Current Research Projects

Life Stories of Moral Exemplars in Computing

We know that many people worry about the ethical issues that are associated with computing. Privacy, intellectual property, deskilling, freedom of speech, and the safety of critical systems are just a few of the issues about which computer professionals are learning to be concerned. Ideally, this process begins even at the introductory level and is integrated throughout the education of computer professionals. But what is the best way to teach computer ethics so that students will actually use the information? Can we construct a pedogogy that actually influences the way our students practice their computing when they graduate?

One way to begin answering this question is to look at people who are already practicing computing ethically and see how they came about their commitments. What have been the influences on their professional lives that have guided them? How have they constructed careers that included a deep concern for ethical issues? Thus, my students and I began a research project to interview moral exemplars in computing and to learn from them how we might teach.

We are in the final stages of writing the initial reports on this project and have some exciting things to share. We know, for instance, that there are multiple ways one can be a moral exemplar in computing. Some of our exemplars are what we call craftspersons: they design computing technology with the goal of improving the lives of their users or clients (e.g. Alan Newell designs computing technology for the handicapped). Others are reformers who are trying to change the computing profession or society (e.g. Steve Shirley founded a company to support women in entering the field of computing). We have also found that all our exemplars see their social skills (e.g. how to influence people and organizations) and their technical skills as together supporting their ethical projects.The first empirical paper from this work was published last year at IEEE Technology and Society. In addition, here is a powerpoint I did for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City and a poster that Laura Barnard (Olaf '07) and I did for a local conference. These findings and many others are helping us build a pedagogical model for supporting ethical computing.

Many students have helped with these projects. Nathan DeWall (Olaf '02) helped me write the proposal for this research. Nathan received his PhD from Florida State, and is now teaching at the University of Kentucky. Laura Barnard (Olaf '07) has been doing statistical analysis and helping me write. She in now in the Masters of Divinity program and the Clinical Psychology program at Duke University. Kristen Aasen (Olaf '07) was in charge of the extensive coding we have done (e.g. to identify craftspersons and reformers) and has also done her own project looking at personality influences on the lives of our exemplars.

The PRIMES Model of Virtue in the Professions

As a result of the moral exemplars work, the philosopher Bill Frey, Laura Barnard, and I have been constructing a model of influences on the expression of the virtues in our moral exemplars, and more generally in the professions. The four-component model we propose grounds moral action in relatively stable personality characteristics, guides moral action based on the integration of morality into the self-system, facilitates moral action with morally relevant skills and knowledge, and shapes moral action by the context of the surrounding moral ecology (so PRIMES works, mostly, as an acronym). Much more detail can be found in a two part theory paper based on this work (part 1; part 2).

These components vary in terms of how much and how quickly they can change (mutability) and in how much control computer professionals have over them. These dimensions suggest that the moral skill sets (e.g. knowing how to influence organizations, knowing privacy law and best practices) can be taught in the context of software design, so that the students begin to think of themselves as ethical software designers.

The model seeks to explain the daily performance of moral action of computing professionals and to illuminate ways that computing professionals might be trained to be more active, ethically committed, and ethically effective in their daily performance.

Laura Barnard is currently helping me with a book that we now have undercontract with Wiley Blackwell titled Taking Moral Action. The book will use our empirical work and 3 other applied areas in moral psychology, along with our PRIMES model and some process models to present a broad overview of what we need to explain if we want to say we are explaining how and why people take moral action. The prospectus for the book is necessarily slim, but it will give you an idea of what we are up to.

Other Research

I have many other research projects that are mostly completed, but you can get an idea of the research experiences students have in psychology by looking at this summary of them.


If you are a St. Olaf student and interested in helping with any of the research I have described above, send me email and we can talk about it.
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