Ethics in the IT Classroom: Why and How?

By Larson, David; Miller, Keith W. | Journal of Information Ethics, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Ethics in the IT Classroom: Why and How?


Larson, David, Miller, Keith W., Journal of Information Ethics


1. Introduction

Within this paper the authors will explain the importance of including IT ethics within the Management Information Systems (MIS) and Computer Science (CS) curricula. It is our contention that in today's environment, students of MIS or CS should understand the importance of acknowledging and dealing with ethical issues is in their work. No longer can this subject be ignored since ethical issues are as critical to the success of IT projects as are design and technical issues. Consequently IT professionals (whom our students hope to become) must know how to view what they are doing or being asked to do from an ethical perspective. In what follows we give our definition of IT ethics, discuss the importance of ethics to organizations and to the IT curriculum, and how ethics could be incorporated within the curriculum, and finally provide some ethics resources educators can use as they start to deal with ethics in their curricula.

2. Defining IT Ethics

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006), "ethics" can be defined as follows:

The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. ... Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. ... Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues. ...

In addition to this three-part definition of what ethics is, it is useful to stress what ethics is not. The study of ethics need not be connected to religion, although individuals may find their inspiration to be ethical from a religious tradition, and many religions share moral views that are compatible with many ethical traditions (Wikipedia, 2007). "Ethical" is not the same as "legal," although the study and development of laws is often intertwined with the study and development of ethics (LegalEthics.com, 2006).

IT ethics is an applied study of how ethics and Information Technology interact. It is our contention that the study of ethics is of growing importance to IT education. We expect that applied IT ethics will be central to this study, although metaethics is useful as a foundation for the applied ethics. We also expect that another significant theme will be normative ethics, especially as it is reflected in codes for IT professionals.

3. Ethics and Organizations

The importance of ethics to organizations and management has escalated in the last few years and is now seen as critical. Within this section we will discuss why ethics is important in organizations, who is responsible for an ethical climate in an organization, and how this climate can be encouraged.

3.1 Ethics-Importance to Organizations

There is a fear that when organizations allow too much short-term focus on making maximum profit, ethics will be ignored in favor of doing whatever it takes to improve the bottom line. However, recent events have forced organizations to place a much higher emphasis than before on operating in an ethical manner. As Bottorff(2006) states, "...poor ethics has finally been recognized as a leading killer of organizations."

An initial reason why it is important for organizations to consider ethics is due to changes in laws and regulations that govern business operations. In the last few years legislative and regulatory agencies have made a number of changes in expectations in terms of an organization's ethics. The U.S. Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. As part of this legislation, companies are required to adopt a code of ethics or explain why they have not developed one. Additionally, the Sentencing Commission, in 2004, recognized the need for organizational cultures that encourage ethical conduct (Sears, 2006). …

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