What is ethical decision making

Ethical decision making & big data

Grit Wolany reports from the CAS Digital Ethics class with lecturer Markus Christen:

Ethics affect us all. Every day.

With this sentence Markus Christen welcomed us to his lecture “Ethics, Big Data & Decision Making”. What followed was an exciting Saturday packed with lots of information and practical exercises.

The day was divided into 4 modules:

  1. Introduction to Ethics
  2. Big data & ethics
  3. Ethical decision making
  4. A data ethics code

Note: Due to the complex topic, this blog post is a little longer. The reading time should be around 20 minutes. If you have less time, you can go to the respective module with one click.


As the saying goes: if you want to knit, you need wool. And anyone who wants to deal with ethical decision-making needs some theoretical basics first. Welcome to a philosophy crash course that will hopefully shed some light on the jungle of concepts.

What are the characteristics of morality and ethics? How do values, norms and principles differ? And what are the traditional ethical theories?

Dr. Christians starts with 4 case studies and the question of morality - yes or no? The scope of the term is already evident here. Our everyday understanding of morality is shaped in the broadest sense by three sub-areas: everyday morality, law and professional ethics.

Under Everyday morality one understands the norms and values ​​that determine human behavior in everyday life. These can be rules of propriety, political views, religious beliefs or other basic moral convictions.

To the area Law belongs the so-called positive law, which is enforced with state coercive violence. So the constitution, laws and regulations.

And as Professional ethics norms and values ​​of a separate professional group are designated, which are determined by defined ethical codes and individual convictions. That this no longer has to be limited to professional groups can be seen in the example of the hacker ethics defined by the Chaos Computer Club.

In the area of ​​morality we are dealing with values ​​and norms that are called “Lighthouses” for our actions and coexistence serve. And it shows: the object of morality is historically and culturally changeable. Just think of the normality of slavery in earlier times, the position of women in society or the way they deal with animals.

Highly recommended on this topic are the Zeit article “Yesterday bad, today normal” about the creeping change in the value system of people and the TED talk by Dr. Molly Crockett “Can a pill can change our morals?”.

Nature & culture

Morality always has one natural and cultural-historical components. This is exactly what creates a tension between values ​​that should apply to everyone and cultural differences. And that is exactly what makes the conversations and discussions about morality so difficult, interesting and challenging.

The norm of sharing, for example, is deeply anchored in people through natural history. When people lived together in small groups, it was clear that the hunter does not keep all the prey for himself, but shares it with the community. That was fair - after all, in return, he could rely on being cared for by the community in the event of illness or old age.

Even animals know unfairness or a feeling of inequality. The fairness experiment with the two monkeys, who were paid unequally for the same performance and did not like it at all, became particularly well known.

If you are curious now, you can find out more about this topic in these two articles: The animal and the moral and The moral of the animals.

In contrast, our cultural-historical components can be very different and constantly change. What is considered normal in one culture is unthinkable in another. For example child labor, arranged marriages or the marriage of underage children.

In this very interesting brandeins interview, developmental psychologist Heidi Keller talks about the big differences between children from different cultures.

Where norm meets culture and organic.

Morality always means one complex interplay of the various moral areas and cannot be reduced to just one of these factors. The various interactions between the areas result in exciting fields of reaction.

In the Culture-ethics interaction cultural and social innovations enable moral changes and thus also drive cultural changes forward. For example, child mortality could be reduced significantly when the education provided increased prosperity and better social and hygienic measures.

Culture-biological interactions show that different cultural practices can also establish themselves in biology. Research has shown that raising children has an impact on brain development. And experiments in the field of epigenetics have shown that environmental influences can actually influence genes directly.

There are also exciting links to discover about this: “Father's original sin”, “Planet Knowledge - Epigenetics”, Podcast “How environment and behavior control genes”, “Traces of ancestors on our genes”.

Both Biology-Ethics Interactions a changed biological morality provides the basis for different moral systems (“world views”).

The Inner ethics interaction takes place within the framework of normative morality. Here everything is thought through theoretically and new norms are created or existing norms strengthened through meta-ethical considerations.

All of these points interact with each other and constantly influence each other.If you try to reduce morality to just one of these factors, there is a risk of abuse.


And what exactly is ethics now?

Ethics is the science that considers, reflects and analyzes morality and moral systems. The goals are the analytical clarification and argumentative justification of our moral convictions. It is not just about following existing authorities and traditions, but one(self-) critical attitude ingestion and independently to make your own judgment.

Ethical reflection should be impartial be and do not just follow individual or group-specific interests. Parallels to the concept of stakeholder dialogue can be drawn here. The aim is to have “everyone at the round table” and to hear every voice.


Values, norms, virtues

Terms such as values, norms, virtues, principles and codes often appear in ethics and regularly lead to confusion. Here Markus Christen helped us with the classification.

values we can perceive things in a similar way to objects, although they are invisible and non-material. They are terms that individuals or institutions consider a positive goal to be achieved. Values ​​can be both positive and negative. Examples of values ​​are friendship, respect, honesty, harmony, loyalty, sympathy, perfection, care, trustworthiness. Negative values ​​would be, for example, dependency, greed or the pursuit of power.

Norms and virtues interact directly with values. Justice is a value and a virtue at the same time. The term Virtue mostly refers to people. Someone is decent, brave, generous, or loyal. Norms however, define standards in behavior.

Becoming from values Principles - Principles for ethical systems - or a Code - a written code of conduct - developed.


The exploration of morality

Moral values ​​are identified through various research areas:

      • anthropology examines the ability to work together in small groups as a characteristic of moral values.
      • The Cognitive Neuroscience examine the strength of the emotional reaction to transgressions of norms as a marker of morality.
      • The Evolutionary biology measures the degree of fitness reduction of some behaviors in order to describe them as moral.
      • The philosophy deals with the degree of universalisability as a property of moral judgments.
      • And the psychology examines the acceptance of norm transgressions in order to distinguish moral and conventional norms.

The interaction of all disciplines forms a network of values, which examines a wide variety of criteria. There is a clear polarization.

Intuitively form Value groups: Core moral values like respect, loyalty, sense of responsibility, non-harm and fairness non-moral core values such as reputation, performance, competition and profitability. This corresponds exactly to the situation in many companies.

But this also shows the power of ethics. By Bridge values like integrity, transparency, compliance, commitment and professionalism, ethics can bring these often very different poles together argumentatively and create a balanced, accepted network of values ​​that respects and takes into account the interests of all stakeholders.

This chart leaves an impression on the class and is probably the most photographed slide that day.


The three theory traditions in scientific ethics.

3 ethical theories form the basis of ethical decision-making. Each of these theories approaches the problem from a different point of view and thus helps to obtain new knowledge, insights and points of view.

1. Consequentialism:

Here we consider questions about the consequences of action and our moral convictions. In doing so, we follow the premise of producing as much good as possible and causing as little damage as possible.

2. Obligatory ethics / dentology:

This is about the question of whether actions are in themselves right or wrong. Negative duties and rules are more important here than positive ones. Examples would be "Certain things are not allowed to be done (especially with people)!" or "You shouldn't lie".

3. Virtue ethics:

Here we ask questions about the moral competencies and characteristics of people. This theory focuses on the perception of one's own attitude and character traits with the aim of a “good life”. This rather open definition often makes virtue ethics somewhat diffuse in its application and not applicable to all ethical questions.

Which theory is used in the argument always has a lot to do with personality and the problem to be considered. There is not always a clear solution.

Sarah Spiekermann also recommends in her book “Digitale Ethik” to base the ethical questions on the 3 traditional theories and describes this in a good example. You ask your students, who are to develop a product roadmap as part of the innovation management subject, the following questions:

1. How does the technology that you have come up with will affect the character of the affected stakeholders (e.g. employees or customers) in the long term?

2. Which human, social, economic or other values ​​are positively and negatively affected by the innovation? Do advantages or disadvantages predominate?

3. Which personal value priorities do you see affected by the service that you consider so important from your point of view that you would like to keep them in our society?

Through these questions, your students discover a different way of thinking and suddenly develop completely new creative and people-friendly ideas. It shows: Those who approach problems openly, question their own point of view and sometimes change their (thinking) perspective, are rewarded with interesting insights, new ideas and solutions.

After these theoretical basics, after a short coffee break, we went straight to the


Listen to your gut feeling.

We started with a very exciting exercise. Each student received a small card with a brief description of a big data application. This case was briefly presented to the class and then classified on a scale between “ethically unproblematic” and “ethically highly problematic”.

In my (fictitious) case, I got a message from the manufacturer of my Smart TV. It was informed that the TV recorded conversations and passed this data on to third parties. The manufacturer recommended that you no longer have confidential conversations near the Smart TV.

The classification on the scale was relatively clear: recording data without consent, passing it on to third parties, no solution from the manufacturer other than the recommendation to no longer speak in the vicinity of the TV - highly problematic.

Many other cases were not quite as clear-cut. In the end it turned out: as Cases in which the application context is clear are assessed rather unproblematically and where a defined and for the customer traceable trade of (e.g. data for a certain consideration).

Applications in which context-bound data was unclear were highly problematic (What happens to the data? Who has access to it?) Or with the one unfair treatment (e.g. when using an Apple device, the user is shown more expensive prices than when using an ancient laptop).


Big data - a field of tension of extremes.

On the one hand, big data can be enormous Resource for innovation on the other hand, big data is one fundamental threat to our freedom and privacy.

The fact is: if you use digital technology, you generate data. This is not necessarily done with the intent to specifically monitor people, it is simply the nature of digital products.

Since not only computers, smartphones and wearables, but also cars, household appliances and buildings now generate a huge amount of data, there are many points of contact between big data and ethics. These result on the one hand from the sheer size and complexity of the data generated and on the other hand from the increasingly sophisticated analysis methods.

My fellow student Martin made an interesting observation. He noted that, as is so often the case in discussions on digital ethics, only the negative and non-positive connections are shown.

But that's the way it is: While good things are quickly taken for granted, the debate is mostly sparked by the negative consequences of big data. One more reason to think ahead and incorporate ethics directly into product development in the future.


Ethics in the age of A.I.

In the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning, completely new ethical challenges and questions await us.

How do you stay A.I. Systems comprehensible?
Is it right to hand over decision-making authority to machines?
Can autonomous systems take on responsibility?
How do you punish an A.I. in case of misconduct?

A person has dreams, desires, goals and fears. He allows himself to be guided by intuition and adapts his moral behavior depending on the situation.

An A.I. is a circuit. Without any wishes. Without needs.

How should a machine ever be able to understand such deeply human beliefs, feelings and values ​​and respect the dynamic, changeable and yet fragile value networks?


Big Data Ethics

What is clear is it takes ethical landmarks for big datafrom which people, companies and politicians can derive recommendations for action.

1. Protection of privacy

People need protected areas of life in which they can move, develop and behave freely.

2. Equality and non-discrimination

In our society, the principle of fairness is undisputed.

3. Informational self-determination

Each individual can decide for himself how to collect, save, use and pass on personal data. A practical expression of this autonomy is the informed consent principle.

4. Control of one's own (digital) identity

This requirement applies due to the possibilities of big data applications to aggregate, correlate and condense different characteristics of a customer into a digital identity. Is there insight and the possibility of correction of such identities?

5. Transparency

Only through open and relevant communication regarding the decisions under discussion can the actors form a well-informed opinion and make free decisions. Every person has the right to know who is processing which data from or about them for what purpose.

6. Solidarity

We are all part of the community. That is why we do not leave individuals alone with certain risks.

7. Conceptual Integrity

Private person / business person / citizen: The human environment is divided into various social areas, which differ in the interpretation of basic moral values ​​and the rules associated with them. Big data applications that strive to capture as much different information as possible about individuals increase the risk of violating the contextual integrity of the individual areas. (Medical data vs. bank data)

8. Ownership & Copyright

In Switzerland, property rights and copyright are constitutionally protected fundamental rights. To what extent does big data also fall under these legal norms?


And what does that mean for ...

… Companies?

      • Ethics Case: Consider ethical aspects right from the start and think about the impact of the applications on ethical values.
      • Evaluate customer needs: Would customers still share their data if they knew what was happening to their data?
      • Create transparency & freedom of choice: There can be no successful use of big data without the trust and acceptance of users as data providers. Do you communicate clearly about the use of data and do you offer appropriate alternatives depending on the decision?

… the politic?

      • Revision of the data protection law: How can data protection law be adapted to simplify big data innovations in an ethical way?
      • Cooperation between the state and the economy: Technological developments are faster than data protection. How can the state support industry in formulating and implementing codes of conduct and industry regulations?
      • Standardization of the terms and conditions: How can the content and form of terms and conditions become more transparent and understandable for the user?

With so many different aspects, conflicts and discussions are inevitable. It helps to have tools and aids in practice that help to recognize moral problems and to find solutions together.



After the theoretical basics, we discussed the in the third part of the lecture Application in practice.

Tools never give the final answer. They serve us as Tools and thinking aidsin order to approach discourses in a more structured and systematic manner or to recognize moral problems and conflicts and to find possible solutions. There are no rigid mechanisms or algorithms that can spit out a solution at the push of a button.

The 5-point scheme

We took a closer look at the 5 points of the “Ethical Decision Making” scheme by Barbara Bleisch and Markus Huppenbauer.

The authors of the book Practical Guide to Ethical Decision Making recommend the following procedure:

1st step: Analysis of the current situation.

        • All known facts are listed. Is there any important information that is missing? Are there any ambiguities or uncertainties that require further clarification? Are the sources reliable? This can also mean that decision-making has to wait until better knowledge is available.
        • Consider applicable law. However, this does not mean that the law cannot be questioned. Law does not automatically have to be morally right. Sometimes laws are inhuman or discriminatory (e.g. the Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 or the right to vote and be elected only for men).
        • Identify stakeholders. Moral issues usually arise between individual people or groups of people. Each party involved has different requirements, claims and interests - and thus also a right to be involved in the decision-making process. Companies are not only obliged to their owners or investors, because company activities usually also affect other interest groups such as employees, suppliers or society. In this phase it must therefore be checked who can register interests.
        • Develop context sensitivity. This requires the ability to understand and understand the various interests and needs of all those affected. Moral debates are never led with clear arguments; Diffuse hopes, fears and opinions always flow into it, as well as social, historical and ideological contexts. These different perspectives of perception must be included.

After these basic preparations, the next step is to

Step 2: Name the moral question.

The aim here is to highlight the morally relevant questions and to identify possible potential for conflict. Moral questions are not a matter of taste. It's not about your own preferences, but about judgments that are also valid regardless of personal attitudes. Moral questions can change over the course of time: due to changed values, changed factual knowledge or increasing opportunities to influence.

Once the controversial questions and areas of conflict have been defined, that takes place

3rd step: Analysis of the arguments.

        • Pros and cons are listed. Since arguments usually express different norms and values, it is helpful to make a list of the various stakeholders and their respective pros and cons.
        • Reconstruct moral values ​​and norms. This is done with the help of the three moral theories presented above, consequentialism (“Improve the world!”), Dentology (“Respect your counterpart!”) And virtue ethics (“Be strong in character!”).
        • Comparison of the arguments with the normative theories.

4th step: evaluation and decision

        • Evaluation of all arguments. Which are convincing, which are not? In ethics, moral judgments and convictions must be justified and the points of view must be able to be defended with arguments.
        • Take a moral standpoint. To this end, a universal point of view is taken. This should be impartial and impartial. Critical self-distancing is very important.
        • Assess and weight arguments. In order to be able to make a decision, the arguments of the individual stakeholders are assessed. Are they valid? Are some of them invalid or incorrect? Then, after detailed argumentation, the weighting takes place. Often this weighting does not lead to a clear solution.
        • Weighing of interests. This procedure resolves a conflict in which two or more equivalent “goods” - i.e. possible options - cannot be selected at the same time and a decision is thus reached.

Once a decision has been made, it is important to defend this position. It is best to put the most important arguments in writing to ensure that we represent a comprehensible, clear opinion. In spite of everything, even after the decision-making process, one should remain open and question the existing over and over again.

5th step: Implementation of the solutions

After you have made the ethical decisions, it is important to implement the solutions or positions. To this end, recommendations can be made or specific measures can be proposed. This can include, for example, legal codifications, voluntary agreements, economic incentives, communication in the media, the use of images and stories or the creation of attractive role models.

This last point in particular can help to strengthen the value of ethics in practice. Instead of just pointing out problems, ethicists can become part of the solution and provide important food for thought for the development of new ideas, products and problem solutions.

This is precisely why the integration of ethics into product development will become indispensable in the future. Society, company and economy benefit equally from the conscious examination of ethical values.

Developer team vs. ethics board

We tested this recommendation for ethical decision-making directly in practice. The class was divided into a development team and an ethics board and practiced the ethical discourse on the basis of a fictitious case study of an insurance company that wants to develop new products using driving data from a car manufacturer.

The case was quite tough due to various levels of complexity and it showed that it is very beneficial to implement ethics as early as the product development phase.



In the last part of the lecture we got to know the “Ethical Code for Data-Based Value Creation”, which is currently being developed by the data ethics expert group of the Swiss Alliance for Data-Intensive Services.

The aim of this code is to provide helpful answers to ethical questions that arise in the use of data and to provide recommendations. An implementation guide for this code is also currently in progress.

Especially SMEs and start-ups without fixed ethics boards or compliance officers get one with the data ethics code practical "toolbox" at hand.

The basic ethical orientation of the code is based on 3 points:

1. Avoidance of damage:

with the core values ​​of protection (e.g. against unauthorized access), security (e.g. in the sense of cybersecurity) and sustainability (minimizing negative effects on the environment.

2. Justice:

with the core values ​​of equality (e.g. protection against discrimination), fairness (e.g. consideration for collecting customer data) and solidarity (public data is made available for shared use).

3. Autonomy:

with the core values ​​of freedom (e.g. enabling freedom of choice), privacy (e.g. not collecting certain private data) and dignity (e.g. through information practice that takes customers seriously instead of endless incomprehensible terms and conditions).

The whole thing is implemented through procedural values ​​such as control (clean, controllable internal processes), transparency (inwards and outwards) and Accountability (through clearly defined responsibilities).


Basic data life cycle

The code takes into account the data life cycle - the 4 stages of data usage.

In step 1, the Data generation or acquisition, digital data is created. At step 2,Data storage and data management, a database is created with access rules and security mechanisms. As a result of step 3, the Data analysis and knowledge generation, a data product is created. And at step 4, the Use of data-based products and services, the effect of the data product arises, i.e. the effect on people and society.

For each of these stages, the code has generated a detailed list of recommendations. On the basis of these recommendations, companies can select the facts that are most relevant to them, check their products or offers accordingly and implement measures if necessary.


Same same but different.

In the exercise below, we were able to test this process directly. We received the recommendation lists of the data ethics code and everyone could mark the most important points for him or his company.

Here the Importance of diversity in ethical debates clear. Depending on personal values ​​and the position in the company, very different recommendations were prioritized.

An IT manager makes different decisions than a compliance officer. It is all the more important to hear as many different voices and arguments as possible in order to ultimately be able to make a fair ethical decision.


Diversity has a future.

My conclusion at the end of this informative day: Diversity is not a buzzword, but rather the future, especially in connection with ethical decision-making. Anyone who listens to different positions and repeatedly questions their own attitude self-critically protects themselves from unpleasant surprises and receives new perspectives, ideas and opportunities.

You don't always need an ethics board. If ethics are integrated into company processes, integrated into product developments from the start and employees are brought on board, you are well positioned for future challenges.

This path may not always be easy - but it is worth it.


This blog post was written by a student and contains subjective impressions, own representations and additions.