Conference paper by Elettra Bietti.
Presented at the 2020 ACM FAT* Conference.
The word ‘ethics’ is under siege in technology policy circles. Weaponized in support of deregulation, self-regulation or hands-off governance, “ethics” is increasingly identified with technology companies’ self-regulatory efforts and with shallow appearances of ethical behavior. So-called “ethics washing” by tech companies is on the rise, prompting criticism and scrutiny from scholars and the tech community at large. In parallel to the growth of ethics washing, its condemnation has led to a tendency to engage in “ethics bashing.” This consists in the trivialization of ethics and moral philosophy now understood as discrete tools or pre-formed social structures such as ethics boards, self-governance schemes or stakeholder groups.
The misunderstandings underlying ethics bashing are at least three-fold: (a) philosophy and “ethics” are seen as a communications strategy and as a form of instrumentalized cover-up or façade for unethical behavior, (b) philosophy is understood in opposition and as alternative to political representation and social organizing and (c) the role and importance of moral philosophy is downplayed and portrayed as mere “ivory tower” intellectualization of complex problems that need to be dealt with in practice.
This paper argues that the rhetoric of ethics and morality should not be reductively instrumentalized, either by the industry in the form of “ethics washing,” or by scholars and policy-makers in the form of “ethics bashing.” Grappling with the role of philosophy and ethics requires moving beyond both tendencies and seeing ethics as a mode of inquiry that facilitates the evaluation of competing tech policy strategies. In other words, we must resist narrow reductivism of moral philosophy as instrumentalized performance and renew our faith in its intrinsic moral value as a mode of knowledge-seeking and inquiry. Far from mandating a self-regulatory scheme or a given governance structure, moral philosophy in fact facilitates the questioning and reconsideration of any given practice, situating it within a complex web of legal, political and economic institutions. Moral philosophy indeed can shed new light on human practices by adding needed perspective, explaining the relationship between technology and other worthy goals, situating technology within the human, the social, the political. It has become urgent to start considering technology ethics also from within and not only from outside of ethics.