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Technology and Society
D. Ethics, Equity, and Responsibility

D. Ethics, Equity, and Responsibility

Although technological advances have improved quality of life, newer technologies have sometimes resulted in negative effects, which in turn may have various ethical implications. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly important for citizens to recognize ethical issues related to the introduction and use of various technologies. For example, factories and power plants that benefit the citizens of one country may produce gases that cause acid rain, damaging forests in that country and neighboring countries. An ethical response to such a situation starts with the recognition that such effects are occurring, followed by concrete steps to mitigate the problem.

The term "ethics" generally refers to a code of behavior or set of rules or guidelines for distinguishing between right and wrong. In general, there is no such thing as a universally agreed-on set of ethical guidelines since a behavior considered ethical in one culture or professional group may be considered unethical by a different group of people. Nonetheless, there are some ways of behaving and thinking that most people consider ethical, such as honesty and integrity (Resnik, 2007). The term "equity" generally refers to fairness, or equality of opportunity, while "responsibility" generally means holding oneself accountable to accomplish certain things, or to be trustworthy.

While ethics, equity, and responsibility are important considerations in all human endeavors they are especially important for the design, production, inspection, and use of technologies, as these have an immediate effect on people's lives. Innumerable examples come to mind, such as the collapse of buildings during earthquakes, the failure of bridges due to poor maintenance, the distribution of poisonous foods due to unsafe processing methods, and lapses in the testing and correction of mechanical failures in automobiles. Prevention of such human tragedies involves discussion of ethical practices and the responsibilities of individuals from technicians to engineers and policymakers.

One sector of the current technological infrastructure that is especially vulnerable to unethical behaviors is the telecommunications sector and, in particular, the Internet. Access to the Internet offers unprecedented opportunities as well as challenges for students, as they have opportunities not only to access information but also to contribute and publish their own information for anyone in the world to read. But to use these tools (and others yet to be developed) in a responsible manner, students need to understand fundamental rules of ethical behavior with regard to the exchange of information. They also need to know how to protect themselves and to take personal responsibility for doing so.

Key principles in the area of Ethics, Equity, and Responsibility that all students can be expected to understand at increasing levels of sophistication are:

  • Technology by itself is neither good nor bad, but its use may affect others.
  • Not everyone has access to the same technologies.
  • Differences in available technologies within the United States and in other countries have consequences for public health and prosperity.
  • People living in one area need to be aware of how their use of technology affects the lives of people in other areas.
  • Storing information digitally requires a heightened attention to remote security threats.
  • It is important for people to take responsibility for the appropriate use of technology.

Fourth-graders should recognize that tools and machines can be helpful or harmful. For example, cars are very helpful for going from one place to another quickly, but their use can lead to accidents in which people are seriously injured. Students should also recognize that technology can be used in ways that hurt others, such as when a false rumor is posted about someone online.

Eighth-graders should be able to recognize that the potential for misusing technologies always exists and that the possible consequences of such misuse must be taken into account when making decisions. They should have a grasp of the technological inequalities around the world—as illustrated by the existence of countries where few people can afford refrigerators and few schools have computers—and students should understand the economic and cultural reasons for these inequalities. They should know how to reduce the negative impacts that their use of technology may have on people who live in other areas. For example, they might consider avoiding the use of products that have been produced in ecologically vulnerable areas, such as the Amazonian rainforest. They should also have a solid understanding of a range of unethical and criminal behaviors involving the use of Internet and communications technologies.

Twelfth-graders should be able to take into account intended and unintended consequences in making technological decisions. They should understand the worldwide inequalities in technology access and know that efforts to transplant a technology from one culture to another should not be undertaken without a consideration of the costs and benefits to the society receiving the technology. They should be able to analyze the ethical responsibilities of various people in government and commercial enterprises and demonstrate prudent and ethical use of communications technologies.

D. Ethics, Equity, and Responsibility Goals

Fourth-graders should know that tools and machines used carelessly might harm others, take responsibility for the appropriate use of tools and machines, and recognize misuses of communications and other technologies. Eighth-graders should recognize that the same technologies are not available to everyone and should take responsibility to reduce the negative impacts of technologies and increase their positive impacts. Twelfth-graders should be able to take into account different viewpoints, recognize that transferring technologies from one society to another can be complex, and consider the consequences of unethical uses of technology.

Table 2.5 Ethics, Equity, and Responsibility assessment targets for grades 4, 8, and 12
Grade 4 Grade 8 Grade 12

Students know that:

T.4.12: When using tools and machines, the results can be helpful or harmful.

Students know that:

T.8.12: Technology by itself is neither good nor bad, but its use may affect others; therefore, decisions about products, processes, and systems must take possible consequences into account.

Students know that:

T.12.12: Decisions made about the use of a technology may have intended and unintended consequences, and these consequences may be different for different groups of people and may change over time. Decisions about the use of a technology should consider different points of view.

T.4.13: The technologies that people have available for essential tasks such as farming, cooking, medicine, transportation, and communication are vastly different in different parts of the world.

T.8.13: People who live in different parts of the world have different technological choices and opportunities because of such factors as differences in economic resources, location, and cultural values.

T.12.13: Disparities in the technologies available to different groups of people have consequences for public health and prosperity, but deciding whether to introduce a new technology should consider local resources and the role of culture in acceptance of the new technology.

Students are able to:

T.4.14: Explain the benefits and safe use of a tool or machine by showing how it can and should be used as well as how it should not be used and the consequences that may result if it is used inappropriately.

Students are able to:

T.8.14: Explain that it is important for citizens to reduce the negative impacts and increase the positive impacts of their technologies on people in another area or on future generations.

Students are able to:

T.12.14: Analyze responsibilities of different individuals and groups, ranging from citizens and entrepreneurs to political and government officials, with respect to a controversial technological issue.

T.4.15: Demonstrate the ethical use of information technologies by recognizing the ways that someone might harm someone else through the misuse of communication technologies, and the kinds of information that could lead to abuse if widely shared.

T.8.15: Explain why it is unethical to infect or damage other people's computers with viruses or "hack" into other computer systems to gather or change information.

T.12.15: Demonstrate the responsible and ethical use of information and communication technologies by distinguishing between kinds of information that should and should not be publicly shared and describing the consequences of a poor decision.