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Moral and Ethical Responsibility of Computer Programmers and Testers

by Elizabeth James

Computers become a common thing for millions of people around the globe, and advancement in hardware and software created new problems for professional staff. Following Johnson and Powers (2005): “The technological character of instrumented human action can be represented through the notion of technological moral action” (100). Ethical norms and standards are crucial in this profession serving as a guide and moral codex of ethical behavior patterns. Basic ethical qualities required for the programmers and testers of computer systems and software are an understanding of corporate morale and motivations, knowledge of social and technical problems. These manifestations of ‘globalism’ complicate ethical communication for IT professionals, exchange of information and personal interaction.

The high level of responsibility is implemented in all spheres of activity involving the human constructed aspects and human-made objects (Johnson, Powers, 2005: 100). Scientific and technical ethics are crucial aspects of modern technology which is responsible for research and tests outcomes. When examining a particular practice, ethics helps to distinguish between an expectation and an obligation. Ethics and morality poses questions about how a programmer or tester of computer systems and software ought to act and how he should not. This very statement leads to a conflict between research and ethics preventing many professionals from further “risky” discoveries.

In IT area, researchers distinguish four types of responsibility: role-responsibility, causal-responsibility, liability-responsibility and capacity-responsibility. “Role-responsibility refers to the performance or fulfillment of the duties attached to a person’s social role; ability-responsibility refers to responsibility for causing harm in violation of the law” (Computing and Moral Responsibility, 2004). Causal-responsibility means relations between the agent and the consequences and capacity-responsibility implies the conduct according to stipulated professional norms.

In addition to these tendencies, ethical obligations of the programmers and testers of computer systems and software include fair and professional treatment of products they deal with, keeping high confidentiality level of corporate information and responsibility towards community and shareholders. The programmers and testers should adopt ethical standards based on moral justification comes from a value system that is independent of the business itself. For instance, the recent software platforms development are caused by the aim to    produce systems that meet user requirements. There are many systems that are technically efficient but do not serve the needs of the users and so are underused or misused. The recent development of fourth-generation languages is an alternative to the traditional linear approach to programming through specification, coding, testing and maintenance stages. Internet technology and Java software can be used to create an open system environment. These complex solutions require special attention and high level of responsibility in order to avoid possible mistakes or errors (Davis, 1998).

So, structured high-level languages are to be viewed within the context of a structured methodology of systems analysis and design. The recent innovations like Linux, open-source software have been designed in conjunction with object-oriented analysis and design methods to lead to a richer and more natural means of capturing data modeling and processing requirements. If complex software used in airplanes or navigation systems goes wrong, it can lead to incidents and deaths.

Moral concerns deals with potential applications of the technology and software. For instance, “a technician trusted what he thought a computer was telling him and administered a deadly dose of radiation to a hospital patient. Whose fault was it–the programmer’s, the hospital’s, the technician’s, the supervisor’s, the computer’s? “How much responsibility ,an you place on a machine?” (Computers Creating Ethical Dilemmas, 1995).Taking into account ethics and long-tern consequences it is possible to say that there is interdependence between these issues.

If the programmers and testers of computer systems and software do not consider ethics as a major strategy, it can lead to terrible outcomes for users and the company. The problem is that unethical behavior of one researchers costs much to a global community. The long term consequences of tests are one in which major issues of probity arise. These concern not only legality and illegality but also shadow-lands such as those in which the ethical condition of the tests is publicly reported, where the true situation can be considerably camouflaged without breaking the law. The programmers and testers highlighted many of the techniques in common use for deliberately masking difficulties and enhancing the apparent prospects of a research, but most of them are inapplicable to all diverse fields of tests and software designs (Baird et al 2000).

Another example is the UNIX operating system which is aimed to support open systems as it can operate on many different kinds of computer hardware. The use of technology requires more problem solving skills and the ability to interpret data and is thus likely to lead to a widening gulf between skilled and unskilled workers. Also, “events, entities, or conditions are considered causally responsible insofar as they are necessary elements for an event at issue to occur; the conjunction of all causally necessary conditions is a sufficient condition for the event to occur” (Johnson, Powers, 2005: 101).

Others confuse a systematic view of ethics in IT by including a crucial word in its definition that implies both a condition and a process by which the results will be achieved. Many of the ethical dilemmas are about overall direction and moral choices, with long timescales, considerable uncertainty and inevitably inadequate information. For instance, a rootkit attack is one of the main areas of concern for organizations and one of the areas of responsibility of computer programmers, because hypothetically, he or she can  intentionally launch the script and in so doing activate the causal sequence that led to the harm” (Johnson, Powers, 2005: 102).

Establishing and maintaining the strict morel rules and regulations require the cooperative efforts of some, often of many, people. Critics state that “The context of the computer attack determines its moral or ethical quality” (Bayles, 2001:7). Undoubtedly, the state and technical regulations must exist in order to prevent negative outcomes, but in this very field nobody is able to draw the line between negative and positive, because in many cases fears based on hypothetical theories. The main problem is to find a solution to regulate the moral dimensions and practical outcomes of software tests.

An ideal ethical code calls for each programmer to think carefully about the many different constituencies upon which its activities and performance have an impact. Each will, in detail, identify a different list, but for the community generally the following are among the most commonly considered. For instance, “the legal and ethical issues become more complex if CNA (computer network attacks) is used to target civil infrastructure or entails attack means that replicate themselves beyond the targeted computer or network” (Bayles, 2001). Trying to avoid this conflict, many codes of ethics stipulate that scientific information obtained should be strictly controlled, such that they caution strongly public and private sector institutions against acquiring more personal information through tests than they would have acquired using other methods. The ethics is illustrated by the way in which issues involving aspects of medicine and doctors have impacted upon and, to some extent, transformed those ‘traditional’ areas.

Ethical behavior, at its most basic level, is what most people in a given society or group view as being moral, good, or right. Computers issue vast amounts of data, but it is programmers’ responsibility to check the relevance of the data and arrange for the production of useful information. In general, moral responsibility involves strict guidelines which determine moral and social obligations the programmers and testers of computer systems and software should follow. Software product or service should be safe and effective for use. Potential hazards or problems, both when used as intended and possible misuse or use in other applications, should be identified (Hedman et al, 2004). The software decisions should not damage the people or the environment in the target market.

Today, there is a strong tendency is for societies to demand that companies act with increasing concern for the overall societal and environmental needs, as well as economic needs. Moral responsibility means that the programmers and testers of computer systems and software have broader obligations including specific responsibilities toward customers, employees, suppliers, and society as a whole. For instance, stability of employment and work safety are more important than the level of profits. Many companies develop a code of ethical conduct which stipulates strict moral and ethical rules aimed to protect interest groups. The notion of responsibility involves external areas (users and community relations) and internal areas (physical environment factors).

The main task of moral responsibility and ethics for the programmers and testers of computer systems and software is to reduce any harmful influence on the natural environment and stakeholders. Responsibility has a great impact on the overall being of a business determining moral and ethical standards applied to all areas of operations. It creates a positive image of the company and ensures social stability and recognition (Ozz, 1992).

More specifically, values are the standards by which things may be judged and serve to shape people’s beliefs and consequently their attitude. This is probably the most illusive area of culture as values and attitudes only become apparent through inter-personal communication and interaction. There are no formal rules and guidelines, but the unwritten frameworks may be just as powerful in determining behavior.

In sum, ethical and moral responsibility is crucial for the programmers and testers of computer systems and software, because it helps honestly represent the product or service avoiding misleading or confusing claims. Duties and obligations help to control activities of the programmers and testers. The duties and obligations which are set forth become enshrined in custom and law, and people stop giving them or their consequences much thought – they are simply assumed to be correct. Ethical and moral responsibility should be adopted based on the codes of ethics which means a formal statement of what a business expects in the way of ethical behavior. On the other hand ethical and moral responsibility should serves as a guide for the programmers and testers conduct to help employees determine what behaviors are acceptable.

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  2. Bayles, W.J. (2001). The Ethics of Computer Network Attack. Parameters, 31 (1); 44
  3. Computers Creating Ethical Dilemmas (1995). USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education), 124 (2604), September, 7.
  4. Computing and Moral Responsibility (2004). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/computing-responsibility
  5. Davis, M. (1998). Thinking like an Engineer: Studies in the Ethics of a Profession.OxfordUniversity Press.
  6. Hedman, L.R., Montgomery, M.H. Sharafi, P. (2004). Engaging in Activities Involving Information Technology: Dimensions, Modes, and Flow. Human Factors, 46 (2): 334.
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  8. Ozz, E. (1992) Ethical Standards for Information Systems Professionals. MIS Quarterly Retrieved from http://www.misq.org/archivist/vol/no16/issue4/effyoz.pdf

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