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Case Study - Computer Ethics

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Case 1: Free Software

First section

This case talks on whether it is moral for companies and institutions to give software for free. The moral agents involved in this case are the University and a company known as Screen Keyboard Inc. Morris Hinds from the University wrote a program that had the ability to combine head mounted mouse and a “point and click” to help support occupational rehabilitation programs at the university. After Morris Hinds wrote the program successfully, the University offered to distribute this program to the public free of charge. Screen Keyboard Inc had spent a lot of funds in producing Screen Mouse, a program that utilized the same concept as the program written by Morris Hinds. They priced this program at a high cost, because they wanted to recover the costs they spent to produce this program. If the University distributed its programs for free, Screen Keyboard Inc would lose many funds due to a reduction in its sales.

Several ethical implications exist for this case. Screen Keyboard Inc claims that they spent many months while developing Screen Mouse. In addition, they incurred high costs while marketing this product. It would be, thus, ethical for them to request University to stop distributing its program so that Screen Keyboard Inc. recovers its marketing and development costs. In addition, Screen Keyboard Inc. claim that they will use the proceeds they earn after selling Screen Mouse to fund research of writing programs to be used by the handicapped community. In contrast, the University argues that it is not ethical for Screen Keyboard Inc. to prevent it from distributing the program that Morris Hinds wrote. Stoppage of distribution of this program affects all the handicapped people that would have used this program to improve their lives. In addition, the University argues that Screen Keyboard Inc. spent a lot of time in developing Screen Mouse, because it had problems in its organization.

If Screen Keyboard Inc. and the University choose to pursue their choices, there would exist several consequences. If Screen Keyboard Inc. manages to prevent the distribution of the free program written by Morris Hinds, it will affect poor handicapped people who cannot afford to purchase ScreenMouse. However, the money it earns from selling Screen Mouse after University stops distributing its program, and will be used to write more programs for the handicapped. If University continues to distribute its software at no cost, it will reduce the revenues earned by Screen Keyboard Inc. Declining revenues may expose it to bankruptcy.

Second Section

The main moral theory that can be applied to this case is utilitarianism. The moral principle of this theory is that people should always do things that will produce greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness to the parties affected by their actions (Rachels, 2000). Three key aspects guide utilitarianism. One of these aspects is that people should be guided by the consequences of their actions when they decide to do a particular thing. The second aspect guiding this theory is that people should assign the greatest possible weight to happiness or unhappiness that would result from an action. The third aspect of utilitarianism is that the happiness of an individual is as important as the happiness of everybody. Utilitarian philosophers argue that the point of morality is to make the world a comfortable place to live in and to ensure that everybody is happy.

The crux of the theory can be illustrated by how utilitarian philosophers feel criminals should be treated. They argue that society should not hang or sentence criminals to prison life when they commit crimes. Instead, the society should implement measures that would help to reform all the lawbreakers. In addition, society should try to research factors that motivate criminals to engage in violence and mitigate these factors. If the society implements these actions, both criminals and citizens will achieve maximum happiness. This is because criminals will live productive lives and crime rates in the society will reduce.

Third Section

Considering the Utilitarian Theory, both the University and Screen Keyboard Inc. should adopt an option that would ensure maximum happiness to all parties and the society. Poor handicapped people will be able to use computers effectively when Screen Keyboard Inc. allows University to distribute this program for free. In addition, quality of services in the occupational rehabilitation program at the University will improve making people at this department happy. If the University stops distributing the free program, the sales of Screen Mouse will increase. Screen Keyboard Inc. will, therefore, cover the costs it incurred while developing Screen Mouse. It will also have enough money to support future research for development of applications for the handicapped. In addition, companies producing software will be motivated produce new programs since they will know that the society protects them from unhealthy competition.

The relevant solution for this case is that the University should stop distributing the free program. This decision will cause maximum happiness to many parties in the society. Businesses will be confident that the society protects them from unhealthy competition. Companies will be motivated to introduce new products despite the costs that they may incur during product development. In addition, the handicapped people in the society will benefit, because Screen Keyboard Inc. will have enough funds to research on new programs that can benefit the handicapped community. The part of ACM code of ethics that is relevant to my solution is general moral imperatives. Section 1.2 of the general moral imperatives argues that ACM members should avoid harm to others. If University stops distributing free software, it will help Screen Keyboard Inc. to avoid incurring financial losses. The part of Software Engineers Code of Ethics and Professional practice, which is relevant to my solution is principle 7, concerning colleagues. It states that software engineers should be fair and supportive to their colleagues. It would be unfair for University to distribute free programs, because it will kill the software industry.

Several problems may arise if University stops distributing free software. Poor handicapped people will not have free software that suits their needs. In addition, the value of students producing new software is sacrificed, because they may fear that big software companies may stop their efforts. In future, software engineers should consider researching whether there is similar software in the market before they start producing free software.

Case 2: Software Licensing

First Section

Very many ethical situations arise from software licensing agreements. The moral agents involved in the case of Software Licensing are SchiTech Contracting Services, Lakeside Industries and Netscape. SchiTech Contracting Services was hired by Lakeside Industries to install Netscape Navigator software on all its personal computers. However, an employee at SchiTech discovers that Lakeside Industries has not paid the licensing fee for the installation of Netscape Navigator software.

Several ethical implications exist on this situation. Lakeside Industries has the moral duty of paying licensing fees for all licensed software. The internal policies of Lakeside Industries also state that they should not install any software unless it is from a licensed vendor. Schitech Contracting Services has a duty of observing ethics and it should not, therefore, install Netscape Navigator software that has not been paid for by Lakeside Industries. However, SchiTec has the duty of honoring the contract of completing installing the software to all personal computers belonging to Lakeside Industries.

The moral agents in this case can make several choices. The employee of Schitech Contracting Services can consider talking to the officials in the legal department concerning the issue of Lakeside Industries not paying the licensing fees of Netscape Navigation Software. In addition, the employee who discovered this issue could also consider telling the legal department in Netscape that Lakeside Industries has not paid the licensing fees of using its software. If the employee decides to inform the officials in higher ranks in Lakeside Industries, there is a high possibility that this employee will lose the trust that his contact in Lakeside Industries had. In addition, the contract between Lakeside Industries and Schitech Contracting Services might be terminated. If the employee decides to inform the legal department in Netscape, Netscape might sue Lakeside Industries.

Second Section

The moral theory that can fit this case is Kantian Ethics. According to this theory, morality is a product of pure reason. Kant argues that moral law is binding on everybody, because of our own reasons (Rachels, 2000). He argues that the ultimate principle of morality is doing ones duties. In addition, he claimed that duties carried out by a person are not influenced by consequences of the actions of performing such duties. Kant emphasized on the importance of rationality before doing any particular action. According to the principle of rationality, people should be consistent in enforcing a maxim that is universally accepted. In addition, this principle argues that moral principle has no exceptions. It also states that people should be treated as ends and not as means. The crux of the Kantian ethics can be illustrated by the example of why businesses protect the environment. Businesses protect the environment because they know it is their duty to do so. This is because they know it is their duty to create a sustainable environment for the benefit of future generations.

Third Section

According to Kantian ethics, the ultimate principle of morality is applying ones duties. It calls for applying reasoning when faced with situations (Rachels, 2000). Considering Kantian ethics, the employee of Schitech Contracting Services ought to inform the legal department of Netscape that Landscape has not paid the licensing fees for the installation of Netscape Navigation Software. In addition, Landscape Industries ought to pay the licensing fees since its policies state that they do not install unlicensed software. The solution for this issue is that the employee of Schitech Contracting Services should inform the legal department of Netscape about this issue. Landscape Industries failed to perform their duty of licensing the software so it is morally relevant for the employee to report this issue to the officials at Netscape. The part of ACM Code of Ethics that is relevant to this solution is section 1.5 that states that every software engineer should honor property rights, including copyrights and patents. Landscape Industries did not honor their duty of paying licensing fees. The part of Software Engineers’ Code of Ethics and Professional Practice that it is relevant to this solution is the principle on judgment. It states that software engineers should maintain integrity and independence in their professional judgment. Several problems may result when this solution is adopted. Lakeside Industries may not give Schitech Contracting Services another contract in future. In addition, Netscape may sue Lakeside Industries. The value of client confidentiality is sacrificed in this solution. In future, Landscape Industries should pay all the licensing fees for all the software licensed.

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