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Technology and Business Ethics

Technology comprises of procedures, practises, and tools that humans invent to influence their environment. Present business is being continuously and radically transformed by the rapid evolution of new technologies that raise new ethical issues for business. This is not the first time that new technologies have had a revolutionary impact on business and society. Several thousand years ago, during what is sometimes called the Agricultural Revolution, humans developed the farming technologies that enabled them to stop relying on foraging and on the luck of the hunt and to develop, instead, reasonably constant supplies of food. The invention of irrigation, the harnessing of water and wind power, and the development of levers, wedges, hoists and gears during this period eventually allowed humans to accumulate more goods than they could consume, and out of this surplus grew trade, commerce and the first businesses.

As a result the large corporations that came to dominate our huge economies and that brought with them a host of ethical issues for business, including the possibilities of exploiting the workers who laboured at the new machines, manipulating the new financial markets that financed these large enterprises, and producing massive damage to the environment.

New technologies developed in past few decades are transforming society and business and creating the potential for new ethical problems. Foremost among these developments are the revolutions in biotechnology and in what is sometimes called information technology, including not only the use of extremely powerful and compact computers but also the development of the Internet, wireless communications, digitalisation and numerous other technologies that have enabled us to capture, manipulate and move information in new and creative ways.

All ethical issues raised by new technologies are related to questions of risk:

  • Are the risks of a new technology predictable?

  • How large are the risks and are they reversible?

  • Are the benefits worth the potential risks?

  • Who should decide?

  • Do those persons on whom the risks will fall know about the risk, and have they consented to bear these risks?

  • Will they be justly compensated for their losses?

  • Are the risks fairly distributed among the various parts of society, including the poor and the rich, the young and the old, future generations and present ones?

  • Information technologies have raised difficult ethical issues about the nature of the right to property when the property in question is information (such as computer software, computer code, or any other kind of data-text, numbers, pictures, sounds-that have been encoded into a computer file) or computer services (access to a computer or a computer system). Computerised information (such as a software programme or digitised pictures) can be copied perfectly countless times without in any way changing the original. What kind of property rights does the original creator of the information have and how does it differ from the property rights of someone who buys a copy? Is it wrong for me to make a copy without the permission of the original creator when doing so in no way changes the original? What, if any, harm will society or individuals suffer if the people are allowed to copy any kind of computerised information at will? Will people stop creating information? For example, will they stop writing software and stop producing music? What kind of property rights does one have over computer systems? Is it wrong to use my company's computer system for personal business, such as to send personal e-mail or log onto websites that have nothing to do with my work? Is it wrong for me to electronically break into another organisation's computer system if I do not change anything on the system but merely "look around"? Is it ethical for business to market and distribute such unpredictable engineered organisms throughout the world?

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