Group ethics in software development

A couple of weeks ago I attended a really good workshop on How To Stop Being Amoral and Unethical (And Like Yourself Again) at SPA2013 led by John Nolan. The session explored the individual morality of software developers and the ethics of the organizations for which they developed software or of the wider community. The motivating examples were questions such as how detached you could be as a developer from the business of your organization. If the software you are creating is used for a purpose you find reprehensible, how much can you take the Nuremberg defence and say that you were only doing what someone else had told you to do.

Our group discussed group ethics and how they interacted with the individual morality of a software developer.

The questions we addressed included:

  • How do we determine what ethics should govern what we do?
  • Who is empowered and/or qualified to determine the ethics of a given group?
  • For nested groups, which ethics take priority when they conflict?
  • How do we identify the ethics of a group and where the boundary of the group is?

Issues included:

  • Mission statements and “core values” are not usually the ethics in use for an organisation.
  • Most people in the group won’t care what the ethics are or will just live with them.
  • Are people in the group aware enough of the implications/consequences of their actions to form an ethical opinion?
  • Do powerful people define the ethics of the group?
  • The ethics of the group (company) will almost always overpower the morals of the individual (employee) in common scenarios.

This resulted in a poster containing some calls to action:


The suggestions were that:

  • If your morals do not match the ethics of the group then it is your responsibility to either campaign for a change to the group ethics…or to leave the group.
  • To facilitate this, it is your responsibility to actively discover the ethics of the groups you belong to, and…
  • It is your responsibility to raise awareness of ethical issues within your immediate group, e.g. your development team.

Some heavy responsibilities are listed there but taking on these responsibilities will give you the corresponding right to sleep soundly at night.

There is a writeup from Nik Silver on the conclusions of his group.

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