Can You Still Be Ethical Whilst Not Following Ethical Guidelines?

For people outside team Nygaard: The article we had to read about involved an employment agency that wanted a piece of database software built that would place men above women, and whites above blacks.

The first thing that needs to be looked at here is whether there is any legitimate reason to list white males above black females in a piece of database software by default.

Although there are numerous jobs where sex discrimination is not applicable (e.g. in the theatre or film business), these make up small proportion of the number of jobs available at any kind of employment agency.  The law says that if this is not the case an employer is illegally discriminating if he, “on the ground of her sex he treats her less favorably than he treats or would treat a man…” [1]. This would imply that in most cases there is no legitimate reason to use the fore-mentioned data in order to make a decision about employability.

The database software would clearly breach ethical guidelines, however does this mean that’s it is unethical to use it?  When we fill out application forms we are often asked demographic information such as our age and ethnicity.  I would argue that as long as the users of this database software do not use this information to discriminate against individual candidates, there’s no harm in it being there. However, it is unlikely that this will always be the case.  It might be there to make it quick to see how many people from each ethnic group have a) applied for a job and b) been given a job, which is one of the reasons the NHS collect this information [2].  One paper I looked at by Scholes summaries similarly:

“The paper concludes that it is not necessarily unfair for employers to use statistical discrimination in hiring, despite its potential unfairness for some applicants.” [3]

Someone might argue that this is just a particularly sensitive way to sort data – why not sort applicants by an attribute less likely to cause disagreement, such as qualifications?  A simple answer is that then you are discriminating against those with different qualifications, which is especially important in jobs where qualifications such as A-Levels and degrees may not be relevant.

To summarise whether constructing the program is unethical (i.e. whether you can not follow ethical guidelines and still be ethical), I shall quote the United States Equal Opportunity Employment Commission from when they were investigating a possible act of discrimination in a chain of coffee shops:

It is a classic example of a practice that isn’t itself unethical, but that makes other unethical conduct so much easier and more likely that it has to be treated as if it is unethical too” [4] [5]

Here, we read that a system that assists unethical behavior must in itself be regarded as unethical.  This can be applied to the situation in question, allowing us to conclude that the construction of such a piece of software would be unethical.

So many people accredit a large proportion of the end of racism in America to Martin Luther King, Jr that I feel the guidelines set by him should keep us from behaving unethically.  In his ‘I Have a Dream” speech, he says the following, and I think it sums up how we should think about this problem.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” [6]



(1975) UK Legistlation. [Online].


Maria Crosbie. (2012, June) Ashford and St. Peters Hospitals. [Online].


Vanessa Scholes. [Online].


Unknown. (2012, May) Ethics Alarms. [Online].


Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, South Shore, 2012.


Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963, August) I Have a Dream.


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