The Constitution, Law, Rationalizations And Ethics—One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other, I: The University Of Houston Steals A Photo

Two recent cases illustrate how law and even Constitutional law can be perverted toward indefensible ends if compliance is the only objective, and ethics are left out of the equation. The first case comes to us from Texas, University. of Houston System .v.Jim Olive Photography.

Houston photographer Jim Olive  discovered during an online check of his copyrighted works that the  University of Houston had appropriated one of his photographs and was using it extensively in its  web and print promotional materials. It was an overhead, aerial image of the City of Houston at dusk in 2005 that Olive went to great expense and effort  to produce.  He rented a helicopter, hired a pilot, and utilizing special photography equipment, suspended himself from the helicopter with a harness.

The university admired it, and found the shot ideal for its purposes, so it  downloaded the photo from Olive’s stock library, removed the copyright markings, and did not credit him when they used it. Olive sent the school a take-down letter and a bill, and the university refused to pay. Then he sued, but the university responded  that it has sovereign immunity, and can’t be sued, because he isn’t a citizen of Texas. The Eleventh Amendment reads in part,

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

The photographer had no right to sue under the U.S. Constitution unless the school waived its sovereign immunity or the act of using the photograph constituted a “taking” of property, the University’s lawyers  argued. When the trial court sided with Olive, the University appealed.

The Court of Appeals has ruled against Olive, declaring  that the school’s actions wasn’t a “taking.” Not only can’t Oliver sue to be paid for the use of his photograph,  he will have to pay the university’s legal costs.

“It just doesn’t seem fair to me,” says Olive.  I’d say his instinct is accurate, but this is the law: fairness is beside the point. To make the ruling even more disturbing from an ethics perspective, the University has a page on its site directing readers to  report copyright infringements – and also to request permission to use UH intellectual property, like the photograph it stole from Jim Olive,

Nice. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Look! Computer Professionals Have An Ethics Code!”

There were eight comments on the July 18 post about the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) ethics code, and four of them were Comment Of The Day-worthy. In addition to the chosen honoree here by Alex, I highly recommend the related comments by Glenn Logan, mariedowd, and Windypundit.

This is an Ethics Alarms record, and speaks volumes about the quality of commentary here.

This is Alex’s Comment of the Day on the post, Look! Computer Professionals Have An Ethics Code!

As a member of the ACM for the past 18 years, I did review earlier drafts and submitted comments. I was especially critical of the vagueness, but in general welcomed the update, as the old code was pretty outdated by now.

I did not think about the enforcement mechanism, but that is because I still don’t see Software Engineering/Programming as a profession. This has been a very contentious point for years. On the one hand, “hackers” (I use this in the original sense of the word, as it describes a very common ethos in the occupation) are terribly skeptical of any authority, and pride themselves that you can become a proficient programmer without formal training. Funny enough, programmers subscribing to this point of view are very supportive of apprenticeships and mentoring… go figure.

On the other hand, corporations will *strongly* resist any sort of licensing, and use the current, informal, certification system as a first filter only. Formal requirements would make software engineers more expensive and possibly lead to some system to deal with liability. Much better to keep to current system with the ability to outsource to the lowest bidder. Continue reading

Look! Computer Professionals Have An Ethics Code!

A new Code of Ethics was recently released by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), a professional organization for programmers and technology companies that has aimed to set the tone for ethics in the industry for decades. Its previous ethics code was last updated in 1992, before social media, e-commerce, widespread GPS tracking, the epidemic pf network hacking, bots, trolls, artificial intelligence, and the proliferation of wired cameras on store fronts, house entryways, and family cars, just to name a few of the ominous new developments that has made expanding technology the single greatest ethical challenge in the history of mankind. Most professional codes of ethics have not kept pace with technology, but for a computer organization to be so far behind is embarrassing.

The ACM committee surveyed the international association’s approximately 100,000 members as part of its process. The result is a list of principles and guidelines rather than rules: there is no enforcement mechanism. Nor is there any way to force members to read the thing, much less use it. I’ll say this: the code is ambitious. For example, the Code addresses”The Terminator’s” Skynet scenario, urging members  to take “extraordinary” care to avoid the perils of artificial intelligence, and robots that learn from experience and modify their own actions without the need for re-programming by a human being.

The new code addresses the Big Data ethics issue, and holds that tech companies should collect only the minimum amount of personal information necessary for a task, protect it from unauthorized use, and give users the opportunity to give informed consent regarding their data’s use. This and other provisions in the Code I would mark as “aspirational,” or perhaps “cover” or even “pie in the sky.” Without enforcement, such “rules” amount to lip service at best, deception at worst.

As with most ethics codes, this one indulges in convenient vagueries that purport to give guidance, but really don’t. For example, the Code’s “first principle” states that  the primary obligation of all computer professionals is to “to use their skills for the benefit of society, its members, and the environment surrounding them.” And who determines THAT pray tell? The technicians who made Skynet thought that it would be a boon to humanity, and it ended up destroying humanity. “Benefits” is the most subjective of concepts. Similarly, the code exhorts the technical community to mitigate the negative effects of technologies they are responsible for, and if that can’t be done, perhaps to even  refrain from marketing some products.

Sure.

To help companies and tech workers apply the ethical code’s principles, ACM is launching an“Integrity Project,” which will produce case studies about particular ethical dilemmas, and an “Ask an Ethicist” advice column.

I’m available.

 

Comment Of The Day: Public Confidence And Trust (2): Observations On Gallup’s Confidence In Institutions Poll

After Charles Green‘s recent  Comment of the Day on the post, Public Confidence And Trust (1): Observations On Gallup’s Trust In Occupations Poll, I was pretty sure that there would be an encore when I posted Part 2, an overview of the Gallup poll on public trust and confidence in American institutions. Charlie didn’t disappoint, so here is his Comment of the Day on the post, Public Confidence And Trust (2): Observations On Gallup’s Confidence In Institutions Poll:

…I agree with you that this stuff is as mission-critical as anything.

As you know, my life’s work is studying trust, and while I focus on interpersonal trust, you can’t ignore the systemic institutional issues either. In fact, they are connected.

In fact, I agree with your fundamental point that the cure for what ails our institutions must lie in personal behaviors, personal relationships, personal ethics.

Without taking anything away from that fundamental and massive agreement, let me suggest two tweaks to the issue as you have presented it.

The first is that this is NOT simply a US phenomenon. I recommend even more sobering reading from the Edelman Trust Barometer, a study that has been ongoing for over a decade. See the 2017 version here: https://www.edelman.com/global-results/

That survey covers about 18 western countries: fully half of them report the level of distrust in institutions – business, communications, NGOs, CEOs, etc. – not materially different from what we see in the US. Continue reading

5 Signs That Your Organization Has An Unethical Culture Brewing…

The Harvard Business Review has published an article describing what it learned from a survey of experts asked to describe the conditions they have observed in organizations later revealed to have serious ethics problems—the symptoms of an unethical organization ethics culture. Here are the five top signs, with the corresponding rationalizations from the Ethics Alarms list where appropriate, as well as related unethical patterns of thinking and relevant organizational ethics principles that are repeated constantly in training sessions by people like me, yet routinely ignored. The news media, meanwhile, often covers the incidents as if journalist have never heard of those principles.

I. Urgency and fear: Following corruption scandals, leaders tend to describe events in terms of pressure, necessity, and what the company needed to do to ”survive.” This perception of existential competitive threats can be used to justify the creation and maintenance of toxic incentives, and it will undermine any efforts to raise concerns.

Rationalization 28. The Revolutionary’s Excuse: “These are not ordinary times.”

An argument for those who embrace “the ends justify the means”—but only temporarily, mind you!—the Revolutionary’s excuse has as long and frightening a pedigree as any of the rationalizations here. Of course, there is no such thing as “ordinary times.” This rationalization suggests that standards of right and wrong can and should be suspended under “special” circumstances, always defined, naturally, by those who defy laws, rules, and societal values. Their circular logic results in their adversaries feeling justified in being equally unethical, since times in which the other side engages in dishonesty, cheating, cruelty, and more is, by definition, extraordinary.

The inevitable result is a downward spiral of conduct, until unethical behavior is the norm. Ironically, the rationalization that “these are not ordinary times” no longer is necessary at that point. Unethical conduct has become ordinary, the new normal. This is, it is fair to say, the current state of American politics.

and…

Rationalization 31. The Troublesome Luxury: “Ethics is a luxury we can’t afford right now”

Ethics is never “a luxury.” It is slyly effective to describe it as such, however, and those who do so usually believe it—which means you should sleep with one eye open when they are around, watch your wallet, and never turn your back. Saying ethics is a luxury simply means that the speaker believes that one should be good and fair when it is easy and benefits him or her, but when problems loom and crises have to be faced, ethics are optional. This attitude is another calling card of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Bad Man,” the law abiding citizen who will cut your throat for his own benefit if he finds a legal loophole. In a true crisis, ethical values are often the only thing standing between us and catastrophic misconduct in the throes of desperation and panic; they aren’t luxuries, they are life-lines. When you hear yourself saying, “I’ll do anything to fix this! Anything!” it is a warning, and the ethics alarm needs to start ringing hard. Grab those ethical values, and hold on to them. They are the last thing you can afford to be without at such times.

***

II. Isolation: Groups and teams that are far from headquarters—either in geography, access to information, or both—are vulnerable. When a team that is isolated (by accident or design) comes under the direction of an authoritarian, competitive leader, an enterprise has created the baseline conditions for corruption. People are far more influenced by their immediate surroundings than by a code of conduct set at the top.

This is group-think, ignoring the tenets of Professor Zimbardo’s rules that he recommends to avoid the phenomenon:

“Avoid situations where you lose contact with your social support and informational networks, for the most powerful forces of social influence thrive then. You do not want all your reinforces to come from these new sources….Never allow yourself to be cut off emotionally from your familiar and trusted reference groups of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers…

***

Continue reading

Ethics Quote Of The Day: Charlotte Hogg, Ex-Bank of England COO

“However, I recognise that being sorry is not enough. We, as public servants, should not merely meet but exceed the standards we expect of others. Failure to do so risks undermining the public’s trust in us, something we cannot let happen. Furthermore, my integrity has, I believe, never been questioned throughout my career. I cannot allow that to change now. I am therefore resigning from my position. I will, of course, work with you through any transition.”

—-The Bank of England’s chief operating officer and incoming Deputy Governor for Markets and Banking, Charlotte Hogg, in her letter of resignation over criticism regarding a possible conflict of interest and her failure to report it.

Charlotte Hogg, a senior Bank of England official who had been named a deputy governor, resigned this week after a Parliament committee found that she had failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest: her brother held a senior position at Barclay’s during her time at the central bank. Hogg insisted that she never breached her duties or passed along any confidential information to her brother, but she had helped draft an industry ethics code of conduct policy required a disclosure of such conflicts. This creates doubts about her integrity, judgment competence, as well as the appearance of impropriety.

The Parliamentary committee recently issued a report finding that Ms. Hogg’s professional competence “short of the very high standards” required to be deputy governor, adding that her failure to disclose her brother’s role was a “serious error of judgment.”

This is one of my favorite kinds of conflicts, because it may be only appearances at stake. What if, as is often the case (sadly), Hogg and her brother are estranged? What if she doesn’t speak to him? What if they hate each other? Never mind: the public, not knowing this,  will suspect that she might use her position to favor him or his bank, so disclosure is crucial to maintaining public trust. Not disclosing, in contrast, raises suspicions. Why didn’t she let everyone know about her brother? What was she hiding? Continue reading

Least Surprising Headline Of This Or Any Other Year: “Trump’s Team Nixed Ethics Course For White House Staff”

Of course they did.

Simulation of a typical ethics training session...

Simulation of a typical ethics training session…

From Politico:

President Donald Trump’s team rejected a course for senior White House staff, Cabinet nominees and other political appointees that would have provided training on leadership, ethics and management, according to documents obtained by POLITICO….But the contract was never awarded because after the election the transition team shifted its priorities, according to a letter the General Services Administration sent to bidders such as the Partnership for Public Service. The program was expected to cost $1 million, the documents show. The contract-based training program was authorized in 2000, and the Obama and Bush transitions both received the training.

“It has been determined that the requirements as defined in the RFQ do not accurately reflect the current needs of the Presidential Transition Team,” the GSA contracting officer, Matthew Gormley, wrote in the Jan. 10 letter.

Comments:

1. Welcome to my world. With very, very rare exceptions, most organizations, including the government and all levels of it, still regard ethics training as a luxury, a low-priority, a necessary evil, a waste of time, or all of these.

2. And, to be fair, most ethics trainings, and I am certain this is true of virtually all government ethics training, cover ethics rules and laws, and provide no real training in ethical decision-making and ethical problem solving at all. This means that as far as actually improving the ethics of the staff and management goes, they are a waste of time.

3. If I’m not facilitating them, they are also usually tear-your-eyes-out-of-their-sockets boring. Continue reading