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What are ethics and why are they important?

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PM Justin Trudeau, politics and tech giants.2019-03-12 Dr Z.Essak, MD - Vancouver, BC

Ethics are a big part of our lives as principles that govern our actions. Doctors take an oath to serve the patient's interest and not their own or that of others.

We expect ethical actions of people involved with our daily lives: teachers, accountants, professionals, merchants and others. It is the basis of the trust we have in them. We depend on them as people with privilege and power over ourselves, children and others.

It's not just ethics in medicine and health: it's ethics in politics, in technology, in corporations and the list goes on. People are growing more concerned about the decline of ethical leadership in politics and also business tech giants like Facebook, Google and others.

What happens when an individual's actions run contrary to ethical principles?

The late Dr Morris VanAndel, a well-respected GP and subsequent Registrar of the BC College of Physicians and Surgeons, reminded doctors in 2002 this way: "An ethical principle, by nature, is not modified by circumstances, regardless of the validity or justification of the reasons leading to the action."

As humans, we are not perfect and transgressions may occur. But, when they do, what do we expect? Not an excuse, a reason or justification, but a lesson learned and remedial action taken.

At least there must be reflection and acknowledgement along with specific remedial actions and there may be consequences that apply.

Let's take a look at these areas:

1. Ethics in politics and Canada's PM, Justin Trudeau.

2. Ethics in Business and among Technology Giants.

3. Ethics in Government and Elections.

4. What is the solution?

5. Privacy as a human right.


1. Ethics in politics and Canada's PM, Justin Trudeau

Now for the second time in his first term as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau faces questions of ethics.

First, there was the principle that, when in political office, you and your family cannot receive gifts from those who can or do receive funds from the government.

In that case, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, upon scrutiny of a family vacation and use of the Aga Khan's private helicopter, responded, "Yes, ethics are important ... umm, everyone knows it wasn't a big deal". Was there reflection and remediation?

Now, in the second case, it is the principle that, when in political office, you cannot use your political office to influence the judiciary process.

In the current circumstances related to SNC Lavalin, the Prime Minister justifies his actions by stating they were to preserve jobs.

However, do the actions violate an ethical principle and, if so, not modified by circumstance or justification?

One wonders how will the Ethics Commissioner of Canada address the question.

Is there public confidence in the independence of the Ethics Commissioner or has the appointment become one of patronage - subservient to the will of the Prime Minister, although to a lesser extent than that of the Prime Minister over who serves in cabinet.

2. Ethics in Business and among Technology Giants

Public awareness of privacy breaches and the practices of tech giants like Facebook, Google and others have raised concern for people everywhere.

This is about ethics in technology.

When computer programmers working on Linux computers and servers use the 'sudo' command to obtain elevated system privileges, for the first time, they see what is known as the 'lecture':

“With great power comes great responsibility. Respect the rights of others.”

Have the tech giants heeded the 'sudo lecture' or ignored it? Clearly, they have ignored it. In fact their entire business model for monetization with targeted advertising has been through disregard for the privacy rights of everyone. A breach of ethics in technology.

3. Ethics in Government and Elections

Have governments been slow catching up with understanding technology or did they fall victim to ignoring the ethics in technology?

Government bureaucracies, like business, rapidly became enamored with technology and addicted to collecting personal data. While they use their computers, do they consider the 'sudo lecture', the ethics in technology, to respect the rights of others?

Canada's original legal principle governing privacy, that requests to collect or use personal information can only be “on a need to know basis” appears to have been long ago forgotten.

Even political parties and their volunteers have mobile and other technologies with databases that include private personal information on individuals that provincial audits have found lack consent.

Will Canadian Election Officials and even political parties voluntarily consider the 'sudo lecture', the ethics in technology and the privacy rights of others? Will they scrub their databases removing all vestige of private personal information, profiling residents and neighborhoods?

4. What is the solution?

The solution lies with leadership.

It is time for leaders on all levels of government, political parties, business leaders, tech companies and others to recognize and acknowledge the importance of ethical behavior not only in person but also in technology.

They must identify lessons to be learned and remedial actions to be taken. Not make excuses or give reasons or justifications.

Internet companies providing services and advertising have strayed in using their privilege and power to profile and target individuals rather than use generic advertising based only on the content being delivered, the same limits faced by other traditional broadcast media companies like TV and radio.

5. Privacy as a human right

Governments around the world must stop playing catch up with regulations for technology and get ahead, insisting that no amount of opting out strategies serve to respect the rights of others.

Privacy, like other human rights, are not rights individuals must fight for but ones that must be respected by others and related agreements must be based on informed consent, opting in, and not require waiving their rights.

Companies that have benefited from a disregard of privacy rights with huge growth and opportunities for mergers over the years may need to face severe consequences, possibly even reversal of mergers, and be required to demonstrate commitment to restoring ethics in technology and their business models.

Political leaders must show what changes are needed in the conduct of elections and changes that must be brought to the bureaucracies of government.

As individuals we should expect no less. Ethics is important to everyone, everywhere.


Web Links:

Can Facebook be forced to comply with privacy laws? [Aljazeera, Inside Story, 2018-11-28]