Ethics for IT Professionals/What Is Ethics

What is Ethics, Morals and Laws


For the ill-advised reader, ethics are the moral principles woven into a person’s or multiple individuals’ behavior. Ethics are what help an individual make decisions based on the conformity of society. An individual whom might be regarded to have ethical behavior might be considerate of those within a society and follow the norms of that society as well. An individual of whom might be deemed to have unethical traits is not usually seen as a “good” person within a society that sees behavior of that nature as “bad”. The terms “good” and “bad” are within quotation marks as these terms are mostly subjective, in the sense that they only have a meaning when it comes to the ethical code of the society. For example, if a neighborhood prides itself on having the residents keep their front yards looking nice with fresh green grass and clear of debris and one resident has dried up grass and garbage scattered across their lawn, the neighborhood may find the owner of the unkempt lawn as an unethical individual.

According to Dickson (2014, Rundu Campus), ethics are a set of moral principles that govern a persons' or groups' behavior. Someone is considered to be behaving ethically if they conform to generally accepted practices of the society or group making that consideration. Most ethically acceptable practices are almost universal across human cultures, and are increasingly so due to globalization and cultural hegemony. For example, using animals in research, abortion, or using cookies to track software, where organizations are able to gather users information to track their search behavior and their buying patterns on the Internet are all found with similar ethical and moral debates in various states. Furthermore, while these topics remain open to debate in their nuances, they are intrinsically seen as amoral and ultimately unnecessary and avoidable. Each society retains a set of rules that sets the boundaries for accepted behavior, these rules often expressed in statements about how one ought to behave. These statements come together to form a moral code by which a member of a society lives by. Morals are those ideas defining what is right, and wrong, and these ideas can sometimes come into conflict.

With a basic understanding of ethics out of the way, morality is next up on the table. Morality is difference between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. Morality is usually associated with the concept of moral dilemmas and moral issues. A moral dilemma involves a tough decision between two unwelcome choices, the lesser of two evils. A moral issue is a concern that has the potential to help or cause pain and suffering to someone, including oneself. The most common example of a moral dilemma is the runaway trolley scenario, in which a runaway trolley is barrelling down a track and is not able to brake. On one track are five workers and the other track has one worker. The difficult decision to be made is whether or not to pull the lever and let one worker die to save the five other workers from horror. Often times the decision is made more difficult when the one person on the other track is a close friend or loved one. An example of a moral issue would be related to topics such as the morality of experiments on animals, the sensitive subject of abortion, etc.

Dickson (October 19, 2013) also states that one's behavior (morals) follows a set of shared values (manners) within a society, and contributes to the stability of that society. Everyone operates by their own individual moral code, acting with integrity towards that code. Laws, on the other hand, are a system of rules that a society strictly imposes, and enforces. Laws aim to be more well defined than morals, so as to be limited to interpretation, and defendable in practice. States enforce their laws through institutions such as law enforcement, whereas morals are enforced typically by passive interactions by an individual, or group. For example, the moral code of a club may be enforced by excluding from participation those who do not abide the code. While a society's moral code often forms the base for its legal systems, a given law may or may not abide by an individual's moral code, or by the ethical considerations of a society. It is a process that is dependent not only on the legislation itself, but also the legislator and the participation/representation of the citizen's moral values.

Ethics is also most commonly defined as the norms of conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior [1]. Most individuals learn ethics through social activities and institutions, such as at home, school and church. As children, we are taught by our parents/guardians what is 'right', and 'wrong'. We gain a more finely tuned understanding as we age, as moral development further occurs as we mature. Although morality is not to be confused with commonsense, ethical norms are often so ubiquitous that one is tempted to assume they unanimous across cultures.

Ethical theory


Ethical Theory is defined as attempts to provide a clear, unified account of ethical obligations and practices. Not only does Ethical Theory aim to generalize and unify ethical considerations, it also aims to be a recurrent cycle of reflection. Through exposure to repetitive and new situations, ethical theory is iteratively developed and improved for future considerations and precaution regarding ethics.

There are four categories of ethical theory: Consequence-based, duty-based, contract-based, and character-based. These categories are more commonly referred to as: Utilitarianism, Deontology, Rights, and Virtues, respectively.



Consequence-based ethical theory, also known as, ‘Consequentialism’ is an ethical theory that judges the morality of an action and decides whether it is right or wrong based on the consequences the action entails. For example, most people would agree that lying is wrong, but if lying could help save a life, consequence-based ethical theory would claim that it is the right thing to do. The most common example of a consequence-based ethical theory is utilitarianism.


Critics of utilitarianism reject emphasis on the effects of individual acts. They point out that we tend not to deliberate on every single action in our day-to-day activities as if that action were unique. Rather, they argue that based on certain principles or general rules that guide our behavior, we are inclined to deliberate [2]. Consequence-based ethical theory is sometimes criticized because it can be very difficult and sometimes not possible to know the result/consequence of an action ahead of time.



Duty-based ethical theory focuses on what people do, rather than the consequences of their deeds. Under this form of ethics, you cannot justify an action was good if it produced good consequences, hence it is sometimes called ‘non-Consequentialist’. The theory states that when engaged in decision-making, people should adhere to their ethical obligations and duties. Deontology, a common name for duty-based ethical theory is derived from the Greek root word, ‘Deon’ which means duty. People who support this theory over Consequence-based claim that morality does not require reward.


Duty-based theory is criticized for a few reasons. Sometimes, a person’s duties may conflict internally. This theory has no mechanism to address that. Because this theory does not care about positive consequences, it can sometimes lead to negative effects. It also sets absolutist rules with exceptions being the only way to deal with conflicting cases.



Contract-based theory focuses on moral systems created from contractual agreements.

A well-known early version of this is Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, which was his outline for a social-contract doctrine. His idea was that this contract will give people motivation to be moral; the rights established are considered ethically correct and valid since a lot of people endorse them.


This theory promotes a minimalist morality, meaning that you are not required to make any effort beyond what the contract entails [2]. Another issue is deciphering what is seen as right in a society. The society needs to determine their goals and priorities and the most logical way to do so is to use another ethical theory to determine or base their goals.

Criticisms exist regarding the theory of Contract-based morality. One of the biggest criticisms is that the theory serves as a very minimalist, rather ‘bare-minimum’ towards morality - where a person will not do anything beyond their contractual agreements, even if ethical.



Character-based ethics, also referred to as ‘Virtue Ethics’ focuses on determining what makes an individual good instead of what makes an action good. This theory argues that good people consistently perform good actions. The idea of Virtue Ethics was formulated first by Aristotle.


Character-based ethics is sometimes criticized as it does not accommodate for moral character changes within an individual. At the same time, it also does not take into account the character of someone who has conflicting values of ethics and can sometimes be good or bad.

Ethical Relativism


Another view of ethics that takes a different approach to what is right and wrong is Ethical Relativism. Ethical Relativism is the doctrine that explains that there is no absolute truth in ethics and that the basis for deciding what is right and wrong varies on the society or person. This argument stems from Herodotus’s 5th century view that different societies have different customs. Each person in the society believes that their own society’s customs are right (Rachels, 2009). Each society dictates what is right or wrong behavior based on standards developed over many years. These standards help to shape the society’s belief and therefore it is difficult to prove which society practices the most ethical decision making. There is no way of deciding that the values of one society are better than another. One example that sheds light on this is a society where polygamy and tatoos are allowed. Neighboring that society is a different society where polygamy and tatoos are forbidden and each act is judged as right or wrong based on religious precepts. Each society thinks that their values are acceptable and the morality of an act depends on values that differ society to society. In the realm of cybersecurity, cultural relativism is seen with different prosecutions of illegally selling intellectual property. intellectual property rights in some countries such as El Salvador do not prosecute retail sellers selling illegal movies or cds since they are poor people and are trying to sustain. The distributors of these illegal copies in many other countries are subject to prosecution and punishment regardless of economic class. This theory holds that there are no universal moral standards that can be applied for each society since each society judges in their own respective way.    



Most ethicists reject ethical relativism: some claim while moral practices of societies may differ, the fundamentals of the moral principals underlying these practices do not. For instance, in some societies, killing one's parents after they reach a certain age was common practice, stemming from the belief that they were better off in the afterlife if they entered it still vigorous and able. While in modern societies this practice is condemned, we would agree with this practice on the underlying moral principle--the duty to care for parents. Therefore, while societies may not agree on their application of moral principles, they may agree on the principles themselves. It is also argued that some moral beliefs are culturally relative while others are not. Certain practices may be dependent on the local customs, such as the definitions of decency and proper attire. Others may be governed by more universal standards, such as slavery and the defense of the innocent.

Ethics is an inquiry between right and wrong through a critical examination of the reasons underlying practices and beliefs. As a theory for justifying moral practices and beliefs, ethical relativism fails to recognize some societies have better reasons for holding their views than others. But, even if the theory is rejected, we must acknowledge that the concept raised important issues, and encouraged us to take a look at the other societies beliefs and cultures.[3]



Subjectivism is an extension of relativism, as applied to individuals rather than societies. The moral interpretation of a practice or event is based on the personal perspective of the individual analyzing it. In other words, the judgment of an event is dependent on the individual doing the judging.



Something is objective when it is independent of any individual's personal beliefs. It is, in other words, a fact of the universe, separate from human beliefs -- such as the weight of an object. This forms the basis for moral realism: The idea that ethics and morals are not invented, but rather discovered over time. Ethicists typically try to maintain objectivity in their analysis, stressing that it does not matter who the person is, or what they choose to do; rather, they try to determine what the person should do, or what their decision ought to be.

Ethics Within Business

Enron Complex

What is right or wrong conduct for a business is the standard called Business Ethics. Business Ethics are not always aligned with laws and therefore “ethical” and “legal” behavior is not the same. Companies establish business ethics to maintain trust between employees but also outwardly to other partners and investors. Throughout the years there have been many business scandals that have occurred due to a lack of ethics imposed on decision making and business conducts. The Enron scandal stemmed from a series of actions that covered up any losses and would falsely label project profits. Enron did this by investing in a project or building and immediately writing it off as a profit while in reality the project did not make a single penny for the company. When expected revenue from a project would be a lot higher than the actual revenue, the company would transfer the project to an off the record corporation and the loss would never be reported. These actions taken by Enron, while not completely illegal, did falsify Enron’s image of extreme success and led it to being named “America’s Most Innovative Company.”

Business Ethics have begun to become more of an importance to companies today as it creates a clear image of the company, builds trust between employees, and protects the company from any legal issues. As whistle-blowing has become more popular due to increased potential identity threats, companies have tightened up their business policies and practices to prevent any ethical missteps.      

Corporate Policies


Business Ethics have prompted many companies to adopt corporate policies that address specific areas of company interactions. To make sure that employees understand what the rules are at a company and what procedures they are allowed to work on they sign an ethics contract. However, to establish that business ethics are properly followed, more must be done than just having an employee sign a contract. Companies must maintain constant communication about their policy which can be done through campaigns that will engage every member of the company or during an employee’s initial training. To ensure that these ethical policies are respected and followed, companies must continue to develop strong communication with their employees and partners and set up an open environment. In this environment, employees should be able to voice their opinions and concerns without judgment and companies should be able to take action when necessary if any instances of breaking the ethical code arise.

IT Ethics


The simplest definition of ethics within the world of information technology is the ethical issues that come out of the usage and development of electronic technologies. IT Ethics have a goal and that goal is to find moral solutions to the various problems that arise from online activity. The 10 Commandments of Internet Ethics

All jokes aside, this list of rules makes sense and somewhat works as a guideline for ethical internet use:

  1. The Internet must not be used to harm others.
  2. The interference of other Internet user’s work is prohibited.
  3. Poking around in the personal files of another Internet user is bad.
  4. The use of the Internet for stealing is not allowed.
  5. The internet should not be used for deception or trickery.
  6. The copying or pirating of unpaid software is illegal.
  7. The use of other Internet sources without permission or compensation is wrong.
  8. Do not take credit for other’s intellectual property.
  9. Understand the social consequences that can occur when coding or designing.
  10. Always use the Internet in considerate ways and show respect to your fellow human.

Computer Ethics


Ethical problems in IT existed long before mankind learned how to conduct machine learning and build neural networks. Asimov also deduced three laws of robotics in his works, but the modern idea of ​​​​interaction with AI remains approximately at the same level.

For those who suddenly do not remember Asimov's postulates, I quote them separately:

  • A robot cannot harm a person or by its inaction allow a person to be harmed.
  • A robot must obey all orders given by a human, unless those orders are contrary to the first law.
  • The robot must take care of its safety to the extent that this does not contradict the first or second law.

Many AI developers consider them to be the ideal principles by which robots should operate. Their main advantage is simplicity. After all, the more complex the algorithms of actions, the easier it is to break them.

Using these postulates as an example, one can try to uncover the complexities of ethics in robotics, thereby characterizing ethics in IT.

When creating true AI, there will be another problem that is paradoxically stupid today, but quite possible in the future. After all, if a robot thinks like a person, then there will definitely be a movement for the rights of robots.

Moreover, there are already precedents. In 2017, the sensational robot Sophia received honorary citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And, although it is very far from true AI, there is a legislative precedent, and it is quite possible to use it to give other androids rights comparable to human ones.

The more specialists work on robotics, the more questions arise. And they don't have a solution. For example:

  • There are several companies in Japan and the US that create sex robots. And if AI robots get rights, can a robot refuse to have sex with a human? And will it be considered rape if you do not pay attention to the refusal?
  • How will the creation and operation of autonomous military robots be regulated? And what danger will be borne by the changed laws of robotics, which in principle allow violence against humans?
  • How will the buying and selling of self-aware robots be regulated? There are many opinions here that this can turn into a new wave of slavery and the liberation movement.

Now legislators consider the legal field of robots approximately similar to the legal field of animals. But even here, there has not yet been a consensus on who will be responsible if the robot harms other people: the owner or the manufacturer.

The point is that the topic of ethics in IT is very broad and requires deep study.



Cybertechnology refers to any computing or communication technologies. This is arguably a more accurate term than computer ethics because it encompasses all technologies rather than just computers. There is a debate on whether or not cybertechnology brings in new or unique ethical issues, which would call for a new perspective or special consideration. There are two main views on this issue: traditionalist and uniqueness proponent. Traditionalists argue that nothing in this field is new in the sense that crime is still considered crime and fraud is still considered fraud, even in the cyber realm. The uniqueness proponents argue that there are new unique ethical issues that did not exist before cybertechnology. A common confusion in this thought is mixing up unique features of cybertechnology with unique ethical issues. The term unique, per Merriam-Webster, is defined as the only one or being without a like or equal [4]. The issues surrounding cybertechnology, such as privacy, property, and others are not new concerns. However, cybertechnology does have unique features that muddle the solutions for these types of issues.

Ethics for IT Professionals


Like any other profession, there are standards of ethical guidance used to help people when facing uncertain circumstances. It’s important for individuals to understand that what is legal may not always be ethical. Not behaving in an ethical manner can disturb the trust between employees, clients, staff, and the general public.

Ethical Code


Ethical code consists of principals and behavioral expectations established by organizations for their employees and third parties. The core values of a company are also implemented

The code of ethics also outlines core company values that workers are expected to uphold during business operations. Code of ethics is actually very similar to code of conduct. However, code of ethics focuses more on a company's morals and values at a high-level while code of conduct focuses more on specific situations. Having an ethical code is important as it serves as a permanent reminder of the principals every employee is expected to uphold everyday.

IT Code of Ethics


There are many resources for IT professionals to refer to when searching for ethical guidance. A few examples of these resources include:

  • “The Code of Ethics” in section seven of IEEE.
  • “The Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct” from the Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP)    
  • “IT Code of Ethics” from SAN

One of the main sections that are highlighted in the code of ethics are the ethical behaviors that are expected of each individual. Employees are often expected to uphold integrity, responsibility, and professionalism during work. This includes properly handling confidential information, maintaining a safe working environment, and avoiding unlawful conduct such as accepting brides. Code of ethics also highlights ethical behaviors towards others. Workers are often expected to treat others fairly without engaging in discriminatory and harmful behavior.


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  3. Velasquez, etc. (1992). "Ethical Relativism". Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Retrieved April 25, 2016.
  4. Unique. (2018). In Retrieved April 27, 2019.


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