Legal versus ethical


A worrying number of IT engineers and business folk don’t consider the ethical impact of their actions, or only judge them on based on legality. I’ve noticed this with AI training, but it’s played out with blockchains, online tracking, DRM, and… well, there’s a lot!

Suffice to say, I’m unconvinced. The law isn’t an ethical code, and we’d be in deep trouble if it was. This should be transparently obvious to anyone who spends more than a few seconds thinking about what was legal before.

Business ethics educator Chris MacDonald put it like this:

Anyone who tells you, or simply implies, that whatever is legal is also ethical is most likely indulging in self-serving rationalizations. When that idea comes up in the private sector, it’s likely that someone is trying to justify some profitable behaviour that is unethical but not-yet illegal.

If someone defends their actions as legal, ask them if they think it’s right. Most will immediately obfuscate, go quiet, or start arguing in bad faith. I dare them to do better.

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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