Today’s blog concerns the official ethical “rule book” (or Code of Ethics) of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). According to Wikipedia, ACM “is a U.S.-based international learned society for computing”, which basically means that it is an organization whose purpose is to promote the field of computing. You have to pay to be a part of it, as well be pretty good with computers, obviously. It’s kinda like Mensa, only for computer stuff instead of puzzles. In 1992 they adopted an official set of principles which all members are expected to comply with. These principles are applied to computers, but are phrased so as to, in their words, “emphasize that ethical principles which apply to computer ethics are derived from more general ethical principles”. In other words, their principles apply to everything, not just computers. I read through the list of rules, and I have to say that it is covers a lot, though it does so very concisely. In this blog article I want to spend only a brief time on the well-done parts of the Code, and instead focus on the one major flaw that I think really breaks the whole thing down.
The Code is broken up into four different sections. Section one is aimed towards all people, no matter their position in life. Section two looks towards bringing about professional excellence. The third section is concerned with the ethics of being in a leadership position, and the fourth and final section quickly touches on following the Code itself.
The rules of the first section are: Contribute to society, don’t hurt other people, be honest, don’t discriminate, do not pirate, don’t steal ideas, respect people’s privacy, and keep secrets your entrusted with. These are all good ethical rules, and I cannot find anything to nit-pick with them, aside from the one thing I’ll get to later. Section two says that we ought to: Do our best to deliver excellence, strive for self-improvement, Follow the law, get good advice/criticism of our work, look for problems and try to prevent them, keep our word, teach others about how to use computers responsibly, and not hack into computers you’re not allowed on. Again, all good ideas. I would say that in my own life I think I should strive to follow each and every one of these rules. The only problem with these rules will be discussed when I get to section four. Before that, the third section (which is aimed at leaders in companies, and at corporations in general) tell us to: strive to teach others about their social responsibilities, make sure those working under you have a pleasant working environment, make sure your personnel use company resources well, strive to need the client’s needs, make sure your systems don’t somehow hurt anyone’s dignity, and give employees the opportunity to improve themselves. Okay. Those are all the major rules in the code. If you read them you’ll see that they are all really good ideas. It’s truly a great attempt to make an ethical template for computing professionals to follow, and it turned out well. The only problem comes when you examine the final section.
Section four is titled: Compliance with the Code, and is by far the shortest section,with only two items. It says: One: That everyone who says they will follow this code should follow this code and encourage others to do so, and Two: that following the rules is purely voluntary, and failure to cooperate with result in being ejected from the ACM. That’s it. That is all they have to say about following the Code. Despite their lofty intent and good intentions, in the end it is nothing but a bunch of good ideas, without much weight behind them. And then you look back on the rest of the rules and you see that over and over again the weight of decision for following the rules is thrown into the reader. For example, in rule 1.7, it says “User data observed during the normal duties of system operation and maintenance must be treated with strictest confidentiality, except in cases where it is evidence for the violation of law, organizational regulations, or this Code. In these cases, the nature or contents of that information must be disclosed only to proper authorities” (italics mine) meaning that this rule can be transcended by the law. But rule 2.3, which say to follow the law, also says “Violation of a law or regulation may be ethical when that law or rule has inadequate moral basis or when it conflicts with another law judged to be more important” which means that you can break the law if you think that you have sufficient moral grounds to do so, meaning that the proviso in rule 1.7 can be ignored if you think it right.
The greatest flaw in this set of rules is that it makes a lot of rules, but then tells people that they have to interpret when the rules are valid. Why is this a problem? Well, Proverbs 14:12 says that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death”. The perception of an imperfect human being is an extremely fragile foundation on which to rest any code of ethics. This article points out that the many problems that have been surfacing as a result of the actions of the NSA are very possibly a result of the ambiguous foundation that the ACM Code of Ethics is based on. This is a very real flaw in the fabric of the Code. It has many good ideas, but in the end it lacks the force necessary to bring people to actually act correctly.
The ACM worked hard, and made a Code of Ethics to govern the actions of its members. It is a very good Code, covering many aspects of morality. However, it leaves the final judgment of morality in the hands of the interpreter, which is a slippery slope at best. This has very possibly already allowed for the recent NSA scandal. Thinking on this issue, only the Bible truly has a perfect moral code, based not in fragile human intellect but in the unchanging character of God. He can tell us what is right and wrong, because his standards never change, and are complete in all their aspects.