Ethics has been a pretty big topic in the tech industry lately — “Fake News”, #metoo, runaway artificial intelligence, data and privacy, online governance, spam control, labor rights for workers…the list goes on and on.
It’s not as if these problems suddenly popped up in the last few years, though: they were always there, but the scale of the issue was so huge and complex that nobody really wanted to deal with it until now, where the cracks have become too big to ignore. I attempted to make ethics my topic of study back in 2011 (you can see some of the results of those research topics on my website) but in hindsight the timing of it wasn’t right since people weren’t really feeling too introspective at the time. The social climate — especially with the rise of our current president in office — has changed drastically since then. So the timing may be right to start talking about these things again, in hopes of creating a better path for us going forward.
At heart, most people are “good people” and you can sort of assume that people will conduct themselves in such a manner on an individual level, most of the time. The challenge is, however, when you attempt to systematize the idea of “good” into a rule system— which is implemented in the form of laws, policies, and culture — all the things that people hate to talk about, since most of the subject matter tends to be unpleasant and existential. The idea of what is “good” is subjective and always up for debate, after all.
Still, over the years I’ve found that some ways of talking about ethics tend to be better than others and I’d like to share some my experiences here, in hopes of improving the discourse over all. The “one weird trick” that works for ethics discussions is the acknowledgement that we are all human — might seem like I’m stating the obvious here but in practice, this is a concept that you seldom see, especially in digital spaces.
We’re Only Human, After All
The one thing about ethics — assuming that you actually want to talk about it in good faith — is that it’s really never about “us vs them”. Talking about ethics as an external battle between good and evil is unproductive and should be avoided at all costs at all times, since it essentially guarantees that you’ll be distracting yourself from the real issues at hand.
There is a natural tendency for people in power to take offense to the idea of decentralization or ethical inquiry, even or especially if they’re responsible for the problems at hand, since they will feel like their moral integrity is being questioned, which is something that *everyone* hates. One way to get around that situation is to de-personalize the issue —for example, no, it’s not that we don’t trust you in particular, but that humans are flawed by nature and we need these regulations to keep ourselves in check. It’s not about “us vs them” or “us vs you”, but “us vs us”. This may or may not work depending on who you’re talking to, but this always works better than starting the conversation in an accusatory tone.
While I don’t agree with Trump voters on just about anything, after having known a few who became radicalized after being priced out of cities that called themselves “progressive”, I now understand where their anger is coming from. (California has one of the highest poverty rates in the country when accounted for costs-of-living, btw.) The point is that these problems didn’t come out of nowhere — the emergence of the alt-right is a result of our poorly designed domestic policies run amok, not the result of an elaborately planned conspiracy. Russian agents might be capitalizing on our mistakes (sure, why wouldn’t they?) but at the end of the day if we didn’t create the problem for ourselves, they wouldn’t have anything to fan the flames to begin with. President Trump is the symptom, not the cause, in other words.
It’s important to humanize your political opponents — even or especially if you disagree with them — not only because it’s right thing to do, but because it will actually make you more effective as a political agent. If you understand where people’s motives are coming from, you can more easily predict where the wind is going to blow. I used to be mystified by political analysts who were able to predict voting results with pretty good accuracy but I think I get it a little better now — it has less to do with predicting the future, but simply being aware of what’s going on.
The Fundamentals of Ethics: Deontology vs. Consequentialism
Before getting into the specifics, there is a need to explain how ethics works in the Western world since it’s not as complicated as most people think. (If you’re trying to look this stuff up on Wikipedia you will just confuse yourself since most of the articles on there are poorly written, unfortunately.) There are lots of “ethical models” out there that claim that they have some special insight into ethical inquiry in the modern world (some of them with their own ridiculous branding to boot) but all of them are variations on theses two concepts in one way or another. If you want to avoid being mislead or distracted, it’s important to have the fundamentals in place.
Deontological Ethics is the idea that you ought to do the “right thing”, no matter who, what, when, and where. Martin Luther King Jr. made his case to American society by appealing to the idea that “All Men Were Created Equal” and sticking with it no matter what the opposition threw at him. If you think about it — does the idea that all people were created equal make any “real” sense? It’s definitely not true; certainly not for African-American communities living in segregated communities who start from a position of disadvantage right from the start.
But the value in deontology is that it gives us an objective — an ideal to strive for — that may currently not exist, making the world a better place. Deontological ethics is popular among leaders since by its nature leadership roles often require people to be more idealistic than practical as means of goal-setting and working towards larger objectives.
There is a dark side to deontology, however: that it’s also popular among extremist groups, zealots, criminals and madmen — generally people who have nothing to lose, therefore are running on the fumes of pure ideology. Deontology is responsible for the greatest accomplishments and tragedies in the Western world, so it should be seen as the double-edged sword that needs to tempered with serious thought and introspection.
Consequentialist Ethics, or sometimes just called Consequentialism, or Utilitarianism, is the pragmatic side of ethics, more concerned with results over ideals. Someone might have an idea of “helping the poor”, for example, but the path of getting there might be fraught with all kinds of economic, cultural, and political obstacles that need to be overcome. A consequentialist will look at the situation and determine the path towards the best results, even if it means having to bend or break the rules of getting there. Consequentalists are the operations, accountants, the managers and workers keeping the lights on and trains on time, day by day. They’re the boots on the ground doing the “real work”, so to speak.
Malcom X was probably closer to being a consequentialist than his counterpart during the Civil Rights era — while Dr. King was encouraging Americans to develop better ethical models for themselves, Malcom X was a “realist” in the sense that he knew that without the threat of violence, some people would not be moved. These days the act of violence has been replaced by the act of filing a lawsuit, which a lot of people find annoying but a small price to pay for the progress of avoiding bloodshed, imo.
In practice, most ethical models use a combination of deontology and consequentialism and it’s desirable to have a balance of both since the interaction between the two is the most likely to yield the best decisions and outcomes overall. Individuals will always be a little bit of both but because there is no “perfect middle” you’ll find that most people will lean towards one direction or the other — which can actually be used as selection criteria for hiring and interviewing practices within an organization itself.
Deontology is the “moral compass”, consequentialism the “map”, in other words. One is focused on journey, the other in the destination. Western ethics succeeds as a nuanced combination of the two, and fails when they become polarized, dualistic, and uncompromising. (This is why the recent political polarization happening in the West should be extremely concerning.)
It might seem weird to distill a complex subject like ethics into a simplistic dualistic model, but if we were to be honest this is how Western societies are organized right now and aren’t likely to change any time soon. When in Rome…
Part 2 will look at ethical models and how they could be implemented as part of a workflow, rule system, platform, or organization as a whole.