Longing for a moral compass

Some people use the term moral compass. When people hear me talk about my work, in which I facilitate moral deliberation in innovation projects and support people in cultivating moral sensitivity, they remark that people who work in tech need a moral compass.

Maybe I agree with that sentiment. Maybe I don’t. It depends on what they mean by moral compass.

Do they mean something that tells them where and when to turn left, and where and when to turn right? That sounds more like satellite navigation in your car. That would be handy. If something tells you exactly what to do. Or would it? Maybe their sentiment is a longing for clarity, akin to a longing for the clarity that satellite navigation brings. You would know the right thing to do in each and any situation.

Satellite navigation; photo by Samuel Foster (‘Ride to IKEA …’)

A compass, however, works differently from satellite navigation. A compass only shows you where North is. It does not tell you where and when to go left or right. A compass does not even tell where you are.

Compass; photo by Denise Jans (‘Navigating in the forest’)

In order to navigate, you need three more ‘things’. First, you need a map. Typically you align the compass needle’s North with map’s North. But you don’t necessarily know where on the map you are. For that you also need to look at the terrain and use your perception and your memory of your journey so far. That mountain top you see over there must be this mountain top on the map. And the village you walked through, is here. You also remember the road via which you left the village. Now you can guess with some precision where on the map you are. Where in the terrain you are. The third ‘thing’ that you need in order to navigate, is a goal that you want to travel to, or at least a general direction in which you want to move.

We can translate the metaphor of the compass back to ethics. When you long for a moral compass, you need three other ‘things’ in order to use it.

You need a moral map. You need some model of the situation. What is your role in it? Where on the map are you? A map shows you swamps you want to avoid, rivers you cannot traverse, places you do want to visit.

You need to look at the moral terrain. What’s happening around you? Use your perception to sense the situation you are in. Which people are involved? What are their concerns, values, interests? What is at stake?

And you need a goal or direction. Maybe a specific goal for now. Maybe a general direction. What values do you want to protect and promote: justice, freedom fairness, equity, solidarity, conviviality, transparency?

These are challenging times. I wish you all a moral compass. And please do also bring your map, your perception, and some clarity about your goals.

Have a safe journey. Be gentle with our planet, and animals and plants. Take care of yourself and of your fellow travelers. I wish you all the best for 2021!

Have a safe journey; Photo by Fas Khan (‘hiking in the hills of the Cotswolds’)

Photo by Fas Khan on Unsplash

Four different views on ethics

At the centre of my book-to-be are four chapters, in which I discuss four major traditions in ethics–four different views on ethics. Following other scholars, I discuss the following: consequentialism; deontology; relational ethics (a.k.a. as ethics of care or feminist ethics); and virtue ethics.

One of my arguments is that each ethical view has its own particular merits and its own particular limitations. I therefore suggest using all four in your work, in your project–in parallel or sequential.

While writing my book, I continue to read books, typically one book per week. At the moment I’m reading Mark Alfano’s ‘Moral Psychology: An Introduction‘. Already in its first chapter I found several intriguing ideas that may be practically useful–also for readers of my book-to-be.

Alfano starts his book with a discussion of five key concepts in ethics: patiency; agency; sociality; reflexivity; and temporality. Then he (very briefly) discusses the relative weights that these concepts receive in four different views on ethics–the same four as mentioned above.

This inspired me to draw four spider-diagrams. One for each ethical view. To visualize the various weights that each gives to these five concepts.

Maybe these visualizations can be useful when in doubt about which ethical view is most pertinent at any given moment, for example, to initiate or facilitate a discussion within your work or in a project you work on.

Suppose you need to discuss potential harms of your project’s outcomes, then consequentialism may your first move. Or when you want to focus on human dignity, human autonomy and agency, then you may want to turn to deontology. If your project involves technology that may have a big impact on human relationships (sociality), then you need relational ethics. And when patiency, agency and sociality are all at play, and when you are interested also in changes over time, then virtue ethics can be a good start.

Hello World :-)

This blog is intended to accompany a book that I am currently writing: ‘Ethics for people who work in tech: Everything you do need to know about ethics and more, but are too busy to ask‘.

My plan is to occasionally publish ideas or short sections from the book, while writing. After the book’s publication, this website will offer links to online sources to accompany the book.

If this sparks your interest, you may want to look at some of my articles:

Photo credit: Steve Johnson (https://unsplash.com/photos/WkJPu3rEeJE)

More info on: marcsteen.nl
Contact: info-at-marcsteen.nl