Must computer science students learn about ethics?

My textbook — Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives — may be used in a variety of courses and contexts, but is intended primarily for use by Computer Science (CS) Departments, as they attempt to educate and train tomorrow’s software professionals, managers, and IT leaders. If we want to monitor how well departments are doing this job, we should ask is if they are sensitizing their students to the ethical responsibilities of the profession. It is useful to contrast the attitudes and performance of CS Departments, typically situated in science faculties, with departments in Faculties of Engineering.

Concern over ethics in Engineering began after several major disasters late in the 19th century and early in the 20th century, notably several bridge failures and the Boston molasses disaster, in which a flood or molasses wreaked havoc on nearby building and train systems.  There already had been created professional societies such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.  These societies then moved quickly to introduce Codes of Ethics and requirements for licensing and accreditation, which ultimately caused university departments and faculties to include some learning about and practice with ethical concerns as part of their curricula.  A later development was the creation in 1954 by the National Society of Professional Engineers of a Board of Ethical Review.

Computer Science is much newer, and is struggling to define the role of instruction in ethics in CS education.  Through the efforts of individuals such as Don Gotterbarn, a PhD ethicist who became a software developer, ACM has issued three versions of a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, the first in 1972, a second in 1992, and the most recent in 2018.  As we shall discuss below, instruction in ethics is also now required as part of CS curricula that enable academic programs to be certified by ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.

Yet CS is still way behind Engineering.  Consider one prestigious North American university. Its Faculty of Engineering, in the top 30 worldwide, introduces and emphasizes ethics for all its first-year students; several departments also require a course later in their program.  The university’s CS department, in the top 20 worldwide, has been aware of the issues for over five decades, as its founder was the co-author of one of the first Computers and Society books, published in the 70s.  Despite both authors having been department chair and having been active in the department for five decades, its hundreds of undergrads, many of whom go on to work for the world’s major tech companies, are not required to take the department’s Computers and Society course and get no exposure to ethics.

Is this situation typical?  Our research, and a conversation with an executive at ABET, indicate that academic CS departments are not sensitizing their students to the social and ethical issues raised by progress in CS.  Most large departments, and especially those that provide a ready pool of skilled labour for the major tech companies, do not seek accreditation, and do not require a course on Computers and Society or Computer Ethics.  And even those that do so often provide it in a form that barely scratches the surface of the issues, as is the case with short 1-credit courses.

CS faculty must remedy this situation, and require all CS students to take a course on Computers and Society or Computer Ethics.  Yet departments must go further.  Before the 70s, most universities insisted on a liberal education.  Science and engineering students had to take some courses in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts.  This no longer applies to most computer science degree programs. 


How would you design a CS undergrad degree consistent with the goal of a liberal education?

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