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Weaponized in support of deregulation and self-regulation, “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. The author defines “ethics bashing” as the parallel tendency to trivialize ethics and moral philosophy. Underlying these two attitudes are a few misunderstandings: (1) philosophy is understood in opposition and as alternative to law, political representation, and social organizing; (2) philosophy and “ethics” are perceived as formalistic, vulnerable to instrumentalization, and ontologically flawed; and (3) moral reasoning is portrayed as mere “ivory tower” intellectualization of complex problems that need to be dealt with through other methodologies. This article 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 simplification and seeing ethics as a mode of inquiry that facilitates the evaluation of competing tech policy strategies. We must resist reducing moral philosophy’s role and instead must celebrate its special worth as a mode of knowledge-seeking and inquiry. Far from mandating self-regulation, moral philosophy facilitates the scrutiny of various modes of regulation, situating them in legal, political, and economic contexts. Moral philosophy indeed can explainin the relationship between technology and other worthy goals and can situate technology within the human, the social, and the political.


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From Ethics Washing to Ethics Bashing: A Moral Philosophy View on Tech Ethics

Show Author's information Elettra Bietti1( )
Harvard Law School, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

Abstract

Weaponized in support of deregulation and self-regulation, “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. The author defines “ethics bashing” as the parallel tendency to trivialize ethics and moral philosophy. Underlying these two attitudes are a few misunderstandings: (1) philosophy is understood in opposition and as alternative to law, political representation, and social organizing; (2) philosophy and “ethics” are perceived as formalistic, vulnerable to instrumentalization, and ontologically flawed; and (3) moral reasoning is portrayed as mere “ivory tower” intellectualization of complex problems that need to be dealt with through other methodologies. This article 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 simplification and seeing ethics as a mode of inquiry that facilitates the evaluation of competing tech policy strategies. We must resist reducing moral philosophy’s role and instead must celebrate its special worth as a mode of knowledge-seeking and inquiry. Far from mandating self-regulation, moral philosophy facilitates the scrutiny of various modes of regulation, situating them in legal, political, and economic contexts. Moral philosophy indeed can explainin the relationship between technology and other worthy goals and can situate technology within the human, the social, and the political.

Keywords:

ethics, technology, artificial intelligence, big tech, ethics washing, law, regulation, moral philosophy, political philosophy
Received: 20 May 2021 Revised: 19 November 2021 Accepted: 25 November 2021 Published: 13 January 2022 Issue date: September 2021
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Publication history

Received: 20 May 2021
Revised: 19 November 2021
Accepted: 25 November 2021
Published: 13 January 2022
Issue date: September 2021

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© The author(s) 2021

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgment

E. Bietti thanks Jeff Behrends, Yochai Benkler, Brian Berkey, Reuben Binns, Mark Budolfson, Urs Gasser, Ben Green, Lily Hu, Lucas Stanczyk, Luke Stark, Jonathan Zittrain, and some anonymous reviewers for their valuable input on this article.

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