Morality and Ethics and Computers
There are many different sides to the discussion on moral and ethical
uses of computers. In many situations, the morality of a particular use of a
computer is up to the individual to decide. For this reason, absolute laws
about ethical computer usage is almost, but not entirely, impossible to define.
The introduction of computers into the workplace has introduced many
questions as well: Should employers make sure the workplace is designed to
minimize health risks such as back strain and carpal tunnel syndrome for people
who work with computers?
Can employers prohibit employees from sending personal
memos by electronic mail to a friend at the other side of the office? Should
employers monitor employees’ work on computers? If so, should employees be
warned beforehand? If warned, does that make the practice okay? According to
Kenneth Goodman, director of the Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy at the
University of Miami, who teaches courses in computer ethics, “There’s hardly a
business that’s not using computers.”1 This makes these questions all the more
important for today’s society to answer.
There are also many moral and ethical problems dealing with the use of
computers in the medical field. In one particular case, a technician trusted
what he thought a computer was telling him, and administered a deadly dose of
radiation to a hospital patient.2 In cases like these, it is difficult to decide
who’s fault it is. It could have been the computer programmer’s fault, but
Goodman asks, “How much responsibility can you place on a machine?”3
Many problems also occur when computers are used in education. Should
computers replace actual teachers in the classroom? In some schools, computers
and computer manuals have already started to replace teachers. I would consider
this an unethical use of computers because computers do not have the ability to
think and interact on an interpersonal basis.
Computers “dehumanize human activity”4 by taking away many jobs and
making many others “boring exercises in pushing the buttons that make the
technology work.” 5
Complete privacy is almost impossible in this computer age. By using a
credit card or check cashing card, entering a raffle, or subscribing to a
magazine, people provide information about themselves that can be sold to
marketers and distributed to data bases throughout the world. When people use
the world-wide web, the sites they visit and download things from, make a record
that can be traced back to the person.6 This is not protected, as it is when
books are checked out of a library.
Therefore, information about someone’s
personal preferences and interests can be sold to anyone. A health insurance
company could find out if a particular person had bought alcohol or cigarettes
and charge that person a higher rate because he or she is a greater health risk.
Although something like this has not been reported yet, there are no laws
against it, at this point.
More and more data base companies are monitoring individuals with little
regulation. “Other forms of monitoring-such as genetic screening-could
eventually be used to discriminate against individuals not because of their past
but because of statistical expectations about their future.”7 For instance,
people who do not have AIDS but carry the antibodies are being discharged from
the U.S. military and also fired from some jobs. Who knows if this kind of
medical information could lead employers to make decisions of employment based
on possible future illnesses rather than on job qualifications. Is this an
ethical use of computers?
One aspect of computers that is surely immoral and unethical is computer
crime, which has been on the rise lately. There are many different types of
computer crime. Three main types of crimes are making computer viruses, making
illegal copies of software, and actually stealing computers.
Computer viruses have been around for a decade but they became infamous
when the Michelangelo virus caused a scare on March 6, 1992. According to the
National Computer Security Association in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, there are 6000
known viruses worldwide and about 200 new ones show up every month.8 These
viruses are spread quickly and easily and can destroy all information on a
computer’s hard drive. Now, people must buy additional software just to detect
viruses and possibly repair infected files.
Making illegal copies of software is also a growing problem in the
computer world. Most people find no problem in buying a computer program and
giving a copy to their friend or co-worker. Some people even make copies and
sell them to others. Software companies are starting to require computer users
to type in a code before using the software. They do this in many ways.
Sometimes, they require you to use a “code wheel” or look in a book for the code.
The software companies go through this trouble to discourage people from making
illegal copies because every copy that is made is money the company lost.
One other thing that is just starting to become a problem is actual
With the introduction of notebook computers came a rise in
computer theft. The same qualities that make these computers perfect for
business travelers-their small size and light weight- make them very easy for
thieves to steal as well. In 1994, 295,000 computers were reported stolen with
resulting losses totaling over 981 million dollars. 9 The amount lost to theft
is about twice the amount lost in all forms of computer malfunction or breakage.
The biggest news related to computers lately seems to always be about
the Internet. The Internet began decades ago, but is just becoming popular with
the general public now that technology is advancing and becoming cheaper. There
are many aspects of the Internet that can lead people into discussions
concerning morality and ethics.
Much of the discussion of the Internet has to do with freedom of speech
and the First Amendment. Most Americans probably believe that the First
Amendment is moral because it is a national law. The problems arise because
different people interpret the First Amendment in different ways. In most cases
since 1776, the First Amendment has been easily defined and understood, but
every once in a while, a situation appears which blurs the lines. The Internet
has caused one of these situations.
There is information on the Internet about everything from drugs to
making bombs. The United States government is trying to decide whether they
should or should not censor material on the Internet. The government does not
censor information like this in public libraries, so why should it censor this
information on the Internet? The government censors information like this on
television though, so why wouldn’t it censor this on the Internet? If the
government goes strictly by the First Amendment, it would not censor anything on
the Internet because that would be a violation of free speech. It is obvious
though, that the government does not always go directly by the First Amendment,
so this leaves the topic open to discussion.
Some people argue that this information would be dangerous if it got
into the wrong hands. Much of the information in the world would be dangerous
if it got into the wrong hands. Does this mean that we should perform
background checks and psychiatric tests on everyone before we give them any
information? I believe it is unethical to withhold information from anyone.
All information should be given out freely. It is up to the individual to
decide how to use the knowledge they have.
Many people complain that there is a large number of sick and demented
people on the Internet. There are a large number of sick and demented people in
the “real” world
as well. In fact, the same people who are on the Internet are in the real
world, too. There is not much we can do about them except arrest the people who
take their sickness and dementia too far and break the law.
Computers can be harmful and beneficial to people in many different ways.
The ways computers are beneficial are the most obvious. Computers can
entertain us, they can save us time and energy, as well as saving us from
performing boring and laborious tasks.
Computers also can be physically harmful to people. People who use
computers too much can suffer from vision loss, to varying degrees, due to
staring at the screen for extended lengths of time . They can also have
problems with the muscles in their hands from typing so often. They can acquire
back problems from sitting in chairs behind desks at computer screens, all day
Some people say that computers allow humans to cheat. They give us the
answers. They allow us to stop thinking. They believe it is unethical for the
computers to do the work for us. These people may be right in that some humans
allow computers to do work for them, but then if people did not make use of the
new inventions and time-savers, farmers would still be plowing with a horse and
we’d still be cooking on an open fire. Until computers exhibit actual
artificial intelligence, though, we are still the ones doing the thinking. We
program the computers to do what we want them to do.
In conclusion, I believe that, in most situations involving computers,
the morality or immorality of an action is up to the individual to decide, as it
would be if computers were not involved. We have seen, though, that there are
many instances in which people have, without a doubt, acted immorally and
1 Timothy O’Conner, “Computers Creating Ethical Dilemmas,” USA Today Magazine
(September 1995) 7 2 Max Frankel, “Cyberrights,” The New York Times Magazine
(February 12, 1995) 26 3 O’Conner 7 4 James Coates, “Unabomber Case Underscores
an On-Line Evil,” Chicago Tribune (April 14, 1996) 5 5 Coates 5 6 O’Conner 7 7
Tom Forester, Computers in the Human Context (Cambridge: The MIT Press,1989)
403 8 Stephen A. Booht, “Doom Virus,” Popular Mechanics (June 1995) 51 9 Philip
Albinus, “Have You Seen This PC?,” Home Office Computing (February 1996) 17