Imagine you’re laying in a hospital bed. You don’t remember how you got there, but the searing pain in your stomach tells you that something has gone wrong. A doctor appears from the corner of your view and says, “Oh good, you’re awake.” They go on to inform you that you had a life-threatening case of acute appendicitis and that your appendix had to be removed. You feel a sense of relief wash over you. The doctor’s professionalism and calming bedside manner help subdue your anxiety. Then, your gaze drifts to a poster hanging in the hall outside: “At Facebook Hospital, we move fast and break things.” Your doctor asks, “So, how do you feel?”
Doctors care for us when we are at our most vulnerable, and they know things about our bodies that many of us cannot begin to understand. Physicians must receive ethical training and are subject to ethical oversight. A doctor who is unaware of the ethical implications of their work is unfit to be a doctor. Just as no one questions the importance of an ethical framework in the context of medical decision making, no one doubts the necessity of ethical training for aspiring physicians. Since the early days of medicine, its practitioners have entered into ethical pledges such as the Hippocratic oath or the common mantra “do no harm” (which, I only recently learned, are not actually the same thing).
Ethics training is ubiquitous in medical schools, as is the ceremonial taking of an ethical oath. Medical boards and organizations like the American Medical Association have published ethical standards and codes, and violations of these codes are legally enforceable in some cases through medical licensing schemes, malpractice lawsuits, or, in extreme cases, criminal charges. Similarly, lawyers have to pass the bar exam and face legal repercussions, such as disbarment over ethical violations.
Ethical training can empower technology workers by providing a framework for how to think about the impact and ethical implications of their work.
While software teams are not standing over your anesthetized body with scalpels in hand…