Computing Cases Header, Picture of a Keyboard with the text "" printed over it


Teaching Tools

Teaching with Cases

Social Impact Analysis

Computer Ethics Curriculum

Curricula Index

Case Materials



Hughes Aircraft

Ethics in Computing Links

Contact Us

How can these ethics tests be used?

Here are four uses for these ethics tests:

  1. They can be used to uncover ethical problems embedded in concrete situations. For example, the reversibility test asks us to consider whether any rights are placed at risk by the contemplated course of action. The harm test prompts us to look for risks that are embedded in a given situation, and those likely to bear them. The publicity test helps us to see if the integrity of the agent is at risk in a given situation. Hence, the ethics tests help us to formulate ethical problems and to identify stakeholders and their stakes.
  2. The ethics tests can also be used to evaluate alternatives of action. Consider the following scenario: Your supervisor asks you to dump a drum full of toxic chemicals out in the field behind the plant. Should you do it, refuse to do it, refuse to do it and turn your supervisor in to the local authorities, or resign and get a new job? The ethics tests provide us with standards we can use to evaluate these alternatives. For example, doing as your supervisor asks could (1) harm the environment and the health of people who live near the plant, (2) violate the reversibility test since it ignores their rights (especially if done secretly and without their consent), and (3) be viewed as cowardly by others were it to be publicly displayed.
  3. The ethics tests also play a fundamental, constitutive role in constructing solutions to ethical problems that arise in the real world. For example in the above scenario, you would envision a solution that minimizes harm, is reversible with all stakeholders and preserves your integrity. With this in mind, you could inform your supervisor that dumping these chemicals is illegal and could be readily traced back to the company. Then you could provide concrete suggestions for redesigning the manufacturing process so that it would not produce toxic byproducts. The manufacturing process, through this new design, would become informed by ethical considerations: it would minimize harm, respect the public's right to a safe environment, and maintain the integrity of the agents involved. Here the ethics tests would play a constitutive role by shaping the very nature of the solution.

Finally, these tests provide reasons that can be appealed to in making ethical arguments. In the above scenario, you have reasons for refusing to carry out your supervisor's order: for example, it would produce harm (violate the harm test), place others at risk (which is not reversible), and expose you as a cowardly person who callously exposes others to severely diminished environmental and personal health. Students, armed with these standards, can use them to justify their arguments. Hence, the ethics tests structure and guide class discussion