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Scientists demand an ethical education in computer engineering

21.02.2008
Computer engineers require a solid ethical education integrating moral principles and respect for human dignity with the reality of their profession.

This is one of the conclusions of a study carried out by researchers of Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M), in which different schools of ethics susceptible to be applied to computer scientists have been analyzed as well as the consequences of the development of their profession.

Although they seem to be completely different disciplines “ethics and information technology are two fields of research which are not in conflict; in fact,, ethics cuts across all aspects of our lives, among which is information technology “, explain the authors of this study, Gonzalo Génova y Anabel Fraga, from the Computer Technology Department at UC3M. In addition, according to their research, ethics does not restrict personal freedom, but instead “it is the way we use to control our own destiny and to achieve personal growth”, points out M. Rosario González, from the Complutense University of Madrid, co-author of this study.

According to the study, there are two different schools of thought which can be applied to information technology: on one hand, the consequentialism, in which the goodness of an action resides in its consequences; on the other hand, deontologism, according to which an action is right or wrong in and of itself, independently of its consequences. According to Gonzalo Génova, “the debate adopts too frequently a caricature bent: the first are represented as fanatics, and the latter as people without scruples, because in this way it is easier to ridiculize the other from the opposing side”. Anyway, the scientists from UC3M have come to the conclusion that without a solid ethical education, the engineer “would become a mere depersonalized technical instrument in the hands of others”.

A personal ethics school of thought

Evaluating the effects of a computing programme is difficult, but according to Anabel Fraga “this complexity is not an excuse to ignore the consequences”. Faced with this issue, and after analyzing the different ethics systems, the authors have opted for a model termed “moderate deontologism”, based on rational behavior which integrates rules and consequences. For the researchers, extreme positions are neither rational nor practical, for which they conclude that the most correct ethical position is that which, without undervaluing the consequences of actions, recognizes unquestionable barriers which are indispensable in respecting human dignity.

The new degrees in Computer Engineering, which will be offered in the incoming academic year at UC3M, suppose an advance as they will adopt a cross-sectional focus of the aspects of professional ethics. However, explains Gonzalo Génova, “the subject is important enough to warrant specific intellectual and rigorous treatment; because of that, the cross-sectional focus, which is indispensible, should be combined with a specific course subject”.

The professors of professional ethics and the computer engineers often encounter two preconceived notions among their students. On one hand “they think that ethics is a matter of opinion” and on the other hand, “they believe that professional ethics consists of prohibitions or barriers”, explains M. Rosario González. Nevertheless, her point of view differs from these stereotypes, and she affirms that ethics is something that is fundamentally positive and creative, which searches for new ways of doing good actions.

Francisco Javier Alonso Flores | alfa
Further information:
http://www.bib.uc3m.es

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