Module 1: Introduction to Ethical Theories.

Introduction to Ethical Theories

The concepts of ethics, character, right and wrong, and good and evil have captivated humankind since we began to live in groups, communicate, and pass judgment on each other. The morality of our actions is based on motivation, group rules and norms, and the end result. The difficult questions of ethics and information technology (IT) may not have been considered by previous generations, but what is good, evil, right, and wrong in human behavior certainly has been. With these historical foundations and systematic analyses of present-day and future IT challenges, we are equipped for both the varied ethical battles we will face and the ethical successes we desire.

Although most of you will be called upon to practice applied ethics in typical business situations, you’ll find that the foundation for such application is a basic understanding of fundamental ethical theories. These ethical theories include the work of ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. This module introduces the widely accepted core ethical philosophies, which will serve to provide you with a basic understanding of ethical thought. With this knowledge, you can begin to relate these theoretical frameworks to practical ethical applications in today’s IT environment.

Let’s start with a fundamental question: “Why be ethical and moral?” At the most existential level, it may not matter. But we don’t live our lives in a vacuum—we live our lives with our friends, relatives, acquaintances, co-workers, strangers, and fellow wanderers. To be ethical and moral allows us to be counted upon by others and to be better than we would otherwise be. This, in turn, engenders trust and allows us to have productive relationships with other people and in society. Our ethical system, supported by critical thinking skills, is what enables us to make distinctions between what is good, bad, right, or wrong.

An individual’s ethical system is based upon his or her personal values and beliefs as they relate to what is important and is, therefore, highly individualized. Values are things that are important to us. “Values can be categorized into three areas: Moral (fairness, truth, justice, love, happiness), Pragmatic (efficiency, thrift, health, variety, patience) and Aesthetic (attractive, soft, cold, square)” (Navran, n.d.). Moral values influence our ethical system. These values may or may not be supported by individual beliefs. For example, a person is faced with a decision—he borrowed a friend’s car and accidentally backed into a tree stump, denting the fender—should he confess or make up a story about how it happened when the car was parked? If he had a personal value of honesty, he would decide not to lie to his friend. Or, he could have a strong belief that lying is wrong because it shows disrespect for another person and, therefore, he would tell the truth. In either case, the ethical decision making was influenced by his system of values or beliefs. These may come from family, culture, experience, education, and so on.

This discussion brings us to the term ethics. Frank Navran, principal consultant with the Ethics Resource Center (ERC), defines ethics as “the study of what we understand to be good and right behavior and how people make those judgments” (n.d.). Behavior that is consistent with one’s moral values would be considered ethical behavior. Actions that are inconsistent with one’s view of right, just, and good are considered unethical behavior. However, it is important to note that determining what is ethical is not just an individual decision—it also is determined societally.

We will witness this larger social dimension in this course, which is designed to provide you with an understanding of the specific ethical issues that have arisen as information technology has evolved over the last few decades. The very changes that enhanced technology causes in society also create ethical issues and dilemmas not previously encountered. The lack of precedent in many areas, combined with the ease of potentially operating outside of ethical paradigms, pose significant challenges to end users, IT analysts, programmers, technicians, and managers of information systems. We must be prepared logically and scientifically to understand ethics and to practice using ethical guidelines in order to achieve good and right solutions and to plan courses of action in times of change and uncertainty.

You can see from the benefits discussed above that knowledge, respect for, and a deeper understanding of norms and laws and their source—ethics and morals—is extremely useful. Ethical thought and theories are tools to facilitate our ethical decision-making process. They can provide the foundation on which to build a great company, or to become a better and more productive employee, a better neighbor, and a better person. Still, some professionals may wonder “Why study ethics?” Robert Hartley, author of Business Ethics: Violations of the Public Trust (Hartley, 1993, pp. 322–324) closes his book with four insights, which speak directly to this question for business and IT professionals. They are:

  • The modern era is one of caveat vendidor, “Let the seller beware.” For IT managers, this is an important reason to understand and practice ethics.
  • In business (and in life), adversity is not forever. But Hartley points out that when business problems are handled unethically, the adversity becomes a permanent flaw and results in company, organization, and individual failure.
  • Trusting relationships (with customers, employees, and suppliers) are critical keys to success. Ethical behavior is part and parcel of building and maintaining the trust relationship, and hence business success.
  • One person can make a difference. This difference may be for good or evil, but one person equipped with the understanding of ethical decision-making, either by acting on it or simply articulating it to others, changes history. This sometimes takes courage or steadfastness—qualities that spring from basic ethical confidence.

In the world of information technology today and in the future, the application of these ethical theories to day-to-day and strategic decision making is particularly relevant. The ability to garner personal, corporate, and governmental information and to disseminate this data in thousands of applications with various configurations and components brings significant responsibilities to ensure the privacy, accuracy, and integrity of such information. The drive to collect and distribute data at increasing volume and speed, whether for competitive advantage in the marketplace or homeland security cannot overshadow the IT manager’s responsibility to provide appropriate controls, processes, and procedures to protect individual and organizational rights.

Let’s begin building our understanding of several predominant ethical theories. Ethical theories typically begin with the premise that what is being evaluated is good or bad, right or wrong. Theorists seek to examine either the basic nature of the act or the results the act brings about. As Deborah Johnson (2001, p. 29) states in Computer Ethics, philosophical ethics is normative (explaining how things should be, not how they are at any given moment) and ethical theories are prescriptive (prescribing the “desired” behavior). Frameworks for ethical analysis aim to shape or guide the most beneficial outcome or behavior. There are two main categories of normative ethical theories: teleology and deontology. Telos refers to end and deon refers to that which is obligatory. These theories address the fundamental question of whether the “means justify the end” or the “end justifies the means.” Deontological ethical systems focus on the principle of the matter (the means), not the end result. In contrast, teleological ethical systems address the resulting consequences of an action (the ends).

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Teleology (Consequentialism)

Teleological theories focus on maximizing the goodness of the cumulative end result of a decision or action. In determining action, one considers the good of the end result before the immediate rightness of the action itself. These theories focus on consequences of an action or decision and are often referred to as consequentialism. Teleological theories include utilitarianism, ethical egoism, and common good ethics.


The most prevalent example of a teleological theory is utilitarianism, often associated with the writings of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism looks for the greatest good for the greatest number of people, including oneself. Individual rights and entitlements are subservient to the general welfare. There are two main subtypes: act-utilitarianism (for which the rules are more like rules-of-thumb/guidelines) and rule-utilitarianism (for which the rules are more tightly defined and critical). Utilitarianism requires consideration of actions that generate the best overall consequences for all parties involved. This entails:

  • cost/benefit analysis
  • determination of the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number
  • identifying the action that will maximize benefits for the greatest number of stakeholders of the organization

This quote explains a bit more: “The fathers of utilitarianism thought of it principally as a system of social and political decision, as offering a criterion and basis of judgment for legislators and administrators” (Williams, 1993, p. 135). Utilitarianism is geared to administrative and organizational decision-making, given that in complex systems or relationships, a single individual may not have the resources to determine the overall benefit to the total number of people affected by the decisions.

Ethical Egoism and Altruism

Egoism is maximizing your own benefits and minimizing harm to yourself. This is sometimes thought of as behavioral Darwinism, and clearly it guides decision-making with an eye toward basic survival. Although different aspects of this theory debate whether all human behavior is self-serving or should be self-serving, it is impossible to know with certainty what internally motivates an individual.

Altruism determines decisions and actions based on the interests of others, the perceived maximized good for others, often at one’s own expense or in a way directly opposed to the egoist alternative.

Further debate can be found over whether ethical egoism also incorporates an element of altruism. For example, a network engineer working for a vendor recommends to a client a network security installation that generates a substantial commission for the engineer. However, this installation also provides maximum network security for the benefit of the client. Is this self-serving or altruistic? The inability to distinguish pure motives in most practical applications, along with the inherent conflict resulting from competing self-interests, leads to an unsurprising result: these theories are not typically used in generally accepted frameworks for ethical decision-making.

The Common Good

The common-good approach comes from the teachings and writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Rawls. It is based on an assumption that within our society, certain general conditions are equally advantageous to all and should therefore be maximized. These conditions include health care, safety, peace, justice, and the environment. This is different from utilitarianism in that utilitarianism strives for the maximum good for the most (but not necessarily all) people. The common-good approach sets aside only those conditions that apply to all.

All teleological theories focus on the end result: what’s best for me, what’s best for you, or what’s best for some or all of us. One important factor in using teleological frameworks as a guide to action is that you need to be able to understand accurately and project the end result for the variety of affected groups. For egoism and altruism, this is perhaps not difficult. For larger, more remote, and less-well-understood groups, teleological theories can lead to acts that in turn become the bricks paving the road of good intentions. However, in information technology, where many people are affected either positively or negatively by the acts of a few, teleological theories can be very helpful.

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Deontology (Rights and Duties)

Deontological theories focus on defining the right action independently of and prior to considerations of the goodness or badness of the outcomes. The prefix deon refers to duty or obligation—one acts because one is bound by honor or training to act in the right manner, regardless of the outcome. Deontological theories include those that focus on protection of universal rights and execution of universal duties, as well as those that protect less universal rights and more specific duties. These rights and duties are usually learned and are often codified in some traditional way. For example, theologism is a deontological theory based on the Ten Commandments. Boy Scouts have a code that is intended as a guide to the rights of others and personal duties. Deontology uses one’s duty as the guide to action, regardless of the end results.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Deontological theories are most often associated with Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative. Kant’s famous categorical imperative takes two forms:

  1. You ought never act in any way unless that way or act can be made into a universal maxim (i.e., your act may be universalized for all people), and
  2. Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never only as a means.

Kant’s duty-based approach might directly conflict with teleological approaches, for in a utilitarian solution, individuals could very easily serve as the means for other ends. Duty-based ethical analysis leads a manager to consider the following questions:

  1. What if everyone did what I’m about to do? What kind of world would this be? Can I universalize the course of action I am considering?
  2. Does this course of action violate any basic ethical duties?
  3. Are there alternatives that better conform to these duties? If each alternative seems to violate one duty or another, which is the stronger duty?

Duty-Based Ethics (Pluralism)

A duty-based approach to ethics focuses on the universally recognized duties that we are morally compelled to do. There are several “duties” that are recognized by most cultures as being binding and self-evident. These duties include being honest, being fair, making reparations, working toward self-improvement, and not hurting others. A duty-based approach would put these obligations ahead of the end result, regardless of what it may be. Pluralism includes the care-based ethical approach based simply on the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Rights-Based Ethics (Contractarianism)

A rights-based approach to ethics has its roots in the social contract philosophies of Rousseau, Hobbes, and John Locke. These ideas are also at the foundation of the United States form of government and history, and rights (whether natural or granted by governments) are intensely held American ideological values. Because the global information technology leadership is fundamentally an American creation, contractarian philosophical approaches in IT are widely used, even if we don’t think about it overtly. When invoking a rights-based or contractarian framework, managers must carefully consider the rights of affected parties:

  • Which action or policy best upholds the human rights of the individuals involved?
  • Do any alternatives under consideration violate their fundamental human rights (i.e., liberty, privacy, and so on)?
  • Do any alternatives under consideration violate their institutional or legal rights (e.g., rights derived from a contract or other institutional arrangement)?

Fairness and Justice

The fairness-and-justice approach is based on the teachings of Aristotle. It is quite simple: equals should be treated equally. Favoritism, a situation where some benefit for no justifiable reason, is unethical. Discrimination, a situation where a burden is imposed on some who are not relevantly different from the others, is also unethical. This approach is deontological because it simply identifies a right and a duty, and does not specifically consider the end result.

Virtue Ethics

Whereas teleological theories focus on results or consequences and deontological theories relate to rights and duties, the virtue ethics approach attributes ethics to personal attitudes or character traits and encourages all to develop to their highest potential. This theory includes the virtues themselves: “motives and moral character, moral education, moral wisdom or discernment, friendship and family relationships, a deep concept of happiness, the role of emotions in one’s moral life and the fundamentally important questions of what sort of person I should be and how I should live my life” (Hursthouse, 2003). When faced with an ethical dilemma, a virtue ethicist would focus on the character traits of honesty, generosity, or compassion, for example, rather than consequences or rules. Virtue ethics is included in the area of what is referred to as normative ethics.

The table below helps to organize the various ethical theories for you. Note that these theories have evolved over time, and there are some overlapping ideas and theorists.

Major Ethical Theories
Theory Key Players Explanation
Utilitarianism John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham Seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people; wants to make the world a better place
Egoism Epicurus, Thomas Hobbes Seeks to maximize one’s individual benefit and minimize harm to self; key idea: survival.
Altruism Auguste Comte Seeks to maximize decisions and actions based on interests of others, even if at own individual expense; opposite of egoism.
Common Good Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Rawls Based on the assumption that within society, we are all pursuing common goals and values.
Duty-Based or Pluralism Immanuel Kant Based on Kant’s categorical imperative: all acts can be made into a universal maximum; act always as an end (not a means)
Rights-Based (Contractarianism) Rousseau, Hobbes, and John Locke Seeks action or policy that best upholds the human rights of individuals involved (foundation for United States form of government).
Fairness and Justice Approach Aristotle Equals should be treated equally; favoritism and discrimination are unethical.
  Virtue Predominantly influenced by Plato and Artistotle Seeks to encourage all to develop to their highest potential

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Computer Ethics

What is computer ethics? This term can be used in a variety of ways. It may refer to applying traditional ethical theories to IT situations, or it may entail the broader application that we see with the prevalence of ethical codes, standards of conduct, and new areas of computer law and policy. There also is an increasing interest in how sociology and psychology relate to computing. Scholars generally agree that the study of computer ethics began with Norbert Wiener, an MIT professor who worked during World War II to develop an anti-aircraft cannon. His work in the 1940s prompted Wiener and his associates to create a new field of study that Wiener labeled cybernetics. Their work fostered the development of several ethical conclusions regarding the potential implications of this type of advanced technology. Wiener published his book, The Human Use of Human Beings, in 1950. Although the term computer ethics was not used by Wiener and it was decades later that the term came into general use, his work certainly laid the foundation for future study and analysis. His book became a cornerstone for the study of computer ethics. In it, Wiener talks about the purpose of human life and the four principles of justice, but he also offers discussion, application, and examples of what would come to be recognized as computer ethics. (Bynum, 2001)

It wasn’t until the 1970s that computer ethics began to garner interest. Walter Maner, a university professor then at Old Dominion University, offered a course in computer ethics to examine the ethical problems created, exacerbated, or changed due to computer technology (Bynum, 2001). Through the 70s and 80s, interest increased in this area, and in 1985, Deborah Johnson (previously referenced in this module) authored the first textbook on the subject, Computer Ethics. Both Maner and Johnson advocated the application of concepts from the ethical theories of utilitarianism and Kantianism. However, in 1985, James Moor published a broader definition of computer ethics in his article “What is Computer Ethics?” He states: “computer ethics is the analysis of the nature and social impact of computer technology and the corresponding formulation and justification of policies for the ethical use of such technology” (Moor, 1985, p. 266). His definition was in line with several frameworks for ethical problem-solving rather than the specific application of any philosopher’s theory. With the potentially limitless ability of computing comes a dynamic, evolutionary flow of related ethical dilemmas. Moor indicated that as computer technology became more entwined with people and their everyday activities, the ethical challenges would become more difficult to conceptualize and do not lend themselves to the development of a static set of rules (Moor, 1985).

Throughout the 1990s and continuing into the new millennium, we’ve seen tremendous developments in the field of technology. Not surprisingly, with these developments, we’ve seen the wide-spread adoption of computers to almost every application imaginable, including the affordability and prevalence of computers in homes and businesses. Professional associations have adopted codes of conduct for their members, organizations have developed ethical codes and standards of conduct for employees, and the IT field has focused increased efforts in addressing the ethical situations and challenges that have unfolded.

In the following modules, we will explore how to apply these traditional theories and analysis and problem-solving frameworks to effectively understand and address ethical challenges in the information age.

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Bynum, T. (2001).Computer ethics: Basic concepts and historical overview. In E.N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Winter 2001 ed.). Retrieved July 7, 2005, from

Hartley, R. F. (1993). Business ethics: Violations of the public trust. New York: John Wiley.

Hursthouse, R. (2003). Virtue ethics. In E.N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2003 ed.). Retrieved July 2, 2005, from

Johnson, D. G. (2001). Computer ethics (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Kidder, R. M. (1995). How good people make tough choices: Resolving the dilemmas of ethical living. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Narvan, F. Ask the expert: What is the difference between ethics, morals and values? The Ethics Resource Center. Retrieved June 19, 2005, from

Williams, B. (1993). A critique of utilitarianism. In J.J.C. Smart & B. Williams (Eds.), Utilitarianism: For and against. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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