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Conscience-on-the-Go: Ethicists Put Out Their Own App

Can an app really make people more ethical?

Ambitious young technologists have lots of questions, of course — many of them technical, few of them moral. That’s what worries the ethicists at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit college in the heart of Silicon Valley.


“They’ll ask, ‘Will it be profitable? Will it grow?'” said Miriam Schulman, assistant director of the school’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “We hope they’ll also start to ask the ethics questions: ‘Is it going to harm anybody? Is it culturally sensitive? Is it going to trample on anyone’s rights? How much will I give to the government when it asks for information about people?'”

To help students answer these questions, Schulman and the Markkula team did what everyone else seemed to be doing: They made an app.


Ethical Decision Making, which launched this week, is a simple iOS app designed to encourage users to think about all the parties involved, and all the aspects of moral decisions. After considering who will be affected by a decision, the user works through a sliding scale for five concerns: Utility (more good, more bad), rights (more rights, fewer rights), justice, common good and virtue.

The university’s team of tech conscience builders, who have also designed an introduction to software-engineer ethics, a teaching unit used by about 20 universities, are taking an increasingly active stand on tech issues. Earlier this year, they invited tech CEOs to sit down with the Dalai Lama.

And though the Markkula team built the app for anyone in need of situational ethical advice, Schulman and Irina Raicu, who manages the Internet Ethics program, built it with technologists in mind.

santa-clara-university-ethical-decisionsCan an app really make people more ethical?

“The reality is, a lot of bad behavior, when we do it, we know it’s bad,” Schulman said. “But maybe while engineers are developing products, they’ll think about the ethics, like, ‘Maybe I should think about people’s privacy.’ Or, ‘Am I building something that people from different economic groups can use?'”

The Markkula team had to outsource the app development to Karbon, though the school had hosted an on-campus ethical app competition last year to encourage students to design it.

“Well, the best entry was ethical decision-making for behavior at parties,” Schulman said, adding that it was made by a group of sophomore engineering majors. “They didn’t totally understand the ethics, but it was a clever idea. Really very clever.”

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