The corruption of tech ethics

Now everyone’s an expert.

Can anyone be a tech ethicist?

Just because tech ethics raises interesting questions about whether we should pursue certain projects doesn’t mean that’s all there is to this field of inquiry. But you wouldn’t know that by the plethora of people now claiming to be experts in this area who think the extent of their job is to sit around and ponder what might be “right” or “wrong.”

Everyone from philosophers in other fields who now find tech commentary to be a way to get their name in the news, to journalists throwing out “should we or shouldn’t we” questions and calling it tech ethics, to lawyers who confuse ethics with legality are muddying the waters when it comes to meaningful and organized inquiry. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be encouraging people to ask these questions (after all, that’s what the Top 10 List is for!), but we need to keep in mind that as a field, tech ethics is supposed to lead to answers and actions that benefit humanity.

What tech ethics isn’t

Equally, when “ethical decision making” is turned into a 1-day seminar for business leaders or policymakers, it turns ethics training into something to merely check off on a list of “skills.” Having someone with minimal training in a meeting doesn’t mean a company is engaged in ethical inquiry about their practices.

For tech companies, “ethics” is now simply a word to throw around to indicate that they’ve thought a little harder about something before moving forward. It’s an easy out that allows them to self-regulate instead of having a real expert interrogate their products and practices.

Of course, this is not to say that one must have a Ph.D. in philosophy to be a tech ethicist. In fact, if academics keep the field to themselves, it’s unlikely ever to make it out of the so-called Ivory Tower.

The point is that people who “do” ethics need to have rigorous training and understand the frameworks for ethical decision making. Otherwise, ethics turns into a merry-go-round where resolutions are made on the fly by people who use whatever evidence they want in order to decide if something is right or wrong.

Tech ethics is a formal field of inquiry

We can build as many ethics committees/councils as we want and force science and engineering students to take a class in ethics to make them better ethical decision-makers, but that doesn’t erase the need for dedicated, independent inquiry based on a formal framework. While that might sound stodgy, and old frameworks might not always apply to new tech, it’s the ability to organize thoughts into a formal framework that allows ethics to move forward instead of whirl around as a series of open-ended questions.

And while interdisciplinary inquiry is deeply important, we must not confuse slapping together a group of people to mull over problems (whether it’s a center for ethical inquiry or an ethics board), vague statements of a company’s ethical principles, or the employment of an “ethics officer” with actually doing tech ethics in a way that safely and honestly regulates technology and its applications. This allows companies to get away with “ethics theater” instead of doing the hard work.

Further reading:

Ethics alone can’t fix big tech (Slate, 2019)

Ethics as an escape from regulation: From ethics-washing to ethics-shopping? (Ben Wagner via Privacy Lab, 2018)

Ethics washing made in Europe (Der Tagesspiegel, 2019)

Google says it wants rules for the use of AI—kinda, sorta (Wired, 2019)

Need for AI ethicists becomes clearer as companies admit tech’s flaws (The Wall Street Journal, 2019)