Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 10 Information Technologies and

Professionalism and Professional Codes

Presentation of  Issues

While it is obvious to most that there are professions exactly what constitutes a profession is not as clear.  There are a number of characteristics of a profession that can be enumerated.  Perhaps it is best to think of forms of association and activity as existing on a spectrum and those that evidence many or most of the characteristics of a profession as listed are evidencing the family characteristics or traits of a profession.  The more any form of association demonstrate the more likely people will think of it as a profession and the more people who think of it as a profession the more society will do so and do so formerly creating laws that will so label the association a profession and with that recognition the professional responsibilities towards society.

Summary of Johnson, Deborah G. 2001. “Professional Ethics”  pp 54-79 in Computer Ethics Third Edition. Upper Saddle River NJ; Prentice Hall  by Kimberly Beuther CUNY,2006)

   Deborah Johnson addresses the issue of professional ethics, first, by explaining that there are five distinct characteristics that a particular field would need to address in order for it to be considered a profession. The field of computing must have an abstract body of knowledge, and many individuals in this field do have college degrees. However, there is some debate to whether there is a specific body of knowledge for computing. For example, there are those that work in the field who have no college degrees, and others who have degrees in different areas. Some believe that computing has no body of knowledge unto itself, that it encompasses knowledge from mathematics, engineering etc. Johnson indicates that even the ACM (Association for Computer Machinery) would not license software engineers because there was not a specific body of knowledge at this time. The second characteristic of a profession is that there must be autonomy, a professional must be able to make decisions partly because they have knowledge that others do not possess. Johnson says that there is not a great deal of autonomy for either the computer professional, or the profession collectively. The third characteristic is that there is usually a formal organization that can set standards, be involved in licensing, and have the ability to remove members. Though the computer profession’s two large formal organizations, the ACM, and the IEEE-CS have worked to put together requirements for degrees, they have little enforcement power. Another characteristic is that there should be a code of ethics that the professional should subscribe to. Johnson says that while there is no one code that all computer professionals must abide by, there are codes from both the ACM, and the IEEE-CS which are similar, and can serve to ensure proper conduct among computer professionals.  Finally, a profession should have a social function. Johnson says that while computing itself may not have a social function it serves many other social functions. Johnson believes that while computing may not completely fulfill the requirements of a profession, it possesses much of the qualities, and is closer to being a profession than a non-profession.

      There are many different relationships that a computer professional can enter into; Johnson indicates what responsibility the professional has within each relationship. First she looks at the relationship between employer and employee. She says that one of the most important aspects of this relationship is honesty on the part of both the employer, and the employee. Johnson also says that loyalty is an important part of the employee-employer relationship, she says there are both good and bad aspects of the employee’s loyalty to an employer. One good point is that employee loyalty is necessary for an organization to function. A bad aspect of loyalty is that companies can overstep their boundaries, and ask employees to refrain from working for competitors, buying competitors products, or even working in the same field if they leave the company. Loyalty, can also pose a dilemma to an employee who may find fault with for example, a program that their company wants to sell. If the employee believes that the program can cause harm, yet the company will not halt its production, then the employee may feel the need to engage in whistle-blowing. The problem with this, Johnson says, is that if the employee is wrong, then the company can suffer major damage to its reputation. Another relationship is the one between client and professional. Johnson says the most important aspect of this relationship is trust. Because the computer professional has knowledge that the client does not, the client trusts the professional’s abilities, and judgment. A third relationship that Johnson looks at is that between society and the professional. This relationship is governed mostly by law; the computer professional must abide by regulations that ensure that harm will not come to the public. According to Johnson, it is again, the knowledge that the professional has that places responsibility on them to refrain from causing harm. Finally, Johnson looks at the relationship between professionals. This relationship is mostly about loyalty, not just to one another, but to the profession as a whole. The computer professional must behave in a manner that is beneficial to the profession as a whole, to do otherwise can damage the reputation of the entire profession.

     In many cases conflicts may arise between responsibilities. Because a computer professional is not necessarily autonomous, they have to answer to supervisors, and are not always able to make decisions completely on their own. If a computer professional finds fault with a product, they are torn between a responsibility to their employer, and a responsibility to society. There is also the issue that because so many people may be involved in a single project, the computer professional may not know what the result of their work is until it has actually been released on the market.

    The most prominent code of ethics for computer professionals is one that was put together by the ACM, and the IEEE. Johnson says that there are quite a few things that this code of ethics tries to accomplish. First, the code lets the public know that the profession can be trusted, and embrace a standard of behavior. The code is also meant for the professional, to reinforce the ideals that the profession embraces, as well as the standards and rules that the professional should adhere to. This may assist the professional in making decisions when conflicts in responsibilities arise.

    Finally, Johnson shows that an organization of computer professionals can help to address problems that exist concerning computers. For example, they can work to have laws passed that can help to protect the public. Since computer professionals have knowledge about computers that others don’t, the organizations can work to raise awareness about issues like safety and security. As a collective unit, the organization has greater power than just the individual professional.

 

In determining whether or not various activities of computer specialists constitute a profession or not consideration is needed of the characteristics of a profession.

In CHARACTERISTICS OF A PROFESSION by Robert N. Barger  four characteristics are given for a profession.

  1. Expert knowledge

  2. Autonomy independence in conducting one's professional practice

  3. Governance control over one's professional field

  4. Service to society: historically, this involved humanitarian service

They might be expanded upon in this manner

A professionals are those who:

1. Are educated or prepared for entry into the profession: expert knowledge

There are academic credentials required to be hired or certified as a member.  And while the members are not typically required to be certified by government institutions they will most regularly be required to have certain academic credentials for employment.  The preparation for membership into the profession generally starts with some post secondary program of education or training. 

2. Apply for membership

Individuals become members of the profession through the voluntary application for employment in some position that would be recognized as being one held by a member of the profession.  Beyond this application can be made for  enrollment and induction into professional associations.

3. Profess that they are members, and pledge to abide by the ethical and professional standards set by the community

One declares that one is a member of the profession be so professing to be when asked about the profession or vocation or type of employment.  Also, each member of the profession recognizes that all members are bound by standards of personal and professional conduct.  And this is one of the most important aspects of the status of profession.  Like it or not, professionals must fulfill their obligations as members of the profession. Some will be seen as moral exemplars and role models for others in the profession and by society.  

4. Engage in the activities of the profession  

In some way, at some level, professionals engage in the activities of the profession.  

5. Maintain status in the profession

A member of a profession remains within it as long as engaged in the professional activities of membership and continues to meet the standards and requirements instituted by the profession itself.

6.  Submit to evaluation as a member of the profession: to maintain status or be elevated within or removed from such: Autonomy of the profession

Professionals are evaluated by their supervisors or peers over some appreciable period of time in order to establish their qualifications for certification or membership and for promotion.  Effective engagement in the activities of the profession is, more often than not, recognized as a factor in hiring and promotion decisions.  Society grants the profession the right to oversee its own membership and to police itself and remove members as it sees fit due to the special knowledge held by the professionals and their value to society.  Members can lose their professional status through activities of other members who would conduct a review and evaluation.  Such a process can lead to the revocation of membership in professional associations and even to the loss of licenses.

7. Contribute toward the maintenance of the profession

Professionals support educational enterprises aimed at the support of members of the profession.  They join professional societies and subscribe to professional journals and attend professional meetings and conferences.  They also mentor junior members of the profession, and where applicable, introduce others  to the profession itself.  Collectively, professionals set the standards to be observed by members and make note when they are not so observed.  Professionals also create codes of conduct for the members of the profession and can enforce such codes . These rights are recognized by the general society so that the potential values added to society by the profession can be realized.

8. Forward the progress of the profession: contribution to society

Professionals contribute to the progress of their profession by disseminating what they have learned, and can serve to make other professionals better at what they do through repeating the success or avoiding the failures of their colleagues in the profession. They thus further the profession through which value is added for society.  The professions provide services to society thought to be important and they contribute further by increasing the intellectual resources of society and providing for that which is needed for social cohesion and progress.

The more a group of people give evidence of these characteristic activities of a profession the more they are likely to be regarded as being a profession.

Increasingly the various occupations of those who create, program, operate and maintain computer systems and programs are being thought of as professions as they appear to satisfy the criteria for a profession.  Society is moving to legally recognize several of those professions in the field of computers.  With that recognition is a granting of autonomy in the setting of criteria for entry and fro continuance in professional organizations and for setting the standards of behavior and for accountability.  Some groups are issuing their codes of ethics and responsibilities.

As with any profession where members serve many at once and have several simultaneous responsibilities the matter of resolving conflicts in those responsibilities will need increasing amounts of attention.

Conflicts in Responsibilities arise amongst the following responsibilities:

Employer- Employee

Loyalty to employer versus loyalty to the profession and service to society

The duty to protect from harm or avoid harm to society versus the duty to the employer.

Client- Professional

The fiduciary responsibility to clients to avoid harm and produce benefit.

Society -Professional

Professionals serve the public interest and must avoid causing harm to society in any manner.

Professional- Professional

Professionals serve the collective profession  They have responsibilities towards individuals within the profession and to the profession itself.  They must assist in setting standards of conduct and in observing them and insisting on their observance  by colleagues lest the profession itself suffer the harm of a diminution of respect or trust on the part of society.

Collective Responsibility

There are time when the collective of professionals must take action.  There are situations that can not be effectively addressed by the actions of a single member of the profession.

There are cases involving the production and use of computer technologies that meet the conditions for Collective Responsibility as described by James Muyskens:

1. Some members of a group perform undesirable acts according to the group or profession.

2. Members act in accord with the group's way of life or culture.

3. The aspects of the undesirable acts are below the general standards set by the group or profession.

4. It is not necessarily the case that the individuals are falling below those standards, least wise not of their own accord.

--  Muyskens, James L. Moral Problems in Nursing: A Philosophical Investigation. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982.

Collective Responsibilities are often in play when an individual programmers can not fulfill professional responsibilities according to the standards set by the profession due to conditions for which there is no effective way for an individual programmer to remedy them. Collective Responsibilities are often in play when corporations or businesses fail to fulfill their own responsibilities. The computer professionals as a whole must set the conditions under which individual professionals will be enabled to fulfill their professional responsibilities.  Such actions would include reporting mechanisms and safeguards for those who use them when conditions exist that present potential or actual harms to human beings as the result of computer program design, construction or operation or with the the design and construction and operation of information systems. 

Joel Feinberg describes and compares four distinct and logically possible types of collective or group moral responsibility arrangements. These are: group liability without fault, group liability with noncontributory fault, contributory group fault: collective and distributive, and contributory group fault: collective but not distributive.---Feinberg, Joel, “Collective Responsibility”, Journal of Philosophy, vol. LXV, no. 21 (November 1968), pp. 222–51.

The associations of computer professionals would be instances of organizations that have a collective or group moral responsibility.

This fourth type, contributory group fault: collective but not distributive, is an arrangement which provides for group moral responsibility that is independent of any responsibility or moral fault ascribable to all or any of its individual members. It is the group itself that is at fault and the group's moral responsibility is not equivalent to the sum of the responsibilities of its members. Group moral responsibility of this type is a concept that allows the entire issue of widespread harm associated with organizational activities to be treated differently in many respects from the approach that has been dominant.  The final type of collective responsibility is the only one of the four in which culpability is not reducible. 

If a group, separate from its members, can be morally responsible and liable to punishment, concerns regarding the moral status of such groups are raised, including what similarities and differences in moral status exist between groups and individual human agents. Further, if groups can be morally responsible agents, regarded as entities distinct from their members, questions about their ontological status are also raised.-David T. Risser, “Collective Moral  Responsibility", Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,2005,  http://www.iep.utm.edu/c/collecti.htm

Codes

It is the collective of professionals that must act to provide the standards for conduct for its members and provide for their monitoring and enforcement.

From the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions (CSEP)

Introduction An introduction that covers the debate about the function and value of codes of ethics.

Davis, Michael. "Thinking like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession". Philosophy and Public Affairs 20.2 (1991): 150-167.

Using Codes of Ethics This guide offers a context for using a code of ethics by considering a sample case.

Writing a Code of Ethics Find here some print and online sources for writing a code of ethics for an organization.

Authoring a code: Observations on process and organization This paper was written by Andrew Olson.

Bibliography: Books, Articles and Cases This list of materials, many of which offer case studies, will help in the development of a profession's code.

Codes of Ethics on the World Wide Web Most comprehensive listing of codes available on the internet.

Whistleblowing

It is the collective of professionals that must act to provide the encouragement and protections needed for its members to report situations of actual or potential harm to society. e.g., DRAFT GUIDELINES FOR ENGINEERS DISSENTING ON ETHICAL GROUNDS, IEEE, Revised 22 March 1999.

see also e.g., University System of Maryland Policy On Employee and Applicant Disclosure of Misconduct, Approved by the Board of Regents, December 13, 1996

"Goodearl and Aldred Versus Hughes Aircraft: A Whistle-Blowing Case Study", by Kevin W. Bowyer, USF, 2000.

The home page for Whistleblowers, provided by Phillips & Cohen, Attorneys at Law, Washington DC.

Public Policy

It is the collective of professionals that must act to provide society with recommendations as to the development and regulation of industries and technologies with which they are engaged.

The Moral Issues: Applying Ethical Principles and the Dialectical Process

In approaching the questions, issues, problems and dilemmas posed by the situations presented by developments in computer technologies there is a need to analyze the situation and identify the key elements and values that may be involved and the ethical principles that can be brought to bear.  An argument needs to be developed in support of the position that is to be advanced as the preferred position on the moral question.  That position is then examined by others who hold different values or hold the same values in a different order and who would apply ethical principles in a different manner, rejecting one or another for reasons which should be given.  The process continues until there are enough people who think that one position is the best of the alternatives.  Given the nature of the original problem or question and the size of the populace who hold the one position of the majority there may be social policies or even legislation that would result.

Values

Some of the values at issue when considering the professional responsibilities and accountability would be: Safety, Progress, Loyalty

Ethical Principles

In attempting to develop an argument as to what would be the professional responsibilities of computer specialists and how to resolve conflicts amongst them ethical principles may be use to support positions taken.  The principle of Utility would address the need for concern on social impact of what is done and how individuals are to be held accountable.  The Categorical imperative may be used in supporting claims as to how the specialists are to be held accountable and why.  Rawls' Principle of Justice (Maxi-Min) can also be utilized in describing how situations ought to be handled. Over the last few decades now people have been doing just this in a variety of forums through journal articles and books and through presentations at meetings of these specialists, engineers and professionals.

**************************************************************************

Reflections on Professionalism and Information Technology by Lindsey Pehrson CUNY SPS 2009

 

            Professionalism. It is a word we hear often, but not one that many of us spend any real time deconstructing. What does it mean? What is a professional? What are the relationships involved in professionalism? How can we spot the non-professionals? In the previous module on accountability, Deborah Johnson and the Stanford Encyclopedia both stated that society values accountability based on social roles (role responsibility). In particular, we like professionals to have designated guidelines for their conduct. Recognizing software design, programming and operation as professions would facilitate legislators towards acknowledging and developing standards of conduct to better distinguish when a violation of these codes has occurred. Giving these careers a professional title would also make the group worthy of public respect, and not just blame, instilling in them a greater sense of loss when their conduct is inappropriate or harmful. Of course, before we can decide whether these jobs are profession worthy, we need to ask ourselves just what a profession is, and if these roles live up to its expectations.

            What classifies a profession as a profession? It seems logical that jobs should be grouped by task and association, or family of tasks; in other words, jobs that are directly related with formal association between them. According to this week’s readings there are anywhere from three to five requirements to establish a profession. In some views, all you need is a formal association, consideration by people in and around the profession to think it is indeed a profession. Society must consider it a profession as well, creating laws to label it and give it the proper recognition and responsibility it warrants. In Deborah Johnson’s point of view, there are five requirements for professional designation. First, there must be an abstract body of knowledge for the field, and workers need to have college degrees. Johnson believes that computer technology does not have its own body of knowledge, and only some members have college degrees. The Association of Computer Machinery concurs with this diagnosis, citing it as the reason why they have decided against licensing software engineers. They claim that information technology’s main network of ideas is borrowed from other fields, primarily math, science and engineering. Still there are some who appear not to agree. In 1998, the Texas Board of Professional Engineers acted in direct opposition to this point of view when they decided to license software engineers as professionals. Clearly there is a lot of mixed emotions on the issue.

            A second characteristic of a profession is that it possesses autonomy of information. Workers in the field must hold unique knowledge that is not known by average individuals. Johnson insists that the computer arena does not have a great deal of autonomy. Rather, they make use of the knowledge from other fields, and average citizens are capable of attaining the same level of information through reading manuals and other widely accessible documents. Third, usually there is a formal organization that exists to set standards for its members, is involved in licensing and has the ability to discipline or remove those individuals that are found to cause harm or appear incapable of adhering to behavioral guidelines. To this end, we must remember that computers have evolved in a manner totally unlike anything previously known to man. The field grew relatively quickly with the intent of not being encumbered by a central governing body. Instead it was intended to be a free enterprise. Based on this fact, perhaps our definition of profession should be reconsidered, at least on this requirement. Furthermore, both ACM and the IEEE-CS have managed to publish ethical laws for members of the information technology profession to acknowledge and abide by. Of course, these organizations have very little power in enforcing any removal of parties that break with these principles.

            Fourth, to be considered a profession, as mentioned above, there must be a code of ethics that members of the job category support and enforce. Johnson believes that there is no code that computer professionals abide by. Again, ACM and IEEE-CS have indeed offered ethical guidelines to ensure good conduct by computer workers but there is not blanket conformity. Despite this fact, anyone that searches online can quickly discover that individual computing agencies tend to post their own ethical standards of conduct that they insist their employees adhere to, often times having ideals which do indeed overlap. In recognition of this, maybe the problem isn’t that there is no code. Instead there may be too many versions of these ideals, a different one for each segment of computer information technology a person works in.

            The fifth and final obligation a profession must fill is to have a social function. This means that they should have philanthropic tendencies and fulfill a role in society that had not been touched before. Johnson insists that, though computing may serve its own social function, it does not necessary serve other functions. I think that Johnson would not feel so free to make this claim if she had considered the case of Philip Zimmermann’s PGP. This software ended up being used to advance human rights and civil liberties in countries that would otherwise have freely oppressed their citizens. This is a clear case of serving a benevolent function that facilitated the betterment of civilization, and therefore, a counterbalance to Johnson’s opinion. Johnson concluded that computer information technology arenas do not meet all requirements to be an actual profession and therefore it isn’t one. However, through investigation this career does seem to have many qualities of a profession, adapted to meet its own fluid form.

            In his article, “Characteristics of a Profession,” Robert N. Barger found only four elements required to give computer technology a professional identity. First, the career must have expert knowledge. Second, it must possess autonomy in conducting its professional practice. Third, it must have governance over its own professional field. And finally, it must offer service to society (historically speaking this service would need to be humanitarian in its form). This definition of a profession does not give much hope to computer information technology either. First, the idea that information technology requires expert knowledge has not yet been decided. Second, though computer workers do possess autonomy, they do not always have unique and singular knowledge. Third, though there are bodies which set forth ideas for the industry on ethics and legal matters, there is no set regulatory body with the power to advance or remove members at will. Fourth, and perhaps the only clear indication that information technology might be a profession: PGP did indeed act in humanitarian service by advancing societies in oppressed nations and therefore does indeed abide clearly by this standard. Though Barger seems to advance Johnson’s idea that information technology is not a profession, from this slightly different perspective we reconfirm it does indeed have some of its attributes.

            Joel Feinberg has one final characteristic of professionals: they must have a collective moral responsibility. This means that the total morality of the group is based on the actions and inactions of individual members. James Muyskens further reinforces this standard by saying that this collective responsibility should facilitate the role of professionals and safeguard against damage being done by any member without the proper recourse. Computer employees are segmented into their various groups based on job titles. Still, groups of members that work for the same company tend to share a collective responsibility for the work being done and the actions of the group. However, can we fairly say that this translates over into a bigger sense of responsibility for the whole group of information technology workers? We can definitively identify yet whether it does or does not. We have no proof either way at this point.

            Up to this point, the majority of society has chosen not to recognize software design, programming or management as a profession with set codes of conduct. However, from our research there is a clear indication of a willingness to make software engineering a profession. For example, as mentioned above, in 1998 the Texas Board of Professional Engineers adopted software engineering as a discipline that can be licensed. This was a step in making computer software specialists into professionals. Will this open the doorway to network engineers and programmers? We do not yet know, but it seems we are moving in that direction.

            To establish exactly what a computer professions is, we must first consider what the responsibilities are for those individuals in this line of work. How are conflicts of responsibilities between group members supposed to be resolved? And how will accountability be determined when harm results from the actions of a computer technology worker? All of this information revolves around the development of a core set of ideals and ethics for computer workers, as is the case in most professions. One way we set guidelines is to identify the types of relationships that professionals have, and then establish parameters for them. Deborah Johnson, the ethics writer, has identified various ethical relationships a computer worker can have. There is employer/employee, client/professional, society/professional, and professional/professional.

            The employer/employee relationship is characterized by loyalty and duty to the boss versus loyalty and duty to society. This affiliation needs to have honesty to run smoothly. Loyalty is important because it allows business to function without leaving rooms for member actions to be counterproductive. Of course, there are cases where companies overstep their boundaries. Conflict in loyalty can also cause whistle-blowing, whether an employee is right or wrong. The client/professional relationship is one that must possess trust in order to work. Without trust between the client and the business, there is a foundation for continued problems. As we saw in previous modules, we must have trust in order to function as a society; the same is true of businesses because they are like mini-societies. In this relationship law and ethical codes obligate the professional. There is also a financial obligation that must be honored as well.

            In the society/professional relationship, laws tend to govern the behavior of professionals, as well as designate the proper paths in achieving recourse for wrongdoings. Computer professionals must not cause harm to the public. Out of duty to their fellow man, they need to develop a sense of responsibility as a professional (that is in tune with their core values and ethical standards as designated by field). Furthermore, professionals should do their utmost to ensure that no harm comes to society because of their work. Acting to advance the interests of society was identified as Rawls as a much more noble goal than working contrary to them. Finally, in the professional/professional relationship, loyalty is, again, the staple criteria. Professionals must also act in a manner that is most beneficial to the profession as a whole, especially given the fact that the behavior of a few can color the perception of the many. This means conducting themselves in a way that adheres to and advances ethical standards and preserves the good name of their fellow workers.

            Another way we identify the ethical policies and expectations of various professions is to look to at societal considerations. Before we can say whether we should make computer engineers, programmers and maintenance operators into professionals, we must first identify what values society holds. First, cultures tend to value safety and protection. Having a sense of security is what establishes trust, inspires allegiance and facilitates the advancement of the whole of society. Second, we also tend to value progress and advancement of our position. This can be seen in our unending funding of new and exciting inventions in science and technology intended to improve life and benefit us all. Third, we value trust in and loyalty to each other. These two elements are crucial components to the wellbeing of society. Without an ability to trust, we would all splinter into our own separate factions, incapable of working as a cohesive unit towards our goals.

            Fourth, we value respect and recognition. It is an inherent need to feel that we are appreciated for what we do by those around us. When we do not feel valued, science has repeatedly shown that we tend to become depressed. We need to be treasured for what we can offer to the world, otherwise, we find no sense of satisfaction in life or our endeavors. If we did not need to be approved, we would not have rewards and other markers of our achievement hung around our offices and homes for all who enter to see and ask about. As such, acknowledging a profession as being special and something that requires great accomplishment makes the members of that group feel a sense of status. Case in point: doctors are highly esteemed members of society. When we hear someone is training to be one, we are automatically a little impressed because we are familiar with the extensive criterion that goes into the task, and the element of hard work required for success.

            From an ethical standpoint, egoists computer workers would want credit for their work, and recognition and respect, without having accountability when things go wrong. This would mean they would fight for becoming professionals, but without the stringent standards professionals must have. This is the only theory that clearly argues achievement without accountability. In the Utilitarian theory, the option that satisfies the interests of or benefits the greatest number of people is identified as the most moral course of action. As we have seen, people want to have protection and justice. If there are no guidelines in a profession that assign responsibility and clarify what the individual roles are, getting justice for any harm done can be exceedingly difficult. Therefore, it would seem to serve the interests of the largest group to make information technology workers an official professional segment of the population, complete with ethical and regulatory codes which enable discipline for harm done, as well as positive reinforcement when things go well. Furthermore, this would give the body of computer workers a sense of respect amongst the population which shows they are in a position of value and entices them to behave in ways befitting someone of their stature.          

            From the perspective of Kant’s categorical imperative good lies in intent and those actions born of our sense of duty, and not our sense of benefits or consequences for ourselves, are the ones that can be deemed as good. He theorized that people should act in the same ways that they would expect other “rational” people to follow, and they should never use another human being as a means of achieving their own personal goals. Kant’s perspective enforces the belief that human beings can not act in ways that would harm society, or their interactions with others. Based on this perspective, it would be possible to argue that making computer workers professionals would assign them the same respect that workers in other fields get, treating them fairly and as equals to others. By establishing true guidelines for this group, it also helps to protect against anyone writing codes or flagrantly using another person’s computer system as a means for advancing themselves without being subject to serious penalties by their peers. Moreover, by making this a profession and establishing clear guidelines for it, it assists in resolving disputes between perfect duties. For example, there would be designated paths to follow when loyalty to an employer conflicts with loyalty to the customers.

            In Rawl’s Principle of Justice, the ethical goal is tied up in the Maxi-Min principle which states that we should maximize liberty (freedom of choice) and minimize inequalities (our differences). It affirms that if we as individuals did not know which group we were in and, we would act in such a way that benefits the worst off group (in case we are members of it). In this point of view, equality is established by treating all members of all professions fairly. On the one hand, this means that if there are set guidelines for what a profession is, as Johnson and Barger say there are, then computer workers can not be considered professionals as yet. Changing the guidelines or automatically including computer professionals when they have not yet met the mandatory goals would be unfair to those professions that have worked hard and achieved all characteristics. Alternatively, by not identifying that the evolution of the Internet has been different than any previous industry and therefore may be subject to different standards, we could be accused of being unfair to information technology workers. Further compounding the issue is the fact that maximizing the freedom of society and minimizing inequalities could either mean no one should be considered professionals, or everyone should.

            There is unfortunately a lot of room for leeway in the ethical standards, what it will come down to is a core understanding of the industry and the relevance of previously held professional ideals to it. Information technology has broken the boundaries in every previous respect. It is only natural that it would push us beyond our initial rigid concepts of professionalism as well. We have spent time reading this past week about the ideas formulated in the pursuit of pinpointing each element that turns a career into a profession. Whether it is Barbara Johnson's ideas, or Robert Barger's perspective, there are certain characteristics which society recognizes and must affirm in order for workers in any industry to be deemed as professionals. Even the word "professional" inspires a sentiment of respect. When we hear it we think achievement, briefcases, business suits, solid ethical codes and success. Up until now, though society has not granted computer workers this title, it appears some segments are beginning to rethink previous ideas on what a profession is. The decision by the Texas Board of Engineers to license software engineers was a step in this direction.

           It is socially and morally important that information technology needs to take more steps in order to gain the public’s identification as a formal profession. Information technology workers can advance the perception of their status through maintaining the maximum ethical standards for themselves and adhering tightly to them. Society must also recognize that, even though we are not all willing to see information technology as a profession just yet, this does not mean it isn't one, even if it is still in its infant years. Computers and the Internet have completely defied our standards on the evolution of a profession. They have also completely changed our ideas about how things work, legally, ethically, socially; therefore, maybe it is time to revise our guidelines for what would make it a profession. The workers of this field may not have one unified ethical standard, but they do possess their own divided codes that they adhere to, often with very common elements.

            What we need is to continue the progress this industry is making by designating a central regulatory body to govern the group and make these standards known and enforceable...right?  The International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium is one such internationally recognized group that gives certification and education to information security professions throughout the span of their careers. They are acknowledged as being a “Gold Standard” in education. Perhaps they could either act as regulators or help in selecting and training the governing board. Additionally, codes of ethics and guidelines for accountability must be set, as well as methods for resolving conflicts between members, everything from the identification of minor infractions and its punishments, to maximum sentences and hearings for offenders. And yet, we really need to stop and consider what we are doing by electing a central board. If we fulfill this requirement of professionalism, aren't we going against the very intentional decentralized nature of the Internet? What are the future implications of our actions? Are we destroying what we have built so we can protect the feelings of this industry’s workers?

            It does not take a genius to see that we need to rethink our professional perspective, and then make real strides towards finding a way to standardize certain aspects of Information Technology, like the training of those who work in it, while allowing other areas to remain free. It is a very delicate balance, but we are already well on our way to finding a method which would give IT professionals the respect they deserve, while also making them accountable beyond argument for their actions and decisions. For our own protection, it seems to serve our interests as a culture to identify what various computer professions should be, the education one must have to join them, and assign a regulatory agency, albeit a fluid one, to oversee actions, benevolent or otherwise. By not identifying this group as professionals in the face of the industry’s rapid expansion, we are merely avoiding the inevitable. We must set about making this a designated career path, complete with ethical codes and requirements, if not for the sake of the workers, than for the sake of our own protection in the face of this advancing technological army.

**************************************************************************

turn to next section

Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution. ppecorino@qcc.cuny.edu                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents