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[liberationtech] [cpsr-activists] CPSR Curriculum?

Charles M. Ess c.m.ess at
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 
behaviors, etc.
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 
> <mailto:tallpaul at>> 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.
>        Paul

Professor in Media Studies
Department of Media and Communication
University of Oslo

Postboks 1093
Blindern 0317
Oslo, Norway
c.m.ess at

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