Incorporating Ethics and Social Responsibility in IS Education

By Harris, Albert L.; Lang, Michael et al. | Journal of Information Systems Education, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Incorporating Ethics and Social Responsibility in IS Education


Harris, Albert L., Lang, Michael, Yates, Dave, Kruck, S. E., Journal of Information Systems Education


1. INTRODUCTION: ETHICS AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY WITHIN INFORMATION SYSTEMS

The study of ethics is concerned with issues of morality, fairness and natural justice. In very basic terms, it is about "what is right?" and "what is wrong?," though of course the answers to such quandaries are often not obvious or straightforward. These questions can give rise to dilemmas and trade-offs, and are influenced by culturally-embedded behavioral norms. Chaffey and White (2011, p. 572) define business ethics as "moral principles concerning acceptable and unacceptable behavior by corporations and individual business people." Although awareness of the need for business ethics was emerging in the 1960s (Baumhart, 1961), it was not until the following two decades that it became an issue of major concern, mainly driven by public outcry against the absence of appropriate standards in political and corporate life (Vitell and Festervand, 1987). The related area of "social responsibility" is based upon the ideology that individuals and organizations have a moral obligation to behave in a way that, at least, is not detrimental to society at large, i.e. passive responsibility. This responsibility could also be active, meaning that individuals and organizations engage in activities that are beneficial to society.

In the era of globalisation, the responsible stewardship and governance of business, government and society impacts the lives of everyone. Students discovering the ease of gathering vast amounts of information and the power of organizing and combining it with information systems (IS) may have no moral basis for interpreting how that information should be used (or conversely, protected). As the old sayings go, "information is power" and "power corrupts." It therefore becomes readily apparent that information systems, if misused, can lead to undesirable consequences. Laws that govern corporate responsibilities may be forgotten or set aside when information so easily crosses international borders. Information systems are now ubiquitous and pervasive, often delivering benefits such as mobile computing and location-based services, but also potentially or actually having detrimental impacts such as invasion of privacy or large-scale data compromise. This presents challenges and dilemmas for ethics and social responsibility within an organization. Equally as important is how these both will play into and be integrated into the IS function within the business environment.

Unfortunately, history is rife with examples of organizations acting in morally questionable ways or in their own self-interest to the detriment of society, such as the recent financial scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Goldman Sachs, Anglo Irish Bank, and Societe Generale. Similarly irresponsible actions have occurred in the domain of information technology, such as the Sony BMG rootkit case in the US, the News of the World phone-hacking incident in the UK, and the Satyam scandal in India. On the other hand, organizations have leveraged information systems to act ethically and in socially responsible ways, such as using online communities to activate volunteering networks (e.g. sparked.com), using social media to raise funds for philanthropic causes (e.g. Fox Television's "Idol Gives Back" scheme), and using the Internet as a channel to advocate for international human rights (e.g. BBC World Service Trust).

In this introduction to the special issue, we focus on two main themes--how ethics and social responsibility enhances IS education, and how IS educators might go about teaching ethics and social responsibility as part of IS curriculum. We first investigate the advantages of including ethics and social responsibility in IS education. Next, we consider how ethics and social responsibility might be incorporated into the IS curriculum. Building on these two themes, we present a brief introduction to each of the articles in the special issue and describe how each contributes to our knowledge in one or both of these areas. …

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