TechWatch: Challenge at the Intersection

At the intersection of technology and ethics lies a challenging set of problems. Using the broadest definition of technology, the problems include issues in genetic engineering, the environment, medical- and bioethics, nuclear power, nanotechnology, and weapons of mass destruction to name a few. Even when technology is narrowed to information technology, the set of issues remains large, including piracy, privacy, pornography, hacking, identity, and intellectual property. Information technology will be my focus in this article.

I recently participated in the Seventh Annual Ethics and Technology Conference at Loyola University in Chicago where many of these issues were discussed. The slides I used in my presentation are available for review.

Technology and Ethics

Many times the intersection of technology and ethics is thought of as a Venn diagram, causing us to think of technology and ethics as a subset of the subjects of technology and ethics. In fact, the interaction of technology and ethics gives rise to issues that are rarely discussed in the field of ethics (because this is a particular application of ethics) or in the field of technology (because this is an implication of technology and its impact on people). Thus the subject of technology and ethics is not merely the rehashing of material from the two subjects, but is the new ideas that develop when the two areas come together.

Perhaps a better characterization would be to think of technology and ethics as roads, and the intersection as the place where the two roads cross. To understand the intersection, you need to understand something about the individual roads—the number of lanes, the speed of travel, the level of traffic, etc. But none of these issues prepare you to deal with all that happens at an intersection—traffic control, turning priorities, bottlenecks, etc. In a similar way, many of the problems discussed at this conference are not typically discussed at either technology conferences or ethics conferences.

This does not mean that individual disciplines of technology and ethics need to be reinvented at this intersection. In fact, we must know a great deal about each individual area in order to understand the issues at the intersection. But the individual knowledge is not enough.

Business and Ethics

Not surprisingly, we can look at the subject of business ethics as the intersection between business and ethics and see a related set of issues. It is easy to fall in the previous trap of thinking this is just a part of one subject or another.

John Maxwell did this in his book, There is No Such Thing as Business Ethics. He was trying to make the point that we don’t have a new ethic for business, but right is right. So far, so good. But he completely misses the challenging application of ethics in business, requiring careful thinking about the structure and purpose of business (appropriate compensation, performance objectives, sales practices, hiring processes, ethical layoff practices, technology use, etc.). These subjects are often not found in either traditional business or in traditional ethics discussions, and are vital. Again, we see that the intersection is not a classical subset of the two, but a rich topic of its own requiring careful thinking about both subjects.

Business and Technology

Continuing along the same line, we can look at the intersection of business and technology. It is not unusual to see subjects of technology in business confined to the “information systems” portion of the business curriculum. Many business executives leave the topic of technology to the information systems people of the organization. But this misses the fundamental role of technology in business. Technology has so fundamentally transformed business in the past ten years, it cannot be thought of as a subject that is simply a subset of the two topics. Reengineering, the role of the Internet, 24-7 operation, and globalization as we know it today are all found at this intersection.

Business, Technology, and Ethics

In preparing for my talk at the recent conference on Ethics and Technology, I considered the question of whether adding business to the mix adds or detracts from the subjects generally discussed at a technology and ethics conference. By now, the conclusion is not surprising. When we bring business into the technology and ethics discussion, we add a rich new set of issues to the technology and ethics agenda.

The traditional subjects of piracy, privacy, pornography, identity, and the like, take on new dimensions when business is brought to the mix. The issue of software piracy, as I wrote about in Ethix 33, is not simply an application of the personal issue of protecting intellectual property rights by not downloading music, software, etc. It now extends to corporate responsibility for managing software licenses on company computers, and on employees’ personal computers that are used for business. Pornography moves from the personal and individual realm to include harassment in the work place. These are just two examples.

In addition, a whole new collection of issues need to be studied in this three-way intersection. They include outsourcing and offshoring, globalization, the speed of decision making, use of email for business purposes, appropriate boundaries for personal time and company time when employees are always connected, managing company communications in the era of the Internet, workplace monitoring, and the responsibility of a company for retraining of people when they are replaced by technology.

The interesting thing about this list is that these technology and ethics issues are only brought to light when business is brought into the picture.

Incidentally, some have questioned why we have technology in our name—The Institute for Business, Technology, and Ethics. Isn’t this rather limiting when you could be considering all of business ethics, I am often asked? I have concluded that instead of being limiting, it truly expands our agenda. Technology adds much to the business ethics agenda, both in the new questions it raises and in the new thinking it requires. Every business should be concerned with the powerful force of technology and its impact on their business practices and on ethics.

Other Intersections

Back to our original discussion on technology and ethics, we see the subject is extended by the introduction of business. It is not surprising to find that it is further extended if other subjects are brought into the discussion such as medicine, science, or government. Each of these areas will add to the technology and ethics agenda.

Consider one illustration from the intersection of technology and ethics with government. Today, because of the Internet, electronic voting could make this important process available to many people, conveniently from their home. There is a big push to do this. But there is also a growing concern from the technology community about the potential abuses of this new opportunity, including the potential for hackers (and terrorists) to interfere with the voting process. There have been voter abuse scandals for many years, but technology, as an amplifier, could take this abuse to new levels. Those wanting to explore this particular issue further might start with

In a very different context, the discussion has long raged over interdisciplinary studies. Those who dismiss interdisciplinary work usually do so on the grounds that such work is “just an application” and doesn’t advance the individual fields. I believe that thinking about the road intersection model, rather than the Venn diagram, helps one see that this intersection offers rich new work in addition to identifying new problem areas in each individual field. From a business point of view, a similar argument is made for the collaboration between departments, e.g. engineering and manufacturing.

This even takes us to the ongoing discussion by academics over the nature of research. I had a mathematics professor one time who argued against applications by saying they “spoiled the beauty of the mathematics.” While I believe there is a role for curiosity-driven research with no end objective, when a particular subject is confronted with an application, the subject is enriched. For information technology, this subject of end user driven research is addressed in a National Academy of Sciences report, Making IT Better.


We have been trained to look at Venn diagrams to help us see subsets of two different areas. In many cases, however, this valuable tool may distort what really happens when we bring different areas together for study. Technology and ethics is a bigger topic than just a portion of technology or ethics. And bringing business into the picture adds to the ethics and technology challenge, rather than limiting it.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.