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[liberationtech] [cpsr-activists] CPSR Curriculum?
Charles M. Ess
c.m.ess at media.uio.no
Sun Feb 3 03:03:33 PST 2019
Paul's comments are spot on: thanks for raising a central and critical
It would be great to have the sort of empirical evidence suggested - and
below I will allude to some anecdotal evidence.
But part of the response is, it's complicated, beginning with attempting
to devise a study that could isolate the impacts of such a course
vis-a-vis specific ethical choices and actions. As with, say, studies
that attempt to dis/prove causal connections between say, internet porn
and violent content on behavior, it is monstrously difficult to prove
with much certainty either one or the other.
But underneath this is an assumption or two that should also be
interrogated. One assumption - especially prominent in the US context,
as shaped by specific Christian assumptions about human nature - is that
people are inclined towards selfishness and are thereby less "naturally"
social, cooperative, etc; rather, they can only be coerced into doing so
by some form of force - whether open and brutal (Thomas Hobbes'
Leviathan, a Christian theocracy, threats of eternal damnation in
hellfire, the total surveillance state or corporation, etc.) or more
subtle: Santa Claus / B.F. Skinner systems of rewards for desired
In these contexts, my experience has been that the (second and
consequent) default assumption - including in professional communities
such as police and first responders, lawyers, as well as engineers of
various expertise - is that "ethics" means a rulebook to impose order /
desired behavior on a target audience otherwise inclined to be less than
"ethical." (And, unfortunately, I have to admit that ethics is taught
this way in all too many instances.)
There may be some good ways to try to teach ethics under these
assumptions - but again, attempting to provide solid evidence that
people behave better afterwards will be difficult indeed.
As an alternative: the assumption many of us make - starting from
Aristotle forward - is that people are already reasonably well
enculturated and experienced with "ethics" - meaning more broadly, a
capacity to recognize the primary dimensions of a difficult ethical
choice and to discern / judge the preferable way(s) forward.
(And in a Scandinavian context, the assumption is that human beings are
primarily / "naturally" good - including other-regarding and so on.
There are a range of historical and cultural factors that support these
views - and they are manifest in such measured matters as the highest
trust levels in the world, vanishingly small crime rates, community
policing without weapons, etc., etc.)
In any event, for those of us who have been privileged to teach ethics
in both academic and professional settings, this approach begins with
the emphasis that ethics is not primarily about imposing some sort of a
rulebook (utilitarian, deontological, etc.) upon those who would
otherwise be clueless. It is rather about first interrogating the
ethical sensibilities and experiences of our interlocutors - most
especially among professionals who often have many decades of experience
to draw on.
Involving ethics in these domains - e.g., research ethics in the social
sciences, ethics for design in ICT, and/or the ethical dimensions of
specific "Big Data" projects involving computer scientists and
engineers, police and first responders, national emergency authorities,
etc. - is then a much different matter from attempting to impose a rule
book. It is often characterized in terms of "process" or dialogical
ethics - oriented more towards using philosophical and applied ethics to
provide concepts and frameworks that help practitioners more fully
articulate and critically assess their extant ethical sensibilities and
I can tell you that in the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR),
after the first decade or so of approaching internet research ethics in
these ways (i.e., starting in 2000) - the broad experience and consensus
is that incorporating ethics in these ways not only helps with analyzing
and resolving often complex and novel ethical challenges: it also leads
to substantively better research in good old fashioned social science
terms. This is part of the reason why the association supports the
on-going development of ethical guidelines - FWIW, our 3rd iteration
will be delivered this October at the AoIR annual meeting in Brisbane.
I can also tell you that our collective experience in teaching ethics in
these ways consistently receives strongly positive evaluations in the
workshops - whether with academics and/or professional communities - we
have offered since 2002 or so.
That's not evidence that people will behave any better as a result. But
it is evidence that people feel greater confidence by way of having more
conceptual tools to draw on when confronting ethical challenges - an
impression I also strongly hold from teaching undergraduates, FWIW.
I also have at least anecdotal evidence from the colleagues involved
with the IEEE initiative that this initiative is built in part on an
emerging awareness among their professional communities that ethics,
especially as approached in these more dialogical and process-oriented
ways, is not just important for utilitarian cost-benefit approaches
(minimally, don't break the law; don't design things that will get my
company sued, etc.) - but likewise for the sake of better design per se.
In short: my now lengthy experience is that exposure to and discussion
of ethics is appreciated as it provides people with conceptual tools and
examples that are helpful for their more effectively recognizing and
analyzing the ethical choices confronting them, and, on a good day, for
more effectively resolving often difficult ethical dilemmas.
This strikes me as intrinsically worthwhile, especially if we regard one
another as human beings who are ethical beings per se, no matter what
their choice of study or profession may be.
I hope this makes some sort of sense. Thanks for reading - critical
comments and suggestions welcome.
- charles ess
On 03/02/2019 07:40, Yosem Companys wrote:
> Good point. It'd be great if someone had the answer to that question.
> The only study vaguely related that I can remember is that psychology
> experiment where priests who were going to give a sermon were less
> likely to be good samaritans with a confederate in need when they were
> told they were late to give their sermon than when they were told they
> were early.
> So situational influences matter. It's not just about teaching personal
> ethics. It's about teaching how to behave in ethical ways when
> confronted by certain situations and learning the situations when you
> might act unethically so if you're ever in that situation you might
> remember and choose to act ethically instead.
> On Sat, Feb 2, 2019 at 10:26 PM Paul <tallpaul at gmail.com
> <mailto:tallpaul at gmail.com>> wrote:
> Is there any evidence, or even anecdotes, suggesting that ethics
> courses (in any form) work to make people act more ethically?
> I can see that someone who was already ethical might find
> something they had missed, but it's hard for me (admittedly a
> cynical person) to imagine that an ethics course can make someone
> ethical, any more than one could expect an "empathy" course to make
> people empathetic.
Professor in Media Studies
Department of Media and Communication
University of Oslo
c.m.ess at media.uio.no
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