Consequences of Computing:
A Framework for Teaching

Conceptual Framework - Page 6 of 36

The conceptual approach integrates, from the perspective of computer science, the complementary disciplines of philosophical ethics and social science. Based on this integration, the topical areas we recommend concur with those listed in Curricula 1991, but expand on them in terms of both detail and breadth.

It is clear that the study of ethical and social issues in computing is, and should be, interdisciplinary in nature. Ethicists from both philosophy and theology, historians, social analysts, sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists have all contributed heavily to the research in this area. Instead of suggesting students learn each discipline separately, we suggest that, from the perspective of computer science, every ethical concern is located at a particular level of social analysis. Only an analysis that takes account of at least three dimensions--the technical, the social, and the ethical--can adequately represent the issues as they concern computer science in practice. Considering each dimension separately provides some insight, but it is only in their interaction that we can begin to grasp the complexity of the issues.

Although philosophers and ethicists bring their own useful methods and constellations of issues to the study of computing, many of the ethical issues they confront are only made relevant to computer science because computing is both influenced by and influences the social world. The nature of the ethical analysis can differ depending on the particular social agendas or power conflicts at issue. For example, the ethical issue of privacy changes its shape as we look at individual, global, national, and organizational levels of analysis. In addition, different understandings of professional ethical obligation may occur depending upon the particular technology (phone, fax, e-mail, etc.) and the level of social analysis (individual, organizational, cultural, national).

Social scientists also bring a collection of methods and issues that help us frame the problems that face practicing computer scientists. But from the perspective of the computer scientist, these analyses are useful for the purpose of informing practice, and thus ethical considerations of good practice cannot be avoided. Thus, any careful social analysis at a particular level for a particular technology, will likely raise a number of ethical issues (privacy, property, power, risks, etc.).

There are patterns that remain the same across the dimensions (e.g. philosophical issues of the grounding of rights), but their application and relevance to computer science change depending on the context. For this reason, careful attention to the social, technical, and ethical context is required for a good understanding of any issue. It is essential for students to understand the multidimensional nature of the problems computer scientists face as they design and implement systems in the world.