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      ACM’s gonna be the best you can do for sure, this is a great supporting link thank you for posting. ACM can be a stuffy college-universe sort of behemoth but at least you know this was gone over carefully.

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      Author here. We’ve done a really good job in various forums not talking about politics. That’s great and I support it.

      What I don’t support is confusing that with not talking about ethics. As a profession, we need to have discussions around what we should expect of one another. This has nothing at all to do with politics, but many times people confuse the two.

      Lawyers manage to have discussions over whether they should have themselves for a client, whether they should use a blind trust when dealing with minors, whether they should represent a client they felt was guilty, how they should present themselves in appellate courts and all sorts of other touchy and perhaps sensitive things which have nothing to do with the cases in front of them. As programmers, our profession has reached a point where we need to grow up and do the same.

      It really doesn’t matter whether you like the idea or not. I don’t. We’re stuck here anyway.

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        Politics used to be purely (civil) “war continued by other means” to obtained and apportion power.

        In more civilized societies, Politics is the realm where a society defines what constitutes such an extreme violation of ethics, that the society must have a coercive response.

        In even more civilized societies Politics is the realm where a society defines what constitutes such a sufficient violation of ethics, that the society must prevent it by education and incentives.

        If you need politics and/or the law to guide your ethical choices… you are already far too far from behaving ethically.

        “not talking about politics” is a dog whistle for “we like the status quo, don’t rock the boat”

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          “not talking about politics” is a dog whistle for “we like the status quo, don’t rock the boat”

          That’s really interesting. How would you respond to the counter-claim that “everything is political” is a dog whistle for “we don’t like the status quo and we’re going to rock the boat until we get our way”?

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            How about, “There are some good things and some clearly problematic things about the status quo, let’s engage rationally and with kindness and seek better and fairer solutions.”

            But whatever we do, let’s not ignore the elephants in the room, let’s work in our world “Open Eyed, Open Eared” trying to see and understand things from other peoples perspectives.

            When the apartheid system collapsed, an African person said to me, “How can the white people now claim that they didn’t know about all the horrible things that happened?”

            After I bit of thought I replied, “By virtue of a carefully maintained ignorance and a blunt refusal to look”.

            All I ask is to keep looking, keep asking, keep understanding.

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              How about, “There are some good things and some clearly problematic things about the status quo, let’s engage rationally and with kindness and seek better and fairer solutions.”

              That sounds great. I don’t understand what it has to do with “politics”, though, in the sense that the “reasonable person” would understand the term.

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        Person X and I are technocrats.

        Person X is a truly good hard working, loving man, a good husband and father, but ignored ethics in favour of obedience to the law, his employer, his church and the state.

        He spent his working life making weapon systems for a state universally condemned for crimes against humanity.

        When the regime collapsed, and was replaced by those who had, for decades, been the targets of those weapons…. he continued making weapons systems without let or pause.

        I have observed this persons life and try make ethics a step in every second of my life.

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          This tagging is excessive.

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            I did the best I could. I will not use more than three from now on, assuming the three tags I choose are appropriate.

            Honestly I’m not trying to be snarky, but in the future if you could provide a way to fix this, we wouldn’t have to have this conversation again and it would save everybody a lot of time. Otherwise all I know is that you’re unhappy and I’m not really sure how to prevent this in the future. That seems unacceptable to both of us.

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              Usually I give more information, but didn’t have proper keyboard–and there were so many tags it was a pain to actually list them. From here:

              • culture – “Technical communities and culture “
              • education – “Education”
              • historical – “Tech history”
              • meta – “Lobsters-related bikeshedding (hotness mod -0.25) “
              • philosophy – “Philosophy”
              • practices – “Development and business practices “
              • programming – “Use when every tag or no specific tag applies “

              Now, your submission run against this (my reading, others may differ of course):

              • culture – it’s about a cultural issue of how we in tech feel the need for ethics, okay
              • education – it’s not about teaching methods or pedagogy or tutorials, excessive
              • historical – it’s not about tech history, excessive
              • meta – it’s not about Lobsters bike-shedding, excessive
              • philosophy – it’s sorta about a philosophy for approaching tech, okay (but probably superseded by culture)
              • practices – it’s sorta about a framework for talking about ethics in tech, okay
              • programming – other tags apply better, excessive

              Also, note that if anybody is filtering on any of those tags, they won’t see your story. Fewer tags is almost always a better idea.

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                Whoa! Thanks! This is very useful, especially the point about culture superceding philosophy. I never thought about one tag superceding another. I just thought it was a “do the best you can to find tags that might match what you have”

                Same goes for programming.

                I need to review meta because I thought this would be meta more than anything else. I also need to learn or get a better feeling for “excessive”

                I have learned something today. I am in your debt.

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                  No worries, we all started somewhere. :)

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            All this time we were really building weapons, truth be told, weapons more powerful than the A-bomb, but we were doing it in tiny little distributed pieces so each of us could pretend that the use of the weapon and the piece we made are completely unrelated.

            You are a wise man DanielBMarkham–and a brave one too! This ugliness avoids the mirror, and reviles the men who bear it.

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              A lot of engineers think and talk about ethics. It just gets lost in public discourse because so many of us don’t want to stop pretending that they’re making the world a better place, because they don’t want to be reminded that what they do every day is designed to fuck over the human beings around them’

              Unfortunately, these people also work at the big companies which makes them a well-represented majority as well.

              It’s important to remember that this argument is really for all humans, even if engineers are particularly bad at this though (which they are)

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                Is “ethics” even possible for a modern day programmer/SE?

                Lawyers, doctors, even engineers, have some for of licence or qualification they can lose (be barred, lose medical licence, chartered) or well somewhat established practises they can be sued over for breaking.

                What the equivalent for software engineers? I don’t have that kind of leverage; If I refuse a job, there are plenty that will accept - especially those bound to a visa for whom their job is the entire reason they are in the country with a decent salary and will gladly break ethical guidelines to avoid being shipped back home.

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                  I believe you’re talking about ethics enforcement, which exists, as you point out, for many licensed professionals.

                  There are a lot of professionals, however, that are not licensed and yet hold ethics in high regard: journalists, photographers, chiropractors (before the field was licensed). Basically any field where trust between one another and trust with the general public is required. For the licensed fields, the licensing body is responsible for ethics. For the others, it varies quite a bit. Financial planners, for instance, have several associations they can join (I believe) each of which has separate standards.

                  There are several questions here:

                  1. Is it time to talk about ethics?
                  2. Is this place to do so? If not, where?
                  3. Could we or should we ever agree on an ethical framework (a system for identifying the various types of ethical questions we might face)?
                  4. If so, where do we go from there? Perhaps various GitHub-hosted ethical standards bodies that we voluntarily join? Something else?

                  I don’t know the answers to any of this. I just know that over the past several years, I’ve seen a lot of public activity around programming where there were two levels. Level one was some event or act that made the newspapers and everybody argued about. Level two was the rest of us programmers trying to figure out if we were in a similar situation, how we should act.

                  To drive the point home while agreeing with you, take the recent 737MAX disasters. If a lot of developers knew there was a good chance they were building software that might kill somebody, should that be an ethical problem? Maybe it is and there’s nothing to be done. I honestly don’t know. Guessing you might be doing something dangerous is a bit vague.

                  Really all we can hope for is a framework, not a set of rules. But if, as an industry, we decide that one type of activity is much more problematic than another? That’s something we should be teaching people coming out of uni. What they do with that, whether they form trade groups or whatnot, is outside the scope of this essay. The essay’s point was that either we create a framework, perhaps a framework we disagree about the required observations and actions required but still a framework with common language and definitions, or it’ll be done for us without our input.

                  Every day people are posting stories online about programming ethics. Doesn’t that tell us that it’s important?

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                    Here’s the problem though: I don’t think journalist, photographers, or chiropractors are ethical, and we shouldn’t be trying to emulate them. Journalists who like to pay the rent can’t afford ethics any more, “photographers” is too wide a net to really be worth analysing, and an ethical chiropractor is like an ethical psychic.

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                      It’s impossible for a quack to hold ethics in high regard. They either don’t know enough about their entire field to know what they’re doing is quackery, which is culpable, or they do know and they do it anyway, which is also culpable. In either case, there’s no ethical world where chiropractic is acceptable.

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                        Remember that “chiropracter” has two different meanings. One of them is a much more constrained, innocuous practice involving joint adjustments; my dad occasionally sees a chiropracter for his back, and it helps greatly.

                        There’s also a broader one that has some serious quackery associated with it.

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                          The adjustments can cause death:


                          In general, the safe adjustments can be done by physical therapists who know what they’re doing, and who aren’t going to schedule a lot of unneeded adjustments because adjustments are all they do.

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                            That’s not actually what your link says.

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                        • Is it time? Yes. It’s long past due.
                        • Is this the place? Yes. Everywhere is the place.
                        • Could we? Not easily. People like pretending that working at Facebook & Google isn’t hurting their friends. Should we? Yes.
                        • Maybe choose a more ethically focused citizen, like Gitlab.
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                        Don’t underestimate the effect you can have by voicing your opinion.

                        A refusal phrased a certain way might lead to termination, but honest good-faith discussion never should. There is cost to a company in firing you and in onboarding someone to replace you, which gives you some small leverage. The company’s PR story gives you a bit more, if needed in more dire circumstances.

                        Yes, there will always be people willing to do unethical work. But that doesn’t justify not standing up in at least some small way, even if the result is conceding and doing the work anyway because you have to make rent or feed your family.

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                        Any time somebody proposes this sort of thing in any detail it rapidly devolves into either a) having some sort of “programming license” which seems antithetical to just about everything I’ve experienced in my career, or b) just yet-another call to unionisation, which is an abomination. Unions are an answer to a problem programmers just don’t have.

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                          Unions are an answer to a problem programmers just don’t have.

                          Programmers may be well paid but often have other problems that would be mitigated by unionization: long hours, unreasonable deadlines, toxic environments, capricious management, etc.

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                            But unionisation wont address any of that. If all the programmers in Springfield manage to convince each other to unionise en masse, their work will be done in Shelbyville, or Bangalore. Unions only “work” when the job to be done requires doing on-site, and the supply of local labour exceeds the demand. And there’s always going to be a lot of programmers like me who will never unionise, and will fight it tooth and nail.

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                              That’s why developer salaries in Silicon Valley are about the same as those in Manila, right?

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                                That’s why many call for sector-level unionization.


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                                other problems that would be mitigated by unionization: long hours, unreasonable deadlines, toxic environments, capricious management, etc.

                                Not to mention having to work to build unethical systems (cf Google Project Maven, Amazon surveillance systems), or accepting deplorable organizations as customers (cf Chef and CBP, etc).

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                              Very good to discuss and put a positive virus in someone’s brain re: contemplating impact of your work.

                              Very easy to pontificate or have your personal perspective skew things; glad to see author’s comments realizing we’re all “editorial”-level sort of writers on this subject; we all would end up with a different version of this blog if we sat down and compared.

                              I wouldn’t point a finger at anyone writing, say, an obnoxious browser toolbar, because I can’t hate on anyone supporting themselves. I have written them. Oh well, life goes on.

                              If you don’t like the mission of your company that’s a whole other bag of worms. Discovering that before, after, during some turning point can be pretty painful I bet.

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                                Also there is the “moral relativism” issue to avoid. We have a common understanding of impact basically due to a common morality system.

                                Only basically really good things have happened to me my whole life. Very easy to sit back and contemplate what I can do and change about this-and-that now.

                                Now imagine someone where only bad things happened to them, and morality is very different by their perspective; and on a global scale I also can’t really judge what a person does to survive.

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                                  An interesting ethics problem occurs when you love the stated mission of a company or agency, but then find the actual work is not working towards those goals. Do you really understand the situation, or does it look differently from another place in the org? Should you go public? Etc.

                                  To me, annoying people is ethical, as long as they have a choice of whether to be annoyed or not. I tried some “free” software a year or two ago. It’s nice, I guess, but in return for being free, everyday it asks if it should update itself – and in an obnoxious way. Can you disable the auto-update prompt? Sure, if you pay! If there’s anything unethical here, and I doubt it, it’s the difference in meanings between what I thought “free” meant and what the developer meant. Assuming positive intent, I’m fine with it.

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                                    I really appreciate your reply; great convo and thought provoker