Rethinking Ethics and Computing

Date & Time

Wed, 10/04/2006



Location: San Diego Supercomputer Center, UCSD


The field of computer ethics is now roughly twenty years old and seems to be thriving in terms of scholarship and pedagogy. Scholarship in the field can be characterized as focusing on the ethical issues arising ‘around’ and ‘from’ the development of computing, that is from the new capacities and endeavors made possible by computers. The topics that are typically addressed in textbooks, journals, and monographs include issues of professional ethics, privacy and surveillance, intellectual property, liability-accountability-responsibility, as well as particular types of computing such as data mining, search engines, modeling and simulation, virtual reality, online media, etc. This approach has been successful in drawing attention to issues and providing analysis that helps to better understand the issues and inform policy. Nevertheless, the approach has certain limitations that need to be addressed. When computer ethical issues are conceived as issues arising ‘around’ and ‘from’ computing, computers and computer systems themselves are hidden from the sights of computer ethics. Computer ethicists are left to address computer systems after they have been designed and appear at their doorsteps. This puts computer ethics in a reactive role and blocks the opportunity to be proactive and to address ethical issues at earlier stages in the development of computer systems. A focus on ethics ‘in’ computer technology is needed. Here computer systems would be understood to be value-laden, moral entities. In order to make this shift to ethics ‘in’ computer systems, two steps are necessary. First, computer technology must be understood to be not just machines and physical objects, but rather, to be socio-technical systems; computer systems are combinations of social practices, social relationships, social institutions, and artifacts. Second, computer ethics must be understood to include a focus on the design of computer systems. The implications of these two shifts call for a retooling of the field of computer ethics including a better understanding of socio-technical systems.


Deborah G. Johnson
University of Virginia, Dept. of Science, Technology and Society

Deborah G. Johnson (curriculum vitae) is the Anne Shirley Carter Olsson Professor of Applied Ethics in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science of the University of Virginia. Professor Johnson received the John Barwise prize from the American Philosophical Association in 2004; the ACM SIGCAS Making a Difference Award in 2000; and the Sterling Olmsted Award from the Liberal Education Division of the American Society for Engineering Education in 2001.

Professor Johnson is the author/editor of six books: Computer Ethics (Prentice Hall, fourth edition, 2009); Technology and Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future (co-edited with J. Wetmore, MIT Press, 2009); Women, Gender and Technology (co-edited with M. F. Fox and S. Rosser, University of Illinois Press, 2006); Computers, Ethics, and Social Values (co-edited with Helen Nissenbaum, Prentice Hall, 1995); Ethical Issues in Engineering (Prentice Hall, 1991); and Ethical Issues in the Use of Computers (co-edited with John Snapper, Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1985). She has published over 50 papers in a variety of journals and edited volumes. Her papers have appeared in Communications of the ACM, Ethics, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, The Monist, and The Encyclopedia of Ethics. She co-edits Ethics and Information Technology published by Kluwer and co-edits a book series on Women, Gender, and Technology with S. Rosser and M.F. Fox for University of Illinois Press.

Professor Johnson has taught courses on ethical theory; information technology, ethics, and policy; engineering ethics; and values and policy. During 1992-93 she was a Visiting Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Operations Research of Princeton University where she worked on a National Science Foundation project on ethics and computer decision models. In 1994 and 1995 she received National Science Foundation funding to conduct workshops to prepare undergraduate faculty to teach courses and course modules on ethical and professional issues in computing. Then again during 2000-2003, she was co-principal investigator for another NSF grant that offered workshops on teaching computer ethics using the Web.

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