meaning of a Code off Ethics is often that “some economically beneficial actions are out of bounds.”

In a more general sense, he said that information technology is a great lever for ethics. It used to be that the human potential for good and evil was very geographically limited. Also, it was limited to a few very powerful people. But with the increased communication and technology of our daily lives, the power to affect others has been devolved to minor employees and disaffected teenagers.

The key to his talk was his “Ethical Equation”, which is simply stated as “The greater the harm, the greater the obligation.” With I.T. providing a multiplying affect for the potential harm, I.T. professionals assume a great burden of obligation to behave in ethical ways.

For my own part, I’m never really inspired by these negative definitions of ethics. Of course it’s a crucially important point, but it doesn’t speak to the “better angels of our nature”. An important corollary (in my opinion) to the Ethical Equation as “The greater the potential good, the greater to the obligation to see it realized.” In a broad sense, I.T. offers the promise for some of the most amazing transformations in human society. To let them go astray is just as much an ethical failing.

All-in-all, it was a very thought-provoking evening. Thank you very much to Susan Zuk and the rest of the Winnipeg CIPS team for putting on a very enjoyable event. And thank you very much to all the interesting people I spoke to. I’ll see you guys next month!


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