Sustainability in computing’s Code of Ethics?

Posted on July 1, 2007


Q: Is sustainability described in computing’s code of ethics?

A: Not explicitly.

The ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (1992) identifies the “commitment to ethical conduct expected of every member”. It consists of “24 imperatives formulated as statements of personal responsibility”. It is argued in the preamble to the code that not every issue is explicitly stated and that the “imperatives are expressed in a general form to emphasise that ethical principles which apply to computer ethics are derived from more general ethical principles”.

The first general moral imperative states:

As an ACM member I will …

Contribute to society and human well-being.

This principle concerning the quality of life of all people affirms an obligation to protect fundamental human rights and to respect the diversity of all cultures. An essential aim of computing professionals is to minimize negative consequences of computing systems, including threats to health and safety. When designing or implementing systems, computing professionals must attempt to ensure that the products of their efforts will be used in socially responsible ways, will meet social needs, and will avoid harmful effects to health and welfare.

The code then continues, covering: avoiding harm to others; being trustworthy; being fair and not discriminating; honouring intellectual property; privacy etc. Beyond these general statements, “more specific professional responsibilities” are stated: striving for excellence; maintaining professional competence; knowing and respecting laws, accepting professional review; giving comprehensive review of computer systems and their impacts including analysis of risks; improving public understanding of computing and its consequences.

Although sustainability is not explicitly mentioned in the code, the precedents for it do seem to be.

The Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (ACM/IEEE/CS 1999) is more specifically aligned with responsibilities as a software engineer. The code preamble again states its general application

“These obligations are founded in the software engineer’s humanity, in special care owed to people affected by the work of software engineers, and the unique elements of the practice of software engineering…The Code is not a simple ethical algorithm that generates ethical decisions”

The SE Code clearly makes reference to wider effects on humanity “consider broadly who is affected by their work; to examine if they and their colleagues are treating other human beings with due respect” and in the first principle “Public” software engineers should:

“1.03. Approve software only if they have a well-founded belief that it is safe, meets specifications, passes appropriate tests, and does not diminish quality of life, diminish privacy or harm the environment. The ultimate effect of the work should be to the public good…

In addition to a safe social environment, human well-being includes a safe natural environment. Therefore, computing professionals who design and develop systems must be alert to, and make others aware of, any potential damage to the local or global environment.