How to Approach Ethical Transparency
“Let’s briefly examine two common ethical practices.
- Playing God
This type of choice is well known in ethics and involves someone making decisions about the life and death of other people, most frequently in exchange for some larger social benefit. These are typically known as utilitarian decisions. For example, imagine a programmer being tasked to develop the rules system for an autonomous car. Naturally, he or she will try to save as many lives as possible in the event of an accident. But, where this is not possible, how would the rule be constructed to choose between two individuals? What if the choice was between a man and a woman, or between a child and an adult? Another example: when decisions are made to eradicate species in nature. Imagine a bio engineer tasked to create a gene that eradicates all malaria-carrying mosquitos. How are such choices made? Both of these dilemmas are created by the advances in technology and thus have never been or, at least rarely, taught and examined by the institutions that have traditionally instilled ethics.
- Moral Blinding
Moral blinding poses a different issue. Technologies can be developed in a way that completely obfuscates their purpose and final use from employees. Companies may do so to protect trade secrets or because they know that the moral issues can be a deterrent to find employees or a distraction in the work process. Sooner or later, employees will discover the real issues and some of them may not be able to cope with moral burden.
The question then is should moral blinding be allowed? My position is that it should not. If an employee is developing an accident choice algorithm for autonomous cars, they should know so. They should not be told that they are building an algorithm for a video game. Or if they are, they should be told that the company may license the algorithm to autonomous car manufacturers. This will certainly affect how the algorithm is built.
Within the framework of ethical transparency, companies and employees have three key obligations:
- Disclose the potential ethical issues
- Investigate the research on the ethical issues
- Document their individual and mutual stand on ethical issues”