Notes for Deborah Johnson Computer Ethics, Third Edition

Key concepts: instrumentation of human action, practical ethics, virtue ethics.

Related theorists: Walter Maner, James Moor, Abbe Mowshowitz, John Rawls, Joseph Weizenbaum.


Johnson reflecting back on technological milieu of first edition in awe of changes that have taken place, traversing memories of eight bit Osborne barely able to write the book, to thirty two bit computing capable of supporting TCP/IPv4 networking captivating her teenage daughter.

(vii) With the publication of the third edition of Computer Ethics, I am reminded of the day in 1984 when I received the page-proofs of the first edition. . . . I had composed the book on an Osborne computer using a word processor—I think it was called WordStar. . . . Today my daughter, now a teenager, is more comfortable with computers than I am. She spends a good deal of her day sitting in front of a computer screen chatting with friends, doing schoolwork, and exploring the Web. . . . While I continue to be cautious in making grand pronouncements about the significance of these technological changes for the quality and character of human lives, the changes that have taken place in these 16 years are awe-inspiring.

Senses task to address technology changes versus core issues and underlying philosophical assumptions of computer ethics: professional ethics, privacy, property, accountability, social implications.

(vii) As I began writing this edition, it was striking clear that my primary task was to address the technological changes that have occurred since the second edition, especially the growth and penetration of the Internet into so many domains of life. What are we to make of Web site, cookies, data mining tools, customized online services, and e-commerce? I have addressed many of these new issues while at the same time holding on to what I continue to believe are the core issues in computer ethics: professional ethics, privacy, property, accountability, social implications and values.

Wishes that computer ethics led technology rather than followed it.

Ethical issues are policy vacuums created around new developments and uses of computer technologies.

(vii-viii) Does the field of computer ethics simply follow the development of computer technology? Should computer ethicists simply react to technological developments? Wouldn't it be better if the sequence were reversed so that technological development followed ethics? . . . In a sense, the ethical issues are the policy vacuums, and policy vacuums are created when there is a new development of use of computer technology.

Examples of technology following ethics demonstrates need for technologically savvy philosophers and everyday users.

(viii) Suppose, that is, we lived in a world where ethicists (or anyone, for that matter) identified potentially unethical situations or arrangements or ethically better possibilities, and engineers and computer scientists went to work designing technologies to change or remedy or improve the situation. . . . Arguably, privacy-enhancing technologies and anonymous re-mailers are cases in point. Perhaps freeware and shareware are also examples.


Johnson overviews changing ethical focus over historical periods of modern computing, beginning with fears surrounding challenges of computer as opponent and potential catastrophes of automated decision making, noting popular science fiction and work of James Moor.

(viii) One of the most salient concerns was that computers threatened our notion of what it means to be human because computers could do the very thing that was considered unique to humans, rational thinking.
(viii) Rather, the implicit argument seemed to be that there would be terrible consequences—possible catastrophes and degradation of human life—were decision making to be turned over to computers.

Issues in late 1970s focused on data collection and threat of big government, which Black echoes in study of IBM and the holocaust; Weizenbaum and Mowshowitz noted as primary theorists.

(ix) The issues that took shape in this period had to do with the threat of big government and large-scale organizations, the related threat to privacy, and concern about the dominance of instrumental rationality.

Focus shifted to ethical issues surrounding software in 1980s personal computer era, especially games, piracy, and hacking.

(ix) Attention turned to software and the ethical issues surrounding it. The development and spread of microcomputers brought computer technology visibly and powerfully into the consumer marketplace.
(ix) During this period, the market in computer games took off and it was also during this period that more attention began to focus on hackers. . . . They did not like the idea of property rights in software.

Attention on Internet in 1990s as traditional media transferred and recreated in digital media, as well as exacerbating past privacy, democracy, and property issues; hint at future visualization and virtual reality topics.

(ix) In the 1990s, attention turned to the Internet. . . . In effect, we are now in a process of transferring and re-creating much of the world into this new medium. At the same time, the Internet also raised the concerns of the past.
(x) Unfortunately, I have been able to give only cursory attention to virtual reality issues.

Goal of ethics built into design not treated seriously by scholars in computer ethics.

(x) As I suggested before, reversing the order would seem to have some advantages, though scholars in the field of computer ethics do not seem to recognize the possibility of leading rather than following the technology. A central focus on the topic of design of computer technology would go a long way toward reversing this pattern. If the designers of technology were to think about the ethical and social implications of their designs before they became a reality, wouldn't the world be a better place!


Chapter 1: Introduction: Why Computer Ethics?

Continues to present computer and IT ethical issues new species of generic moral issues; need to consider implications of their instrumentation of human action.

(xii) As in the last edition, I argue that it is useful to think of the ethical issues surrounding computer and information technology as new species of generic moral issues. . . . Traditional ethics and ethical theories have largely ignored the instrumentation of human action. Computer ethics brings this unexplored area of ethics into focus.

Chapter 2: Philosophical Ethics

Added content on virtue ethics and Rawls theory of justice.

(xii) This chapter is largely as it was in the second edition though I have added brief descriptions of virtue ethics and John Rawls' theory of justice.

Chapter 3: Professional Ethics

Added content on licensing and changes to ACM code of ethics.

(xii) I have updated the chapter by addressing the issue of licensing of software engineers. I have also recognized recent changes to the ACM code of ethics.

Chapter 4: Ethics and the Internet: Ethics Online

New chapter focusing on Internet as medium of communication with many to many global scope, anonymity, reproducibility.

(xiii) Focusing on the Internet as a medium of communication, what seems morally significant is the many-to-many global scope of the Internet, the availability of a certain kind of anonymity, and the reproducibility of the medium.

Chapter 5: Privacy

Reframes personal privacy as social as well as individual good.

(xiii) I argue for reframing the issue in a way that recognizes personal privacy not just as an individual good but as a social good, and I try to make clear the importance of privacy for democracy.

Chapter 6: Property

Copying proprietary software is immoral because it is illegal.

(xiii) Making an illegal copy of proprietary software is immoral because it is illegal.

Chapter 7: Accountability

Chapter 8: Ethics and the Internet II: Social Implications and Social Values

Critiques arguments that Internet is a democratic technology; emerging issues of jurisdiction, systems of trust, and insularity.

(xiv) I examine the arguments that are made to show that the Internet is a democratic technology and I critique these arguments.
(xiv) I conclude this chapter by pointing to three issues that will be particularly important to watch in the future: jurisdiction, systems of trust, and insularity.

Practical Ethics

Practical ethics negotiate between theory and real world situations.

(xv) Practical ethics is best understood as the domain in which there is negotiation between theory and real-world situations.


In the end the book Computer Ethics really addresses a family of technologies dealing with information; Johnson never asks the fundamental philosophical question of what is computing.

(xv) In fact, the focus of the book may more accurately be described as a focus on a family of technologies that deal with a very wide variety of types of information (signals, data, images, words, etc.).


Chapter 1
Introduction: Why Computer Ethics?

New Species of Traditional Moral Issues

A crutch is needed beyond traditional moral concepts, stock philosophy, to study computer ethics.

(17) The presence of this new feature or new possibility makes it difficult to draw on traditional moral concepts without some interpretation, modification, or qualification.

Why not like books? One of Johnson's on the one hand PHI on the other and PHI'.

(17) On the one hand, then, software ownership did not create a new type – in the sense of a new “category” - of ethical issue. Property disputes were common and familiar. On the other hand, the issue was new in the sense that property in something with the features of software had never been addressed before.

Good use of ancient philosophy genus and species distinction.

(17) Both of these points are captured in the idea of genus and species. The software ownership issue is a new and unusual species of a familiar ethical (and legal) genus of issues.

Did I mean to see how new technical practices raise old and new questions, such as whether it is a pharmakon?

(17) The genus-species account emphasizes the idea that the ethical issues surrounding computer and information technology are first and foremost ethical issues. This is an important point because ethical issues are always about human beings and what they do to one another. Ethics has to do with human interactions, human interests, human harm, and conflicts between human beings. An ethical issue arises when something that human beings value is at stake.

Connecting ethics and human interaction missed by Maner, who focuses on fascination with unique ways technology can be employed to address problems, yet ignorance of details of technologies seems to conceal important ethical tracks like the uses and advantages over proprietary granted by free, open source options that will have become popular philosophical themes by the next edition, effectively dragging philosophy proper along with the trends, evidenced by submergence of Maner altogether with the introduction of sociotechnical computer ethics.

(17-18) Oddly, the connection between ethics and human interaction is something missed by computer ethicists who are focused on the uniqueness of the technology. Maner (1998) for example, provides a set of examples of ethical issues surrounding computer and information technology that he considers weakly or strongly unique. However, his examples emphasize the uniqueness of the technology or technical arrangement, not the uniqueness of the human situation.

This dismissal of Maner ignores the unique ethical questions raised regarding choices and computer technologies, that influenced situated actions, especially meta questions such as whether to learn to program them.

Perhaps Maner did not think of the important self-involving ethical question of whether to practice programming, or how computers resemble writing as pharmaka, relating them to ancient ethical arguments: Kittler cautions drawing such simple conclusions, however, that Turkles work exists, and a generation of Americans were taught to use computers and program them in public schools, and for that movement to recede, seems sufficient evidence that ethical questions regarding computers were not thoroughly considered by philosophers.

(18) Maner suggests that the novelty of the argument lies in its inference from the generality (malleability) of computer technology and never before, he claims, has a technology of this kind been available. In other words, he seems to be saying that never before has humanity been in a situation to be able to so powerfully help the handicapped. I am not sure if this is true, but in any case, it illustrates the puzzle around uniqueness.

Bad Consequences from No Ownership

Dispatch into criticism of poorly informed philosopher from technical perspective mitigated in fourth edition by participation (voice, as she puts it) of Keith Miller illuminates importance of versions at level of human texts.

The sloppy Linux operating system shareware quote appearing in a footnote about which my argument that philosophy uninformed through either becoming technologist or through deep alliance with technologists fails to think clearly about the subject matter.

(160)(footnote 4) Perhaps, the best example of successful shareware is the Linux operating system.

Johnson, Deborah G. (2001). Computer ethics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Johnson, Deborah G. Computer Ethics. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.