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Communications of the ACM


Ethics as a Participatory and Iterative Process

compass with text labels for its four points marked V, C, D, and R

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Marc Steen

You probably find yourself more frequently in discussions of ethics in relation to the design and application of technology. The trolley problem is a familiar trope in such discussions. You assess and compare outcomes, and choose less-worse over even-worse outcomes. Another familiar trope is the ethics checklist. You make a list of relevant rules and norms, and take measures to comply. In this Viewpoint, I propose there is much more to ethics than assessment of outcomes and compliance to rules.

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Doing Ethics

Over the years, and while working on many projects in the design and application of technologies, I have developed a view on ethics I would like to share. I understand ethics as a process, as doing ethics: a participatory and iterative process of ethical reflection, inquiry, and deliberation.9 The task for the people involved is then to make room for such a process, and to facilitate it. Practically, you can imagine three key ingredients in this process:


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