Should software developers have a code of ethics?

With great power comes great responsibility. What should developers do when faced with ethical dilemmas?

Should software developers have a code of ethics?
Gerd Altmann (CC0)

First, do no harm. This is the underlying message of the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by physicians to show they will abide by an ethical code of conduct. Plumbers, construction workers, law enforcement—almost any professional whose work impacts the public must abide by some sort of ethical code of conduct.

There’s one fairly notable exception: technology. While there are organization— and company-specific codes of conduct—like these guidelines from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers - Computer Science (IEEE-CS) joint task force on software engineering ethics professional practices, there’s no one all-encompassing set of standards that includes the entire industry.

But maybe there should be. In 2015, independent tests revealed that Volkswagen engineers programmed cars to cheat emissions standards. In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook—among others—is grappling with an epidemic of fake news. The nation is struggling to come to grips with alleged Russian hacking and interference in our elections. And the current president-elect campaigned on the promise to build on the existing (or build a new) Muslim registry to track members of that faith.

Good versus evil?

These are just a few examples of how software can be used for nefarious purposes; there’s no way to know definitively every possible outcome of the development and use of every piece of technology, every line of code. So, it’s up to those who design and build the products, software packages, the apps and solutions that we use daily to do the right thing. That’s a lot of pressure.

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It’s also difficult to navigate what’s right and wrong if you’re pressured to meet deadlines, or your livelihood’s on the line; a code of ethics can provide context and framework for professionals to fall back on, says Dave West, product owner at And while he’d like to see such a thing, he says it’s understandable that such a diverse-thinking group might not be able to agree on all aspects of what such a code would entail.

”I would love to see a standardized, industry code of ethics. We do have our own that falls under our mission of improving the profession of crafting software… And we feel like that is a solid foundation for anyone to fall back on if they are feeling uncertain about any part of their job responsibilities, because they can step back and look at those values and say, ‘Am I doing the right thing, here, based on these things I believe in?’” West says.

The debate about ethics in software development has raged on for as long as the profession’s been around. It can be nearly impossible to assess all the potential applications of a technology, good and bad, and that’s both the beauty and the horror of the issue, says Shon Burton, founder and CEO, HiringSolved, which uses AI to help companies identify diverse talent.

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Any tool can be a weapon

”Any tool can be a weapon depending on how you use it. For us, using AI and automation—the stuff I can think about now that we’re close to it, I can see good and bad, and both are easily accessible. For our applications, we can help clients screen for diverse candidates. But we see, also, that it could be used to screen out people with different ethnicities, races, gender. We have a code of conduct internally that we all adhere to. But we understand the potential and the unintended consequences,” Burton says.

In the absence of an industry-wide set of ethical standards, individuals and even some corporate entities are making public stands behind their values. In December, the movement circulated a pledge to resist “…build[ing] a database of people based on their Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs. We refuse to facilitate mass deportations of people the government believes to be undesirable,” the pledge reads. It’s now gathered more than 2,500 signatures.

GrubHub CEO Matt Maloney took a lot of heat for his stand against hateful, demeaning and discriminatory actions and language. And Oracle executive George Polisner very publicly resigned his position in response to his former employer’s co-CEO accepting a role in the incoming presidential administration.

It can be difficult to know where the line exists between right and wrong in this context, even if you’re walking it. While one standardized code of ethics could be a solution, it may be more important to teach people how to ask the right questions, says’s West.

”Personally, I’d love to see more education on teaching ethics than is presently available, especially in a professional context rather than just a course about theory, because ethics in isolation won’t work unless it’s part of a broader professional standards. There’s also an issue, though, of the fact that often, individuals can’t build software alone, and they’re also not making these ‘wrong’ decisions all at once, but incrementally,” West says.

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Teaching people to ask the right questions involves understanding what the questions are, says Burton, and that everyone’s values are different; some individuals have no problem working on software that runs nuclear reactors, or developing targeting systems for drones, or smart bombs, or military craft.

”The truth is, we’ve been here before, and we’re already making strides toward mitigating risks and unintended consequences. It’s not even a question of can we build it anymore, because we know the technology and capability is out there to build whatever we can think of. The questions should be around should it be built, what are the fail-safes, and what can we do to make sure we’re having the least harmful impact we can?” he says.

There’s no one “right answer” here, and a code of ethics certainly won’t put all the ethical issues to rest. But it could be a good place to start if individuals and organizations want to harness the great power of technology to create solutions that serve the greater good.

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