As Key Takeaways from UMich's Data Science Ethics Course told us, ethics is defined by social consensus. Here, another introductory book for ethics pointed out "society" is not the only problem space ethics considers; "how the right and wrong are defined by whom" varies depending on the size of relationship: Society, personal relationship, and individual.
First and foremost, the entire society is indeed the largest scope of ethics. We implicitly made consensus about what's good or bad, and the regulations such as the law and politics are determined by the consensus. Why is a crime bad? Yes, it's bad because the law disallows such a behavior, but more importantly, the law itself is based on social consensus; crime is bad because it's socially unacceptable. This is what the textbook calls ethics for social justice.
Meanwhile, we commonly face non-trivial "What should I do?" situation when it comes to more personal matters. To give an example, if there was an issue between you and your partner, I as a random stranger don't know what the right thing you should do; I probably say "It depends," and the right choice must be identified by the subjects based on their own consensus. This type of ethics that relies on smaller personal relationship is referred as ethics for love. Partner, friend, family—They are required to establish and follow their own rules to stay the precious relationship ethical.
Finally, individuals should also have their own ethics—Ethics for freedom. Of course, each of us is concerned a lot about ourselves at the (nearly) highest priority, but does that mean you can do whatever you want? Not really. First, as long as there is someone other than you in a situation, you should also consider higher-level consensus from the society and/or personal relationship. Second, even if it's purely about yourself, our day-to-day behaviors are still based on some rules set by ourselves. It's completely up to me whether I go to gym today, for example, but the consensus each of us has made with ourselves determines whether the decision is good or bad.
Summarizing, ethical actions are defined by the different scale of mutual relationships, ranging from the entire society to individuals, and it is something highly ambiguous. Therefore, improving consciousness about the implicit consensus would be a key step to understand better about ethics and make the world more ethical. Social actions, conversations with the loved ones, or identifying personal identities—We are not powerless and do have the tools to rethink what the ethics truly means.
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Last updated: 2022-09-02
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. While my area of specialty is in data & AI ethics and machine learning productization, I have worked full-stack throughout the career e.g., as a frontend/backend engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, solution architect, data scientist, and product manager. You can find what I am doing lately at my "now" page, and your inquiry is always welcome at [email protected], including comments on my blog posts.
Opinions are my own and do not represent the views of organizations I am/was belonging to.