Law vs. Ethics

The development of this document was a collaborative effort among the following authors: Dr. Thomas Hilton, Cathy Bell, Lucille Brizzee, Penny Christensen, Becky Kendall, Keven Kendall, Naloni Marriott, Jolene Morris, Toni Simmons, and Stacie Gomm. It is important to note that ethics are inherently culturally biased, and that those presented here are based on the ethics of American culture.  

True computer literacy is not just knowing how to make use of computers and computational ideas. It is knowing when it is appropriate to do so. -Seymore Paperts, Mindstorm

You know computers have changed civilization. However, there are a couple of things you may not know yet -- things you need to understand, in order to appropriately use computers and to access information. The things you'll read about in this document have to do with the ethical use of computers. The reason ethics are important in computing isn't the computers; it is the information stored in the computers. Information is awfully intimate stuff. It comes from human brains, and we covet it -- lust after it, even. We work to generate it, buy it, sell it, and sometimes misuse it. The reason computers enter into this discussion is because they are such great information processing tools. In many ways, this presentation is about information ethics.

In general, ethics are the rules of right and wrong behavior. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines ethics as "the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group" (Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2001).

Information ethics are the rules that define right and wrong behavior in the computing professions. They are the basis for trust and cooperation among workers and organizations. For this reason, and because of some much-publicized ethics problems in the computer field, ethical computing has gotten a lot of attention lately. This means that now more than ever all people who use a computer, including you, need to know what's expected of them – what's OK to do with a computer and what's not OK. In most cases the owner of a given computer defines the ethics and/or rules required to use that computer.  

It is important to realize ethics and laws are not the same. Laws are established to protect software developers (copyright and licensing) and users (privacy issues). Laws have penalties associated with them. If you don’t obey the law, you are punished. Ethics, however, are based on principles and values. In reality, there is no global punishment for ethics violation, although individual companies, schools, etc. may have rules that, if violated, have punishments associated with them.

It is not illegal for a person to go to buy a fancy dress or suit, wear it for a special occasion with the tags tucked in, then return it the next day; however, it is unethical. Sometimes laws are based on ethical principles, meaning ethics can be the predecessor of laws. Computer use escalated much faster than the development of laws and policies which protected the users, programmers, and developers. We relied on ethics to control people's behavior. With so many values, it was hard to decipher who was right and who was wrong. Laws have finally defined the parameters for everyone to follow, but laws do not exist in every realm of the information industry, so we still rely on ethics to control many situations.

Ethics usually fall into three categories – professional, social and individual. An employer or company usually defines professional ethics and employees are required to follow them. The general principles underlying most of the ethical dilemmas you will confront in your career are addressed in the professional code of ethics defined by the company. Professional codes of ethics may not provide detailed guidance in all possible situations. You must have an inner sense of what is moral to be able to apply ethics in specific situations. This is where social and individual ethics play an important role. Social ethics are usually defined by society or a group and the primary values existing in that group. Individual ethics are usually defined by personal heritage and integral family values.

Many professional organizations have developed codes of ethics, which have been widely adopted as the basic code for many companies and universities. While the professional codes of ethics have slight differences in emphasis, they are in agreement on general principles.

It is important to note that not only professional organizations have Code of Ethics. Many higher institutions of learning also maintain a code of ethics. Usually, one of the sections deals specifically to plagiarism of Intellectual Property at the college or university. To view an example of a university’s Code of Ethics, see the following:

We cannot count on the legal system to be a complete and correct guide to moral behavior, either for us as individuals in society or as members of a profession. Nor can we expect the professional codes of ethics to be complete, consistent and correct for all situations. There is no formal monitoring for compliance and little penalty that can be assessed against violators. Goodness cannot be defined through a legalistic enumeration of dos and don’ts. People must be able to use their internal sense of ethics to fill the holes and resolve the conflicts that inevitably occur when following any code of ethics (Bowyer, Ethics & Computing, Computer Society Press, 1996).