Today it is Global Ethics Day. My colleague Emily wanted to mark it given our increasing involvement in information ethics, and organised an informal online get together, a Global Ethics Day party, with a focus on data ethics. We showed the participants our work on an ethical reference for using geodata, and the thesis work our newest colleague Pauline finished this spring on ethical leadership within municipal governments. I was asked to kick the event off with some remarks to spark discussion.
I took the opportunity to define and launch a new moniker, Ethics as a Practice (EaaP).(1)
The impulse for me to do that comes out of two things that I have a certain dislike for, in how I see organisations deal with the ethics of working with data and using data to directly inform decisions.
The first concerns treating the philosophy of technology, information and data ethics in general as a purely philosophical and scientific debate. It, due to abstraction, then has no immediate bearing on the things organisations, I and others do in practice. Worse, regularly it approaches actual problems purely starting from that abstraction, ending up with posing ethical questions I think are irrelevant to reality on the ground. An example would be MIT’s notion that classical trolly problems have bearing on how to create autonomous vehicles. It seems to me because they don’t appreciate that saying autonomous vehicle, does not mean the vehicle is an indepenent actor to which blame etc can be applied, and that ‘autonomous’ merely means that a vehicle is independent from its previous driver, but otherwise fully embedded in a wide variety of other dependencies. Not autonomous at all, no ghost in the machine.
The campus of University of Twente, where they do some great ethics work w.r.t. to technology. But in itself it’s not sufficient. (image by me, CC BY SA)
The second concerns seeing ‘Ethics by design’ as a sufficient fix. I dislike that because it carries 2 assumptions that are usually not acknowledged. Ethics by design in practice seems to be perceived as ethics being only a concern in the design phase of a new technology, process, approach or method. Whereas at least 95% of what organisations and professionals deal with isn’t new but existing, so as a result remains out of scope of ethical considerations. It’s an assumption that everything that exists has been thoroughly ethically evaluated, which isn’t true, not at all even when it comes to existing data collection. Ethics has no role at all in existing data governance for instance, and data governance usually doesn’t cover data collection choices or its deletion/archiving.
The other assumption conveyed by the term ‘ethics by design’ is that once the design phase is completed, ethics has been sufficiently dealt with. The result is, with 95% of our environment remaining the same, that ethics by design is forward looking but not backwards compatible. Ethics by design is seen as doing enough, but it isn’t enough at all.
Ethics by design in itself does not provide absolution (image by Jordanhill School D&T Dept, license CC BY)
Our everyday actions and choices in our work are the expression of our individual and organisational values. The ‘ethics by design’ label sidesteps that everyday reality.
Both taken together, ethics as academic endeavour and ethics by design, result in ethics basically being outsourced to someone specific outside or in the organisation, or at best to a specific person in your team, and starts getting perceived as something external being delivered to your work reality. Ethics as a Service (EaaS) one might say, a service that takes care of the ethical aspects. That perception means you yourself can stop thinking about ethics, it’s been allocated, and you can just take its results and run with it. The privacy officer does privacy, the QA officer does quality assurance, the CISO does information security, and the ethics officer covers everything ethical…..meaning I can carry on as usual. (e.g. Enron had a Code of Ethics, but it had no bearing on the practical work or decisions taken.)
That perception of EaaS, ethics as an externally provided service to your work has real detrimental consequences. It easily becomes an outside irritant to the execution of your work. Someone telling you ‘no’ when you really want to do something. A bureaucratic template to fill in to be able to claim compliance (similarly as how privacy, quality, regulations are often treated). Ticking the boxes on a checklist without actual checks. That way it becomes something overly reductionist, which denies and ignores the complexity of everyday knowledge work.
Externally applied ethics become an irritant (image by Iain Watson, license CC BY)
Ethical questions and answers are actually an integral part of the complexity of your work. Your work is the place where clear boundaries can be set (by the organisation, by general ethics, law), ánd the place where you can notice as well as introduce behavioural patterns and choices. Complexity can only be addressed from within that complexity, not as an outside intervention. Ethics therefore needs to be dealt with from within the complexity of actual work and as one of the ingredients of it.
Placing ethics considerations in the midst of the complexity of our work, means that the spot where ethics are expressed in real work choices overlaps where such aspects are considered. It makes EaaS as a stand alone thing impossible, and instead brings those considerations into your everyday work not as an external thing but as an ingredient.
That is what I mean by Ethics as a Practice. Where you use academic and organisational output, where ethics is considered in the design stage, but never to absolve you from your professional responsibilities.
It still means setting principles and hard boundaries from the organisational perspective, but also an ongoing active reflection on them and on the heuristics that guide your choices, and it actively seeks out good practice. It never assumes a yes or no to an ethical question by default, later to be qualified or rationalised, but also does not approach those questions as neutral (as existing principles and boundaries are applied).(2) That way (data) ethical considerations become an ethics of your agency as a professional, informing your ability to act. It embraces the actual complexity of issues, acknowledges that daily reality is messy, engages all relevant stakeholders, and deliberately seeks out a community of peers to spot good practices.
Ethics is part and parcel of your daily messy work, it’s your practice to hone. (image by Neil Cummings, license CC BY SA)
Ethics as a Practice (EaaP) is a call to see yourself as an ethics practitioner, and a member of a community of practice of such practitioners, not as someone ethics ‘is done to’. Ethics is part and parcel of your daily messy work, it’s your practice to hone. Our meet-up today was a step to have such an exchange between peers.
I ended my remarks with a bit of a joke, saying, EaaP is so you can always do the next right thing, a quote from a Disney movie my 4 year old watches, and add a photo of a handwritten numbered list headed ‘things to do’ that I visibly altered so it became a ‘right things to do’ list.
(1) the ‘..as a Practice’ notion I took from Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s Ness Labs posting that mentioned ‘playfulness as a practice’.
(2) not starting from yes or no, nor from a neutral position, taken from the mediation theory by University of Twente’s prof Peter Paul Verbeek