Social Impact Analysis
Ethics in Computing Links
Don't get stuck using just one type of case.
To say that one plans to use "the case method" in
a class only introduces a minor bit of constraint on what will in fact
be done. Cases can be used simply as lecture illustrations, or an entire
class can go through cases in a very interactive manner. Cases can take
10 minutes or a semester to discuss. In order to provide some understanding
of the range of cases and case methods available, we present a taxonomy
of both the types of cases and the types of methods that might be used
- Historical vs Hypothetical cases. Many cases
are based in actual experience in the field. These provide the sort
of excitement and immediate relevance that help students recognize the
importance of ethical enquiry. Other cases are hypothetical, fictional,
or abstract, and have much of the impact of the historical case removed.
But the hypothetical case allows the case writer the freedom to structure,
abstract, and focus the discussion on precisely the issues of concern.
Neither approach is better than the other, but their usefulness depends
on the goal. Historical cases' emotional impact is helpful in connecting
students to their real responsibilities as professionals, while hypothetical
cases' flexibility and focus are helpful in introducing students to
specific issues and their variations.
- Thick or Thin cases. Cases can range from
the very simple half-page or one paragraph descriptions one can find
to the enormous detail of the cases found at here. Thin cases are useful
for abstracting a single point and focusing work on that point. Thick
cases can give the student practice in making ethical decisions in the
full context of the messy real world. Of course, one cannot simply dump
students into a thick case to sink or swim (sink will be the outcome).
These can be introduced piecemeal, as "thinner" cases and have the complexity
built up slowly. Or student might be provided with a framework to guide
them as they consider the entire case. Again, neither thick not thin
is better, and usefulness depends on the particular goal.
- Good vs. Bad News cases. This distinction
(and the next two) come from Harris et al. (See Harris, Charles E.,
Pritchard, Michael S., & Rabins, Michael J. (1999) Engineering
Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 2nd Edition, Wadsworth/Thompson Learning,
Belmont, CA, pp. 60-72). The tendency in ethics cases is to have only
bad news cases, cases in which some bad outcome occurs because of poor
choices. This can grab students imaginations (people are highly
motivated to avoid bad outcomes) but can also give students the impression
that SEE is primarily about avoiding harm. Bad news cases should be
balanced with cases of morally exemplary scientists and engineers as
well as with good choices toward good outcomes made by ordinary scientists
and engineers. Again the point is to choose the approach based on the
- Big vs. Small News cases. Many cases available
are about big news, about things that show up in the newspaper. But
almost by definition these are rare events, and it can be hard for students
to imagine themselves caught in a widespread fraud or catastrophic software
safety case. Small news cases are about the everyday decisions that
scientists and engineers make in the way they handle reporting, data
collection, process management, personnel and other day-to-day issues.
Again there is a tradeoff. Students can more easily imagine this happening
to them, but the cases can be about less exciting issues. In both good
vs. bad and big vs. small, the real determinant of success is often
in the framing of the case for the student.
- Evaluative vs Participative cases. There
are two perspectives from which to write and discuss scenarios: the
evaluator or judge perspective and the participant perspective. In the
evaluator perspective, the student takes up a standpoint from outside
the case and evaluates the participants and their deeds. In the participant
perspective, the student takes on the role of one of the participants
and makes a decision from that perspective. Participative cases are
written differently; they end abruptly at a moment of decision. This
encourages the students to resolve the case by making and defending
some decision. Evaluative cases are useful for introducing and practicing
different ethical principles and concepts. Participative cases help
students to practice integrating ethical considerations into designing
and implementing solutions to real world problems; they also allow students
to practice making decisions under real world constraints such as uncertainty
and time pressures. Either type of case can be used with a range of
All cases fall on one point of each of these dimensions.
For instance, Rich Epstein's Case of the Killer Robot is a hypothetical,
thick, big/bad news case, framed from the evaluator point of view (see
Epstein, R. (1996) The Case of the Killer Robot: Stories About the
Professional, Ethical and Societal Dimensions of Computing, John Wiley,
New York.). The Therac-25 case on this site is a historical, thick, big/bad
news, and framed from the evaluator point of view. But, one can use it
for a wide range of pedagogical purposes, particularly if one breaks the
case up into smaller pieces done consecutively.