From Ethics Washing to Ethics Bashing: A View on Tech Ethics from within Moral Philosophy

Bietti, Elettra

The word 'ethics' is under siege in technology policy circles. Weaponized in support of deregulation, self-regulation or handsoff governance, "ethics" is increasingly identified with technology companies' self-regulatory efforts and with shallow appearances of ethical behavior. So-called "ethics washing" by tech companies is on the rise, prompting criticism and scrutiny from scholars and the tech community at large. In parallel to the growth of ethics washing, its condemnation has led to a tendency to engage in "ethics bashing." This consists in the trivialization of ethics and moral philosophy now understood as discrete tools or pre-formed social structures such as ethics boards, self-governance schemes or stakeholder groups.

The misunderstandings underlying ethics bashing are at least threefold: (a) philosophy and "ethics" are seen as a communications strategy and as a form of instrumentalized cover-up or façade for unethical behavior, (b) philosophy is understood in opposition and as alternative to political representation and social organizing and (c) the role and importance of moral philosophy is downplayed and portrayed as mere "ivory tower" intellectualization of complex problems that need to be dealt with in practice.