Developers and Ethics

“What are some areas you are particularly interested in” – recruiters (head-hunters) tend to ask that question a lot. I don’t have a good answer for that – I’ll know it when I see it. But I have a list of areas that I wouldn’t like to work in. And one of them is gambling.

Several years ago I got a very lucrative offer for a gambling company, both well paid and technically challenging. But I rejected it. Because I didn’t want to contribute to abusing peoples’ weaknesses for the sake of getting their money. And no, I’m not a raging Marxist, but gambling is bad. You may argue that it’s a necessary vice and people need it to suppress other internal struggles, but I’m not buying that as a motivator.

I felt it’s unethical to write code that does that. Like I feel it’s unethical to profile users’ behaviours and “read” their emails in order to target ads, or to write bots to disseminate fake news.

A few months ago I was part of the campaign HQ for a party in a parliamentary election. Cambridge Analytica had already become popular after “delivering Brexit and Trump’s victory”, that using voters’ data in order to target messages at them sounded like the new cool thing. As head of IT & data, I rejected this approach. Because it would be unethical to bait unsuspecting users to take dumb tests in order to provide us with facebook tokens. Yes, we didn’t have any money to hire Cambridge Analytica-like companies, but even if we had, is “outsourcing” the dubious practice changing anything? If you pay someone to trick users into unknowingly giving their personal data, it’s as if you did it yourself.

This can be a very long post about technology and ethics. But it won’t, as this is a technical blog, not a philosophical one. It won’t be about philosophy – for interesting takes on the matter you can listen to Damon Horowitz’s TED talk or even go through all of Michael Sandel’s Justice lectures at Harvard. It won’t be about how companies should be ethical (e.g. following the ethical design manifesto)

Instead, it will be a short post focusing on developers and their ethical choices.

I think we have the freedom to be ethical – there’s so much demand on the job market that rejecting an offer, refusing to do something, or leaving a company for ethical reasons is something we have the luxury to do without compromising our well-being. When asked to do something unethical, we can refuse (several years ago I was asked to take part in some shady interactions related to a potential future government contract, which I refused to do). When offered jobs that are slightly better paid but would have us build abusive technology, we can turn the offer down. When a new feature requires us to breach people’s privacy, we can argue it, and ultimately not do it.

But in order to start making these ethical choices, we have to start thinking about ethics. To put ourselves in context. We, developers, are building the world of tomorrow (it sounds grandiose, but we know it’s way more mundane than that). We are the “tools” with which future products will be shaped. And yes, that’s true even for the average back-office system of an insurance company (which allows for raising the insurance for pre-existing conditions), and true for boring banking software (which allows mortgages way beyond the actual coverage the bank has), and so on.

Are these decisions ours to make? Isn’t it legislators that should define what’s allowed and what isn’t? We are just building whatever they tell us to build. Forgive me the far-fetched analogy, but Nazi Germany was an anti-humanity machine based on people who “just followed orders”. Yes, we’ll refuse, someone else will come and do it, but collective ethics gets built over time.

As Hannah Arendt had put it – “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”. We may think that as developers we don’t have a say. But without us, no software can be built. So with our individual ethical stance, a certain unethical software may not be built or be successful, and that’s a stance worth considering, especially when it costs us next to nothing.

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