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Moral and professional responsibility in computing

This unit was developed in collaboration with Harvard’s Embedded EthiCS initiative. This material draws on Ellie Lasater-Guttmann’s module in CS 181, Spring 2022. In a previous iteration of CS290, the module topic was quite different. You can find that module’s repository entry here. A challenge we were trying to address in this iteration was to make ethical content relevant to all students in the class, including both those interested in applied computer science, and those interested in computational theory.


  • Understand the concepts of backward- and forward-looking moral responsibility
  • Apply these concepts to a concrete case study in computer science
  • Appreciate the connection between one’s professional role and one’s moral duties

Key philosophical questions

  1. When a computer system causes harm, who is responsible?
  2. Whether or not anyone is responsible in a backwards-looking sense, does anyone have any forward-looking responsibilities in connection with the harm? Why?
  3. Which contextual details are important in answering these questions?

Pre-class work

  1. If you wrote last week’s report about your current research, ask your advisor(s) for feedback. If you wrote it about another topic, ask the course staff for feedback.
    • Did you find the process of writing the report helpful? Why or why not?
    • (If applicable) Did your advisor find the report helpful? Why or why not?
    • Is there anything else you learned in the process?
  2. Read Helen Nissenbaum’s article Computing and Accountability
  3. Search the web for a recent news story about some scandal involving computing technology, a tech company, or a computer science research group.
    • Briefly summarize the scandal, and provide the link to the news story.
    • Identify the different parties involved in the scandal: who were the developers, the end users, the victims, etc?
    • Who, among those parties, should be held accountable for their role in the scandal, and in what way? Refer to Nissenbaum’s arguments in your answer.

Insight: CS students respond best to recent examples. Even when the philosophical issues under discussion are timeless and can be illustrated with case studies from any point in the history of computing, there is more receptivity to case studies of novel technologies. This perhaps speaks to a bias in the field of computing at large to prefer the latest developments over older technologies that may still be in use.

In class [slides]

  1. [5min] Ask students if they shared last week’s written report and how it went.
  2. [5min] Course head recaps previous session
  3. [5min] Introduction to Embedded EthiCS
  4. [10min] The concept of moral responsibility
  5. [10min] Distinction between backward-looking responsibility (holding accountable) and forward-looking responsibility (taking responsibility)
  6. [10min] Illustrations of complexities in attributing backward-looking responsibility and determining who has forward-looking responsibilities in complex causal chains
  7. [30min] Small group activity:
    • Students given a case: an autonomous vehicle has hit and killed a pedestrian. They are also given an incomplete causal chain that runs from the vehicle hitting the pedestrian back up to the engineers who designed the vehicle, to computer vision researchers, and finally to machine learning theorists.
    • Students are asked to: (i) complete the causal chain, (ii) determine who, if anyone, should be held accountable (backwards-responsible) for the death, and under what circumstances, and (iii), determine whether anyone in this causal chain has forward-responsibilities (duties to make amends for the harm).
  8. [30min] Discussing the small group activity as a class
  9. [5min] Individual end-of-class reflection and module evaluation survey

Insight: One may worry that students may come away from this lesson thinking that the role they have in the development of harmful technologies doesn’t put professional ethical duties on them. The point, however, is not so much to convince them of a particular duty they have, but rather, to get them to think about the possibility that they may have such duties, and the circumstances under which they might arise. Critical reflection on moral and professional responsibility is the main goal of this module.

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