On IS Students' Intentions to Use Theories of Ethics in Resolving Moral Conflicts

Article excerpt


Analytical and critical thinking on matters of ethics and professionalism (e.g., codes of conduct and ethical theory) has been recognised as an important aspect of IS education (Gorgone et al., 2002). As a result, a number of conceptual frameworks have been proposed (e.g., Davison, 2000; Dyrud, 2002; Martin & Huff, 1997; Tavani, 2001). At the core of any such framework lie theories of ethics. Anyone teaching these theories to IS students should understand to what extent they intend to use them in real-life moral conflicts. Having said this, we find no studies purporting to address this relevant issue. In fact, the process of decision-making is rarely touched on in research on computer ethics (Adam, 2000). Our aim is to fill this gap in the knowledge by investigating the perceived applicability of the theories in ethical decision-making. Consequently, we studied IS students' application of five such theories (utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, prima-facie principles, and Rawls' veil of ignorance). We asked the students to apply the theories to a given moral conflict and to think about whether they would use them in real life.

This paper is organised as follows. The second section presents the theoretical framework, the third describes the research design and the phenomenographic method used, and the fourth presents the results. The fifth section discusses the limitations and the significance of the findings, and the sixth concludes the paper with a summary of the key points.


This section reviews different theories of ethics, and illustrates their applicability to a real-life moral conflict.

The various theories of ethics include utilitarianism (Bentham, 1876; Mill 1895), universal prescriptivism (Hare, 1981), Kant's theory (1993), emotivism (Stevenson, 1944), intuitionism (Ross, 1930), and virtue ethics. Of these we chose to focus on utilitarianism, virtue ethics, intuitionism (Ross' prima-facie principles), Kant's ethics and Rawls theory of justice ("veil of ignorance"). Following Hare (1981), we consider intuitionism and emotivism similar in terms of their practical application. Emotivism suggests that moral utterances are the expression of emotions, while intuitionism holds that our intuitions guide our moral decisions. Neither of these theories offers any methodological support for finding out moral decisions that go beyond emotions or intuitions. Rawls' "veil of ignorance" also bears some resemblance to Hare's (1981) method of 'universalizability of moral judgements' for deciding moral principles (Hare; in Mautner, 1996 p. 177). Hence, we omit Hare' method.

These selected theories also represent the major traditions in ethics (Raphael, 1994), and therefore offer students a variety of thinking tools together with knowledge of the major ethical principles. We introduce them below, with exemplary applications to the following case reported by a computer professional to one of the authors:

"I work as the head administrator of a server and some users contacted me wondering why the mailbox reading times had magically changed during the night. Because I was unable to find any sensible reason, I spied on the other administrators to find out what they were up to. I found the culprit, an acquaintance, who was 'peeking' at girls' mailboxes. I know that the person is a harmless nerd who, in my judgment, would not abuse any information he obtained. What should I do?"

Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of utilitarianism, argued that the important issue in resolving moral conflicts was the maximization of utility. The key idea behind this is the concept of 'felicity' (happiness), which he describes as a combination of 'pleasure' and 'the absence of pain'. In other words, utilitarianism holds that an act that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, measured in terms of 'pleasure' and 'the absence of pain', is a morally right action. …