Articles  |  ,   |  May 23, 2019

Translating Principles into Practices of Digital Ethics: Five Risks of Being Unethical

Article by Luciano Floridi.
Letter to the Editor published in Philosophy & Technology.


It has taken a very long time, but today, the debate on the ethical impact and implications of digital technologies has reached the front pages of newspapers. This is understandable: digital technologies—from web-based services to Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions—increasingly affect the daily lives of billions of people, so there are many hopes but also concerns about their design, development, and deployment.

After more than half a century of academic research, the recent public reaction has been a flourishing of initiatives to establish what principles, guidelines, codes, or frameworks can ethically guide digital innovation, particularly in AI, to benefit humanity and the whole environment. This is a positive development that shows awareness of the importance of the topic and interest in tackling it systematically. Yet, it is time that debate evolves from the what to the how: not just what ethics is needed but also how ethics can be effectively and successfully applied and implemented in order to make a positive difference. For example, the European Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI establish a benchmark for what may or may not qualify as ethically good AI in the EU. Their publication is currently being followed by practical efforts of testing, application, and implementation.

The move from a first, more theoretical what chapter, to a second, more practical how chapter, so to speak, is reasonable and commendable. However, in translating principles into practices, even the best efforts may be undermined by some unethical risks. In this article, I wish to highlight five of them. We shall see that they are more clusters than individual risks, and there may be other clusters as well, but these five are the ones already encountered or foreseeable in the international debate about digital ethics. Here is the list: (1) ethics shopping; (2) ethics bluewashing; (3) ethics lobbying; (4) ethics dumping; and (5) ethics shirking. They are the five “ethics gerunds”, to borrow Josh Cowls’ apt label, who also suggested to consider the first three more “distractive” and the last two more “destructive” problems. Let us consider each of them in some detail. [ . . . ]