Case Studies of Ethics
To understand how ethics affects professional actions, ethicists often study example situations. The remainder of this section consists of several representative examples. These cases are modeled after ones developed by Parker [PAR79] as part of the AFIPS/NSF study of ethics in computing and technology. Each case study is designed to bring out certain ethical points, some of which are listed following the case. You should reflect on each case, determining for yourself what the most influential points are. These cases are suitable for use in a class discussion, during which other values will certainly be mentioned. Finally, each case reaches no conclusion because each individual must assess the ethical situation alone. In a class discussion it may be appropriate to take a vote. Remember, however, that ethics are not determined by majority rule. Those siding with the majority are not "right," and the rest are not "wrong."
Case I: Use of Computer Services
This case concerns deciding what is appropriate use of computer time. Use of computer time is a question both of access by one person and of availability of quality of service to others. The person involved is permitted to access computing facilities for a certain purpose. Many companies rely on an unwritten standard of behavior that governs the actions of people who have legitimate access to a computing system. The ethical issues involved in this case can lead to an understanding of that unwritten standard.
Dave works as a programmer for a large software company. He writes and tests utility programs such as compilers. His company operates two computing shifts: During the day program development and online applications are run; at night batch production jobs are completed. Dave has access to workload data and learns that the evening batch runs are complementary to daytime programming tasks; that is, adding programming work during the night shift would not adversely affect performance of the computer to other users.
Dave comes back after normal hours to develop a program to manage his own stock portfolio. His drain on the system is minimal, and he uses very few expendable supplies, such as printer paper. Is Dave's behavior ethical?
Some of the ethical principles involved in this case are listed below.
Ownership of resources. The company owns the computing resources and provides them for its own computing needs.
Effect on others. Although unlikely, a flaw in Dave's program could adversely affect other users, perhaps even denying them service because of a system failure.
Universalism principle. If Dave's action is acceptable, it should also be acceptable for others to do the same. However, too many employees working in the evening could reduce system effectiveness.
Possibility of detection, punishment. Dave does not know whether his action would be wrong or right if discovered by his company. If his company decided it was improper use, Dave could be punished.
What other issues are involved? Which principles are more important than others?
The utilitarian would consider the total excess of good over bad for all people. Dave receives benefit from use of computer time, although for this application the amount of time is not large. Dave has a possibility of punishment, but he may rate that as unlikely. The company is neither harmed nor helped by this. Thus, the utilitarian could argue that Dave's use is justifiable.
The universalism principle seems as if it would cause a problem because clearly if everyone did this, quality of service would degrade. A utilitarian would say that each new user has to weigh good and bad separately. Dave's use might not burden the machine, and neither might Ann's; but when Bill wants to use the machine, it is heavily enough used that Bill's use would affect other people.
Would it affect the ethics of the situation if any of the following actions or characteristics were considered?
Dave began a business managing stock portfolios for many people for profit.
Dave's salary was below average for his background, implying that Dave was due the computer use as a fringe benefit.
Dave's employer knew of other employees doing similar things and tacitly approved by not seeking to stop them.
Dave worked for a government office instead of a private company and reasoned that the computer belonged "to the people."