Part 1: Everyone can do ethics, can’t they?
Ethics is an unusual discipline, because it’s something which everyone knows a bit about. It’s impossible to go through life without thinking ‘what should I do?’, ‘what is fair?’, ‘where should my loyalties lie?’, and so on. Ethical dilemmas can and do occur everywhere, in both personal and professional contexts. We all have to think through these dilemmas in our lives for ourselves, to come up with answers, and decide what to do for the best wherever we encounter them. Learning by trial and error and along with instruction about ethical behaviour, right and wrong, and so on, from – for the most part – our families, communities and education, means that everyone gains some degree of expertise in moral decision-making. Often, people also – although obviously not always – tend to get better at moral decision-making in line with life experience; this is something like Aristotle’s conception of ethics as practical wisdom: becoming better at knowing what to do, and why, in a given situation.
Given that everyone knows a bit about ethics, and probably enough to get by, one could understand scepticism about the added value of formal academic training in ethical theory, abstracted from the realities of real-life decision-making. Why bother dedicating years of education to something that you’ll pick up enough of along the way anyway?
On this view, ethics is similar to disciplines such as maths, geography, history, biology, and the like: we tend to acquire enough of this in basic education at school for us to be able to get by through life well enough, beneath the level at which we would need to consult someone with more advanced, formal, training. As such, ethics appears to be very much unlike disciplines which require some formal training for being even minimally competent in the subject – for example: engineering, dentistry, software design, architecture, medicine, and so on and so on, none of which you would entrust to an unqualified expert. Of course, it’s possible that one happens in an ad-hoc way to pick up more expertise in something like engineering or the rudiments of software design by chance rather than choice as one goes through life. But this can’t be assumed in the way that some understanding of ethics can, given that as moral agents, we all wonder, from time to time, what we or others ought to do.
So, with that in mind, if there is any value to formal training in ethics, what is it, what difference does it make, and why should you or your organisation pay someone who has studied it, if you want help with figuring out what to do when it comes to handling data? Clearly, I’m biased in defending the value of that formal training. Nevertheless, anyone who offers something as a professional service to be paid for is obliged to be able to give a plausible account of why it’s worth paying for, which is what I aim to do in this article.
There are several ways to respond to the challenge I’ve set myself and which any potential client is entitled to make. In doing so, first I sketch out some of the reasons why formal training in ethics is valuable above and beyond the practical knowledge that we all pick up along the way through life. These reasons help to make it clear why, if you or your organisation has ethical dilemmas that it needs to resolve, or wants to make sure that it operates in a way that is not only legal but ethical as well, you should seek the expertise of people who have trained in it. Then, in the second part, I go on to anchor this somewhat theoretical argument in some observations about the 2023 Big Data London trade show which I and several IGS colleagues attended as exhibitors.
To begin, it’s important to make clear a distinction between two interpretations of what we might mean by ‘expertise’ in ethics, to ensure that there is no confusion about what I’m referring to here. In both cases, though, I’m nevertheless referring to whatever expertise might be conferred by formal training in the various moral philosophical theories, their justificatory moorings, and how they are applied to real-world cases to resolve, or contribute to the resolution of, real-world ethical dilemmas.
- Interpretation 1: The imaginary perfect moral agent
The first interpretation is that it would follow from knowing the theories and how they are applied that the person who knows them is a moral expert in the sense of being a more moral individual on the basis of their training.
This interpretation is mistaken, because it does not follow from having learnt ethical theories that one will in fact necessarily make more moral choices, any more than it follows from having learnt the principles of civil engineering that one will necessarily design bridges that are safe and do not cause death due to structural defects. For instance, a sadistic civil engineer could, in principle, use their expertise to design a structure deliberately intended to be unsafe and kill its users.
As such, it should not be assumed that training in the theoretical basis of ethics is any different; this to say, we should not expect such a person to be a moral expert in the sense of being morally unimpeachable in their own lives because through their theoretical training they have somehow become enlightened about what it is definitely right to do when presented with an ethical dilemma. Indeed, the debate about whether there can even be such a thing as a moral expert, and if so how this is to be understood, has been a live debate in applied ethics for over forty years.
The person who has studied ethical theory does not necessarily have any more moral expertise than anyone else when it comes to knowing what the right thing to do is, simply by virtue of having learned all the theories. This would imply that some people are better moral arbiters than others, as well as obscuring what is valuable about formal training in the philosophical basis of ethics. So, if expertise in ethics isn’t being able to say for sure what you definitely should and should not do, what is it?
- Interpretation 2: Technical skill
I contend that a more accurate and plausible interpretation is this. It isn’t that the person with the theoretical expertise in ethics is or has to be personally saint-like. Instead, the sense in which they are experts derives from their ability to identify and articulate the ethical issues at stake; how competing ethical priorities might come into tension; and what trade-offs are required in different courses of action.
Here, much as with the civil engineer, the expertise derives from knowing in a dispassionate sense what is required to achieve a particular goal, and what the consequences will be of different decisions, whether those are engineering decisions or decisions about how an organisation ought to handle people’s data.
For the avoidance of doubt, it’s true, of course, that the first kind of moral expertise does exist. There are indeed people who have excellent moral judgement in their own lives, with a degree of practical wisdom that we would recognise their decision-making as reliably moral. However, it’s important to make clear that knowing what is at stake, ethically speaking, and being able to explain it comprehensively and objectively, is what is required in the context of consultancy. This is because it is the role of the consultant to analyse the situation and provide information to a client such that the client can make the informed decision.
This final point is crucial: as consultants, we’re not here to tell you what you definitely ought to do; we’re here to provide you with the highest quality information about what your choices are and what their various consequences will be. As such, you do not need to hire the imaginary perfect moral agent, but you do need to be able to hire someone with the analytical skill to present those choices as comprehensively and accurately as possible.
The implication here of what the second interpretation says about the nature of expertise in ethics, is worth pursuing a little.
First, ethics is a branch of philosophy and derives an important part of its benefit from being so. The question of what philosophy ‘is’ does not have an answer in the way that is quite straightforward in the case of, for example, the physical sciences. Nevertheless, whatever else philosophy else is or isn’t, it is characterised by logical rigour; precision; careful, rational analytic skill; and a commitment to understanding concepts as clearly as possible at their most fundamental level. Ethics is that branch of philosophy which seeks to understand, through the application of such careful rational analysis, what we should and should not do. Philosophy trains you to think clearly, to reason effectively, to be able to spot biases and errors in argument. It is a transferrable skill that is hugely valuable in all contexts. Philosophical training in ethics, therefore, enables you to do this in matters where we have to distinguish between what is morally forbidden, permissible, and obligatory.
Given that the subject matter of philosophy is logical thought itself, training in philosophy provides unique analytical skills. Philosophical training enhances one’s ability to reason clearly about a given situation. As such, to the extent that ethics is a branch of philosophy, it enables one to do this in the context of deliberation about what we ought and ought not to do.
Taking all this into account, what might we conclude? Well, it still remains true that everyone has some degree of moral expertise, in the sense that moral dilemmas are something that everyone is faced with and has to think about from time to time. However, we can also reason badly; we can be affected by biases and unexamined prejudices; we might not be able to spot errors in the reasoning of others; and we might be swayed by persuasive rhetoric to reach conclusions which do not, in fact, survive serious critical scrutiny. To use the civil engineer example again, if you wanted to build a bridge you would hire a civil engineer to design it, rather than someone who happens to have seen, walked, or driven across lots of bridges. Likewise, if you want to reason about ethical choices in a way that is commensurate with the seriousness of what is at stake, morally speaking, to come to as carefully balanced conclusion as possible, you should hire a professional in that field too. And it is here that IGS can help.
Part 2: Putting flesh on the bones of the theory, with reflections on Big Data London
Even if all of the the above makes theoretical sense, it might still sound a bit abstract without contextualisation. How, exactly, does this account of the value of formal expertise in ethical theory and analysis relate to the concrete practices of, for example, ensuring ethical best practice in organisational data handling? In this section I’m going to try and flesh out an answer to this with some observations on what I saw at the Big Data London trade show in September 2023.
First, it’s important to be clear that there’s a sense in which some of what I have to say might seem to be unfair to the people and organisations about whom I’m making the remarks. After all, they’re neither philosophers in general nor ethicists in particular, so there is no reason to expect them to have considered the points I have to make. However, it’s precisely for this reason that hiring someone with professional training in philosophy in general and ethics in particular can help. As I have said above, if you want expertise, go to an expert, and for the reasons I’ll unpack, I hope to show in practical terms why and how expertise in philosophy and ethics are not only valuable, but also deserve the label; which is to say, the label of expertise, construed as a professional skill developed through formal training.
My first observation from Big Data London is that it was notable how many companies giving talks to sell their various products – software, engineering platforms, data processing solutions and so on – used terms that are overtly ethically-loaded; for example: trust; truth; responsibility; utopia; and, to my surprise, a reference to Kafka.
Seeing these words used in the titles of these talks piqued my interest, so I went either to hear the talks, or in some cases to speak to the companies giving them so I could find out more about what they were going to say. In doing this, two things became evident: first, these terms were often used in a relatively narrow or unreflective way; second, alternately the terms were deployed in a way that lacked precision and could lead to misinterpretation.
This, of course, is unsurprising. We use ethics words all the time and we have, for the most part, a good enough understanding of what they mean. But let’s take two of the five examples here – trust and truth – to think about potential risks from using them in ways where their implications receive insufficiently detailed scrutiny.
It turned out from the presentation talking about trust that the company emphasising its importance in data processing and how their product could help do it better referred to trust exclusively in the sense of technical efficiency and reliability.
The case this company made for their product is eminently understandable: if you want your customers to be able to trust you and your services, you need products that you can rely on to work reliably and efficiently. To the extent that a product does work reliably and efficiently, it’s trustworthy. But there are other senses in which trust is important that go beyond trustworthiness in a technical sense. After all, a highly efficient and reliable system could be put to any number of uses, both ethical and unethical. It’s far-fetched, of course, but you could, for example, develop a reliably efficient way of systematically killing people. Or, you could, in principle, design a system that is to be used for purposes that are entirely dishonest; that is to say, for purposes where trust, in the sense of whether it can be relied on to treat you with the respect you deserve as a moral agent, would not be warranted.
Of course, and to reiterate, I accept that this criticism might be a little unfair. After all, it’s not up to the manufacturers of a product how their product is used or the purposes to which their customers put it, any more than it’s up to us at IGS whether or not our clients take our advice; and so my criticism is open to the charge of nitpicking, or being pedantic, or flatly irrelevant. Nevertheless, it points to something that at IGS we think is important, which is that any company handling personal data should think about the ethical ramifications of what they are doing. To return to an earlier point, it’s not that organisations and all their employees need to act in a saintly way; and since it’s fair, in a commercial context particularly, that businesses and other organisations need to think about the bottom line, it’s reasonable that they would want to seek out products which they can trust to be sufficiently reliable that the bottom line will be protected.
Still, a term like trust is not neutral, and all organisations – business, charity, healthcare provider, or whatever – are social institutions and therefore answerable to the society that they serve. As such, blind spots about what a foundationally important, multi-dimensional normative term like trust or trustworthiness – which a company might use to market themselves – could mean in the round are important to be aware of. Because people matter morally, how their data is used does too, and trustworthiness as it relates to this aspect of an organisation’s practices is likely to conduce to its success in the long run. And because of that, at IGS we think that all organisations will benefit from thinking in a comprehensive way about the terms they use to sell themselves.
- Franz and Apache Kafka
In the second example, I became aware of a shortcoming in my technical knowledge about data engineering. I went to speak to a company giving a presentation whose title made an intriguing reference to Kafka, to find out something of what the talk would be about. No doubt my assumption that the reference was to the author Franz Kafka reflects my particular background, training and interests, as after speaking to them for a few minutes it transpired that the reference was nothing to do with Franz Kafka, but a data platform called Apache Kafka, designed by someone who, completely incidentally, happened to like the works of Franz Kafka and so named the platform after him. Neither the platform nor the particular data processing solution built on top of it, nor the subject of the talk, had anything to do with Franz Kafka or his work.
Here, too, I accept the criticism that there is nothing odd about this, nor should I necessarily expect a data engineering talk to be concerned with the philosophical and ethical themes to be found in Kafka’s writing. What’s more, that I did not know there is a data platform called Apache Kafka points to a blind spot in my own knowledge.
So, first, why does all of this matter? It matters because it’s illustrative in the same way as the trust point; namely, no process which handles personal data is ethically neutral, because people matter morally. Second, in the specific case of Franz Kafka, what is there to say?
My first thought was that a talk about data and Kafka might have something do with Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, in which the protagonist Josef. K is arrested, prosecuted, and eventually executed by an opaque authority for a crime which is never revealed either to him or the reader. Kafka depicts a process in which Josef’s guilt in having committed the undisclosed crime becomes increasingly assumed, just because he is on trial.
The Trial is a sinister novel which has been argued on several occasions over the century since it was written to have predicted the modern surveillance state. Indeed, it has given rise to the common epithet ‘Kafkaesque’ to describe situations in which one becomes vulnerable to an authority for reasons that are unclear, because the system which creates the vulnerability is so byzantine that we are unable to hold it to account. And, to bring this directly to the present, we tend to think that our privacy and our right to direct our lives however we wish within the law without scrutiny by people to whom we have not granted it matters. On this view, The Trial is profoundly relevant at the present historical moment, where it can be bafflingly unclear who has access to our data and for what purposes.
On discovering that the product had nothing to do with Kafka and The Trial, I was told that nobody had ever asked them that or made the same association before. I was astonished to hear this, not least given the irony that the product being sold which used the Kafka platform was a piece of software designed for linking networks of personal devices to facilitate data linkage between them. I’ll leave the example there, but I hope the reason for unpacking it now makes sense if it didn’t before.
Where is all this going? Well, companies recognise, or should recognise, that they have both legal and ethical responsibilities to the people whose data they hold. It might well be that legal compliance happens to guarantee observance of the necessary ethical standards as well, or it might not. And everyone is aware of the importance of their own privacy when it comes to data handling. As such, much like the trust example, even if the particular aims of a particular product are benign rather than nefarious, organisations will benefit in general from thinking explicitly the ethical implications of their activities, to the extent that they are social institutions answerable to the people whose data they hold or wish to hold.
Finally in this section, before concluding, I want to present a second observation, which is relevant to having attended Big Data London as a data ethicist interested in seeing whether and how data ethics was represented elsewhere at the event.
Big Data London featured just one presentation on data ethics. This is, to my mind, extraordinary, given the sometimes incomprehensible data soup in which we all live and in which our privacy is at stake. With that in mind, it’s important to commend the company which represented this crucial aspect of the data industry landscape. The person giving the talk on behalf of their organisation gave, quite rightly, an account of why organisations should go beyond the law and ensure that what they do with people’s data is not only legally compliant but ethically sound. The talk made sense and the company also provides good quality free online resources about data ethics, articulated clearly in non-technical, layperson terms for organisations seeking to ensure that they handle data ethically. So, if there are no criticisms to be made here, why do I raise the example?
The answer loops back to the start of this piece and the reasons why, if you want to ensure that you handle data ethically, you should hire an ethics professional, where professionalism is defined by acquisition of the relevant formal, technical body of knowledge which gives rise to the associated expertise.
Although the presentation and the company and its materials are to be commended, on digging into them further, I could not see how or where any of it was informed by formal philosophical training in ethical theory, by which I mean the technical grounding in argument logic and ethical reasoning. For the avoidance of doubt, it may well be that the formal expertise either are present in the company and its advisors, or they have been sought from elsewhere, and that I have just not found the evidence of this from looking through their online presence. As such, I have to remain agnostic with respect to the depth of their expertise in ethics in general and data ethics in particular, and I am happy to be corrected if I missed the evidence I was looking for. Also for the avoidance of doubt, it’s important to be clear that even if the company does not have those expertise, it does not mean that their presentation wasn’t useful, valuable, enlightening, and important, because it was all of those things. Nevertheless, it’s important to briefly reiterate why it does matter, further down the line, if those expertise are not present and available.
Unfortunately, there are vanishingly few ‘right’ answers in ethics. Apart from various paradigm instances of unequivocally immoral behaviour – torture, rape, murder, and so on – ethical judgements are, for the most part, always contestable. Certainly, in the case of something as complex as data and how it used, where there are risks and benefits for individuals, organisations, and society which must be weighed up and balanced in a huge variety of data handling processes, absolute moral rights and wrongs are, on the whole, indiscernible. This means that ethical analysis can, and in many cases must, reach significant depths if the weighing and balancing is to be done with a care and subtlety commensurate with what is at stake. And this in turn means that if you want to make sure you and your organisation can achieve this, you should hire somebody who is trained in going to those technical depths.
Of course, having said this, a philosophical education in ethics is only useful in consultancy if you can actually help a person or an organisation to make a decision. From the perspective of the organisation seeking the solution, fence-sitting is not an option, even if there is no absolutely right answer and it is impossible to resolve all trade-offs. As a consultant, eventually you have to stop the analysis and present the possible courses of action to the client. However, being able to discern and present the options as accurately as possible requires the ability to carry out a deep analysis of the situation. And the training is a prerequisite for having the ability.
Conclusions and how IGS can help
So, to end up back where we started by way of conclusion. Everybody knows some maths, some geography, some history, some physics, and so on. And, because we are all moral agents faced with having to make decisions, we all know some ethics, in the sense that we all have to think about what we ought to do.
However, for the reasons outlined here, if you would seek an expert for advice because you needed to something more than rudimentary about maths, geography, history, physics, and so on, there is no reason why ethics is any different. And, certainly, if you wanted to know something about building a bridge you’d hire a civil engineer rather than just someone with a lot of experience of bridges.
Expertise in ethics in the context of organisational practices isn’t a question of finding the perfect moral agent; but when it comes to thinking about what you and your organisation should do, it’s a matter of being able to find out in depth what your options are and why, so that you can make a decision based on information presented on the basis of analysis carried out at sufficient depth.
Because everyone knows a bit, or perhaps quite a lot, about ethics from their own lives, and because it doesn’t follow that a technical expert in ethics is in fact someone who acts ethically, it’s easy to conclude that the formal expertise are unimportant or, even worse, a con. But at IGS we think that this assumption points to a risk which any organisation holding data should be aware of and avoid taking.
As with any technical body of knowledge, you don’t know what you don’t know, and, hard as it might be to believe, the same is true in ethics. Being aware of what else is out there, and knowing what you should know is a hallmark of expertise in any profession, and the importance of a formal philosophical grounding in ethics is no different. So, as in ethics as in everything else: if you want an expert, hire a professional.
At IGS, our data ethics consultants are PhD-holding, published academics with the kind of high-level, formal training in theoretical and applied ethics that I’ve tried to defend here. We are experts in all areas of data ethics; including ethics of data governance, machine learning and artificial intelligence. We can help by making sure you’re presented with the information you need about the decisions you need to make, to ensure that your organisation meets the ethical standards that it should.