Category Archives: Ethics – General

Whales and the Profit Motive

I saw the movie “Blackfish” recently. It is about a killer whale who, while held in captivity, caused the death of a number of persons. To me the tragedy is that the profit motive overrides the safety and best interests of both whales and their trainers. The whales–who perform primarily for Sea World–are held in virtual confinement or in close quarters with whales unrelated to them. This for a species that is family oriented and adapted to roaming vast stretches of ocean. Needless to say the whales fare poorly in such conditions and are prone to aggressive behavior. The death of a particularly young and vivacious female trainer is especially tragic.

The basic problem with the profit motive, contrary to Smith’s “invisible hand,” is that individuals and corporations pursuing self-interest do not always benefit the rest of us. Sometimes the profit motive and the general welfare coincide, but often they conflict. From the destruction of the environment and ecosystem and the pollution of air and water, to the poisons in our food and consumer products, it is obvious that individuals pursuing profit often act in ways detrimental to the general welfare.

Humans have killed, tortured, and enslaved others for profit throughout history. So it is not surprising that whales would be ill-treated for money. Nor is it surprising if a few dead, idealistic, animal-loving trainers also pay with their lives for Sea World profits. And why should we be surprised? How many die from the poisons in our air, food, and water, all of which were despoiled for profit. How many die in wars of profit? How many are imprisoned for profit?

Reality could be so beautiful; but it is so ugly.

Ethical Theory

 We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live. ~ Socrates In Plato’s Republic 


There are many theories that deny morality: nihilism; determinism; skepticism; relativism; egoism; etc. In my view ethicists too easily dismiss these theories—they have philosophical merit. Nihilism just “feels” wrong, but all of the others are at least partly true and appeal to me to varying degrees.

Most ethical theories try to justify morality.1 Typically this justification has been supplied by: self-interest—theories deriving from Plato and Hobbes; sympathy—theories deriving from Hume and Mill; nature—theories deriving from Aristotle and Aquinas; or reason—theories deriving from Kant and Locke. Let us briefly consider each in turn.

Some contemporary thinkers, Darwall and Gewirth come to mind, have tried to justify morality following Kant. However, few philosophers believe this project has been successful. At most, I would argue, these theories show that morality is weakly rational, i.e., morality is not clearly irrational. But I don’t see how they can show me how another person’s interests give me a reason to do anything.

Few contemporary thinkers have advanced natural law theories in the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas. Contemporary thinkers try to bridge the is/ought gap with an evolutionary ethics or moral psychology utilizing knowledge of human nature unavailable to ancient and medieval philosophers.2  These projects show more promise.

Theories deriving from considerations of sympathy are also promising. Mill’s utilitarianism was based on a “social feeling,” Hume thought sympathy the basis of morality, Darwin had an entire theory of moral sentiments, and the contemporary philosopher Kai Nielsen places great emphasis on the role of sympathy in morality. It is hard to imagine a justification of the moral life without a role for sympathy.  

Theories deriving from self-interest are promising, and contemporary contract and game theorists, particularly Gauthier, have gone a long way toward sustaining and revitalizing the Hobbesian project. Nonetheless, their results are inconclusive and it is not clear that this approach can resolve the compliance problem. However, combining a contract approach with considerations of our evolutionary nature and ingrained or acquired human sympathies may have more promise.

Finally, there are ethical theories associated with religious and metaphysical views, but lack of agreement about these views precludes any hope of grounding morality in them. (Of course the same may be said about one or another of our moral theories—that they all suppose some metaphysic and that the dispute about ethics depends on resolving metaphysical issues first.)


Let’s explore the issue of self-interest vs. morality—what we might call the hard question of morality—in more detail. (To put it another way, should we care about others less, the same, or more than we care about ourselves?) Hobbes answered the question why we should moral—it is in all of our interests. Still, the question why I should be moral remains unanswered. This is the challenge originally set forth in Plato’s Republic—why should I be moral if I have a ring that makes me invisible? Why be moral if SI demands an immoral course? In short, doesn’t it pays to steal candy when no one is looking and you want candy?

Let’s begin with the prisoner’s dilemma (PD). It is easy to see that self-interest demands defection, a supposedly non-moral move, in a one-time PD. So here self-interest and ordinary morality conflict. The fact that both parties do better through mutual cooperation somewhat ameliorates this conclusion, but does not change the fact that it is better for one to not comply no matter what the other does.

The situation changes when the PD is iterated, since tit-for-tat (TFT) has been shown to be a robust strategy. But recent work by Ken Binmore has challenged this assumption. (The “Folk-theorem” is also relevant here.) It is not that TFT is a bad strategy, but that real life is more complex than iterated PDs can model. There may be an infinite number of strategies which are robust, calling into question whether we can even determine what is in our self-interest. And if we don’t know what’s in our interest, how can self-interest ground morality?

Well to begin to answer these questions, consider again our candy stealers. They may arrogantly assume they won’t get caught or suffer the pangs of conscience, that the cameras aren’t rolling, or that we won’t perceive their true motivations and exclude them from cooperation. In short, they can’t determine what is in their self-interest. But can they make an educated guess? Not really. It is too difficult to know the repercussions of their acts and impossible to predict what adopting a disposition to behave will cost them in the long run.3 The complexity of the situation makes complete assessment impossible and reliable judgment unlikely, raising doubts about applying any moral theory to a complex world of interactions with other agents whose psychologies, motives, disposition and intents are difficult to determine if not opaque.

Thus it is unlikely that self-interest can ground morality or immorality since self-interest can’t be determined with accuracy. So where to from here? In large part, I find myself agreeing with the contemporary philosopher Kai Nielsen. 4

Nielsen wants to know if we have good reasons to assume the immoralist is mistaken. He accepts the view that morality entails sympathy and sensitivity to others, but some people are not moved by such considerations. So, why should those people be moral? Surely pursuing self-interest to the exclusion of morality is not irrational, despite the fact that philosophers as varied as Hobbes, Plato, and Aristotle tell us that the moral life and the happy life are synonymous. But can we really be so sure? Nielsen maintains that whether the bad guys are happy or not depends on what kinds of persons they are; and I agree. Neither rationality nor happiness requires morality: we must simply decide for ourselves how we should act and what sort of persons we will strive to be or become.

This means that considerations of reason, happiness, and self-interest, in the absence of sympathy and a commitment to the moral life, cannot adjudicate between morality and self-interest.5 While both Neilsen and myself find this situation somewhat depressing, we accept that we cannot get to morality with intellect alone. From an objective point of view, reason is impotent to determine our values and thus the moral life demands a non-rational, voluntary commitment. In other words, the moral life and the immoral one are Kantian antimonies, and the choice between them interfused with existential angst. In the end we simply choose … and hope.


I don’t think so. Can we say anything with confidence? We may be able to say that moral rules are contracts or agreements between self-interested people for mutual benefit assuming that others will reciprocate. And that these rules resulted from a protracted process of bargaining and power-struggling from the original biological foundations in reciprocal altruism and kin selection. Of course we can revolt against biology; we can abandon our children. We choose our own destiny. But moral behavior, like all behavior, always has part of its explanation in its origins. And what can we say regarding what morality should be? Maybe that moral rules ought to promote human flourishing? This strikes me as intuitive, but then, as Wilson told us, we consult our emotions like hidden oracles. And why think our intuitions supply insight into the truth? Perhaps it is better, as Wittgenstein suggested, to remain silent about that which we don’t know.


Still, the problem remains. Some individuals don’t comply with their agreements, and viciously flaunt their disregard of the social contract. Does it help to know that we can’t give good self-interested reasons to comply with the social contract? It doesn’t seem so. Traditionally we relied on moral education as the way of insuring that persons became cooperators. And if they didn’t, we penalized them. Maybe punishment would resolve the problem? Maybe the expansion of cameras will eliminate the invisibility that encourages immoralism. Or maybe, as Aristotle imagined, we can structure society so as to inculcate in persons the kinds of habitual behaviors that benefit us all? Of course, if Aristotle had been aware of behavior modification, mind control, and genetic engineering, he might have advocated more drastic measures to ensure human flourishing.

In fact, if mutual cooperation becomes important enough, ethics may become a branch of applied engineering. We may have to engineer ourselves, removing tendencies adaptive for foragers, but suicidal for beings with technology. Of course we would lose the freedom to, say, release chemical or nuclear weapons, but this may be a small price to pay for security. And maybe engineering ourselves won’t entail a loss of freedom, but instead free us from some residual effects of our evolution, from overt aggressions and other tendencies that are now anachronistic in a technological world. But whatever we choose to do, one thing is certain, we alone are the stewards of the future of life and mind on this small outpost in an infinite cosmos. We alone must decide where we want to go.


Remember that none of the above implies that it is irrational to be moral, only that rationality alone can’t get us to morality. This isn’t to say there aren’t good reasons to be moral. There are. Immoralists might be punished and lose the benefits of cooperation; and moralists don’t have to be looking over their shoulder and may have more friends. All we have said is that we can’t show that the reasons to be moral outweigh the reasons to be immoral, if you benefit from and can get away with immorality.

And we have also suggested that it is becoming increasingly within our power to remake the world and ourselves in such a way that no one can benefit from or get away with immorality. While some will object that nightmarish scenarios will follow from our increasing control of immoral behavior, it is quite likely that we will all benefit from a world in which peaceful living can be secured by the application of our knowledge. Ironically, our inability to convincingly answer the why should I be moral question in theory, will lead to our answering it in practice. In short, there never have been completely convincing reasons to be moral, evidenced by the barbarism of human history,  but, desperately in need of morality for our survival and flourishing, we will freely choose to transform ourselves by all means at our disposal.

In retrospect, biology and evolutionary stable strategies imposed early moral constraints, philosophical and religious education furthered the project, governments provided the muscle that conscience lacked, and now it is up to us to continue the project so that immorality doesn’t kill us. So we will be the ones who ultimately create the answer to the why be moral question.


  1. Morality defined as a system demanding that persons express care, concern, and interest in others; exemplified by moral rules such as: “don’t kill, lie, cheat, or steal;” “help others;” etc.
  2. Virtue ethics, with roots in Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans, and some early Christians, has enjoyed renewed success in the late 20th century thru the work of Anscombe and MacIntyre. But I view virtue ethics as part of some other overall theory of ethics and not as a complete theory in itself.
  3. In addition our passions often cause us to misread situations. Maybe I think there is little chance of being caught because I am a compulsive candy stealer.
  4. Nielsen, Kai. “Why Should I Be Moral?—Revisited” American Philosophical Quarterly 21, January 1984.
  5. There is however one possible way out of this conundrum. SI justifications of morality are especially difficult because we work with isolated senses of self. If the self is separate from others, if our games are mostly non-zero sum, it is hard to see why we should care about others. But if the other is an extension of ourselves, then helping others is SI by definition. In that case, zero-sum games are illusory. The problem is that this broad view of self is counter-intuitive.
  6. This essay was composed over a single weekend; it is not a substitute for sustained philosophical reflection and research.
  7. For an excellent introduction to ethical theory Louis P. Pojman Ethical Theories: Classic and Contemporary Reading or James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy.

Ethics Courses for Computer Science Majors

Why Should Computer Science Majors Take A Computer Ethics Course?


Computer science majors often ask: why should I take a course that doesn’t add to my technical expertise? Perhaps the best reply is that other courses add to one’s education. However, the ACM has formulated a more thorough reply: “Although technical issues are obviously central to any computing curriculum, they do not in themselves constitute a complete educational program in the field. Students must also develop an understanding of the social and professional context in which computing is done.”1 I wholeheartedly endorse the ACM’s claim. But why must students understand the social and professional context of computing to complete their computer science education? In this article I would like to answer this question; thereby making the ACM’s case in more detail.

Technical Education is Good for You

Technical education is both central to a computing curriculum and of intrinsic value. What’s more, society would be well-served if more students engaged in the rigors of a computer science education. Along with mathematics and the natural sciences, computer science produces good and careful thinkers. This result alone—apart from any practical applications—justifies the existence of computer science in the university curriculum. But technical education does more. It provides the skills to do one’s job competently and earn one’s livelihood, as well as the possibility of taking pride from difficult-to-acquire skills. Furthermore, as Aristotle argued, the possession of skill is a constitutive element of a good life. In short, it is hard to gainsay the value of  technical education.

Non-Technical Education is Good for You

But is non-technical education a good thing? This question too permits of an easy answer. We enrich our lives—though not necessarily our pocketbooks—by a knowledge of history, art, literature, and philosophy. Understanding heightens human experience. Consider how such understanding adds depth to human experience; a depth lacking in those ignorant of such things. In fact, technical expertise has little to do with much of our daily experience; interactions with other human beings often count for more. And it is precisely this limitation of technical education—that it says nothing about the social context of computing—that justifies the ACM’s interest in non-technical aspects of a computing curriculum. Thus, it is hard to gainsay the value of non-technical education.

Non-Technical Education and Computer Science

Still, non-technical education isn’t always relevant to a computing curriculum—understanding Buddhism doesn’t help one code, and reading Shakespeare won’t fix your hard drive! Indeed, if there is nothing to being a computer professional besides technical competence, then non-technical studies are indeed irrelevant to the computing profession. Moreover, such studies detract from professional competence by stealing time from technical courses.

But would a course on the social and professional context of computing be relevant to a computer curriculum? To begin to answer this question consider the following. It is generally believed that good physicians, lawyers, nurses, and engineers need more than just specialized knowledge. In response to this need, education in medicine, law, nursing, and engineering often includes a non-technical course—for example, a course in medical, legal, or engineering ethics. But why should, for example, a nursing, medical, or engineering student take such a course? The answer is that a nurse is not merely a “blood pressure taker,” a physician not simply a “diagnosis indicator,” an engineer not just a “designer of things.” Instead, the aforementioned practice professions in a social context.

Analogously, a computer programmer isn’t just a “coding machine” because their labor too takes place in a social context. Just as with other professionals, the disposition to be conversant, cooperative, reflective, inquisitive, and so on are part of being successful colleagues and professionals. But none of these skills are likely to be learned in computer architecture. Sure, they may not be learned in a computer ethics course either, but we generally believe that exposure to issues—in our case the social, legal, professional, ethical, and philosophical issues in computing—increases student’s awareness of and ability to deal with such issues. Given such considerations, it is reasonable that computer science students have at least minimal exposure to such studies. Moreover, such exposure may enrich their experience of computer science and make their dedication to the field more lasting.

In addition, it is easy to see that computer science students would benefit from education that plays a role in character formation. For those who doubt this claim work with a philosophically ignorant, psychologically damaged, socially inadequate, or grossly unethical but competent technician. In such cases, one will sense that something is missing—psychological health, completeness of character, social skills, wisdom, virtue, or whatever we would call it. Again, we can’t be certain that a course in computer ethics guarantees such deficiencies will be filled, but it would be a first step. Might then a computer science curriculum serve itself well by exposing students to the social context in which computing takes place? I think it would.

What Can Ethics Do For Computer Professionals?

I would also claim that only ethical individuals can truly be complete professionals, that is, faithful to their calling. This is easy to see in the case of therapists, nurses, teachers, and so on. But more technical professionals—engineers, physicians, and computer scientists—often overlook the role that ethics and personal character play in their professions. Perhaps the effort necessary to attain excellence in their fields or the explicitly technical nature of their studies blinds them to the importance of the “human” aspects of  their professions. But whatever the reason for the oversight,  the ethical component is a crucial part of the social context of computing for which students need exposure.

To see this more clearly, consider the unsympathetic physician, deceptive attorney, apathetic professor, immoral engineer or hostile programmer. What such individuals lack is not skill or professional competence but personal traits that most deem worthwhile: friendliness; wisdom, wit, concern, insight, faithfulness, goodness, moderation, decency, collegiality, etc. In the narrowest sense, such individuals lack something as persons that detracts from their functioning as professionals. In a broader sense, they lack an understanding of their social role as members of a group, team, or corporation. In the broadest sense, they fail to see themselves in their universal role—as participants and nurturers of culture; as individuals connected to past human efforts and achievements; as couriers of the light of civilization. They may know how to hammer the nail, but they know not the effort it took to create hammers and nails, nor what their hammering is for. To the extent they know only the former, they are lacking. Now this does not imply that computer professionals should philosophize all day, but that much is to be gained, both personally and professionally, by reflection on the ethical values that should govern the social context of computing.

Why Ethics is Especially Important for Scientists

What’s more, given the power that technology bestows upon those who master it, ethics may be more particularly important for scientists, since they are responsible for using that power appropriately. Computer science in large part creates the future and guards the very survival of civilization. The existence and perpetuation of consciousness itself depends upon the just and wise exercise of our power. So ethical and philosophical reflection—as well as the justice and wisdom which hopefully derive from them—are indispensable to those who master the technological revolution that will change the world, the species, and, in the distant future, possibly the universe itself. Let us not deceive ourselves, the computer revolution is one of the scientific revolutions that will usher in new eras. Those who understand and master the power derived from this revolution must be just and wise stewards; science has an obligation to create the best future possible. Thus, science is applied philosophy; it not only reflects upon the world but actively changes it. And it is this awesome power that requires ethics.


The ACM claim that students must understand the social and professional aspects of computing in addition to the technical parts to complete their curriculum. Now it is easy to see that both technical and non-technical education are good things, but it is a harder to see why non-technical education is relevant to computer science. In response, I have argued that the computer profession isn’t merely a technical one, but a profession that typically takes place in a social context. As such, it should be apparent that educational experiences that increase awareness of this social context are appropriate. I have also argued that ethics is the most important part of the social context of computing. Finally, I have argued that computer scientists have a special need for ethical reflection since they shepard a science that will change the future.

1. See the Steelman Report of the ACM, August 2001.