Sharpening the ethical mind

I am diving into ethics.

I am a software engineer. Recently the software engineering community found itself in a sudden heated discussion involving ethical dilemmas. Facebook was called for influencing the very fundamentals of democratic society with the Cambridge Analytica controversy. Meanwhile the Department of Defense of the United States is ramping up its technology for algorithmic warfare marching towards the next “atomic bomb”, involving industry leaders like Google. These are heavy topics… and they caught most technologists unprepared. For decades, software developers were only focusing on creating the technology and not giving too much thought on the moral questions around its usage.

So, earlier this year I decided that I will ramp up my ethics knowledge, and enter the debate. I did my homework in the last few weeks: Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Kant, Rousseau, Nietzsche…

Here is a test question: what’s more important in evaluating one’s actions (whether they are good or bad): the intentions or the consequences? This is best illustrated by an example…

Let’s imagine that you’re driving along in a car. You’re slightly over the speed-limit, but you’re on a straight length of road, without any houses around. It’s also early in the morning, and there are no other cars nearby. You are in no way driving recklessly. You’ve done the same route many times before, and you’ve never run into trouble. But this morning you don’t spot a small pothole in the road. Your front wheel hits it, and you lose control of the car. The car skids around and around, and you watch with horror as a bus stop veers into view. You crash into it, and in doing so, hit two school children waiting for their ride to school. One is seriously injured, the other killed outright.

How do we judge this action?

There is no correct answer to this question. That’s why it’s called an ethical dilemma. And the general problem that lies beneath is truly puzzling: what’s more important in evaluating one’s actions (whether they are good or bad): the intentions or the consequences?

Nietzsche gave something of guidance on this matter. He distinguished two kinds of moralities: master morality and slave morality.

Nietzsche says that in master morality the values are things like pride, strength, and nobility. Actions are evaluated on good or bad consequences. Quite contrary, in slave morality the values are things like kindness, humility, and sympathy. Actions are evaluated on good or bad intentions.

Nietzsche was quite clear on which kind of morality he preferred. – Take a hint from how he named them.

I am not so convinced however… I do think that kindness is a great value.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.